Philosophy of Grading

Originally published 8/23/2002.

Perhaps there is nothing more controversial in a classroom as the grading procedures. I have long been an staunch critic of the traditional “percentage” system of grading, for a number of reasons. As I enter the classroom yet again, my controversial system is again called in question, and I feel that perhaps this might be a useful description of why and how I grade the way I do.

When I first started teaching, I was concerned – as many instructors are – that students do not maintain a vested interest in their studies. All the questions revolve around an understanding not of the material, but of how little work is absolutely required. This is, of course, not earth-shattering news: some of the most popular email jokes to circulate around the Internet involve familiar questions of this type.

The general student malaise is actually encouraged by the systems of evaluation. Students have actually managed to learn the grading systems rather than learn the content of their courses. When content comes easy to them, this winds up translating as “liking” the course. When content (often for communication students, courses that involves mathematical concepts) comes somewhat more difficult, students will tend to panic over the resulting loss of an “A” faster than lamenting any loss in understanding.

I believe I may have determined an antidote to this. It takes commitment and, as is shown in the supporting documentation, at times an awful lot of work. The students see this, however, and reciprocate, ultimately going well above and beyond the call of duty in their work, trying their best to do their best. As one student wrote, ‘For some strange reason you are the first teacher I’ve ever had where I feel guilty if I don’t turn in my best work. Kind of scary.’

Understanding the new system means understanding where the limitations lie in the traditional method of grading – those same limitations that everyone (student and professor alike) detests yet relies on in order to function.

First and most importantly, there is no incentive whatsoever to encourage students to go “above and beyond the call of duty” in their assignments. Socially we applaud individuals who happen to be proactive in their endeavors, employers tell us in advisory boards that they’re looking for people who can think and problem solve, but often there is no constructive methodology for accomplishing this. After all, there is a cap, or ceiling, on the amount of credit any person can get in the current system based on percentages.

This leads us down a mythological path of perfection; not towards it, but away from it. If you start with perfection you have nowhere to go but down. The student is told that they begin the class with an “A”, the mark of performance excellence, and yet the only accomplishment they have made is to walk through the door. The rest of the course is spent in adversarial combat between the professor and the students to see who can grasp more of the grade away from the other by the end of the term. All of this is done under the mythos of the ‘perfect score,’ where the student ostensibly does nothing wrong.

Second, in the traditional system the student’s worst enemy is time. While time is a limitation for everyone, for the student it’s actually easier to get higher grades the less time there is. The more time a student has, the more he or she must struggle to maintain whatever grade they have. Therefore, instead of assignments adding up to a cumulative learning experience, assignments are opportunities for students to lose their grade.

Third, if the rhetoric is true, and diversity is a goal that should be embraced, it seems detrimental that the traditional system often denies any individual thought or creativity. It creates an environment of discrete units: right or wrong, black or white, yes or no, correct or incorrect. Students will “memorize and regurgitate” rather than critically analyze and interpret. If the answer isn’t available on a multiple choice test, then there must not be any other options. This type of learning can breed collective responses rather than individual effort, conformity rather than exploration of the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Over a long term, it is not a quantum leap of faith to see how such an approach can limit chances for finding jobs when the act of applying is determining how to set oneself apart and above from the rest of the candidate pool.

Fourth, the traditional method of evaluation incorrectly gives students the idea that failure means one of the following:

  • A reflection of their character
  • Ultimately useless in their long-term goals
  • A reflection of their ability
  • An indication of how the professor feels about them as a person
  • A bottomless hole from which they will never emerge

Failure should still count for something. Most people learn more from their failures and mistakes than from their successes. Often students don’t make a connection between a failure in a classroom setting and the relationship to learning from those mistakes. It becomes an intellectual and academic “dead end,” which in turn satisfies the claim of being useless. In fact, this is often built into the system: it is common practice to completely negate the work involved done by the student at the request of the student in order to let the record reflect better performance. The most common occurrence of this is dropping the lowest quiz score. In a working environment, I find it difficult to believe that an employee would voluntarily ask an employer to dock his or her pay as a result of a poor performance evaluation, yet in academia it’s not ever questioned.

Finally, it is emotionally draining. There is no way that a professor can determine if a student is telling the truth or not whenever a crisis arises, so a lot of student excuses must be either taken on faith or dismissed out of a policy that may be interpreted as near-draconian in nature. Crises do arise, and by their nature they do so at inopportune times. The meta-communication regarding classwork and grading often supercedes the actual content of the course, due to the high emotional investment that students and professors must place on grading evaluation.

The “Points System,” as it has come to be known, was first used over 5 years ago and has been used successfully ever since. It is elegant, easy, holistic, and, most importantly, proactive. It works under a very simple premise: students get credit for the work they do, not for the work they don’t do. Fundamental to this is the Law of Equifinality: there is more than one way to learn material for any given course.

The Point System relies heavily on understanding that there are different ways of learning. Some students do remarkably well discussing their ideas verbally. Others are very good memorizing facts. Still others need to take time and patience to organize their thoughts. There are even others who feel a need to mix creativity with ideas in order to become involved in their own coursework. This proactive system of grading permits all types of learning environments, because each student is forced to learn something in order to achieve a grade. In other words, instead of students having an “A” to begin with and then needing to maintain it throughout the semester, students earn their grade using the skills and lessons learned within the course.

It’s important to note that students can not receive a decent grade merely by attending to any one task. A combination of tasks – even those that the student dislikes or doesn’t understand why it’s necessary at the time – is required to even pass the course. This, by the way, provides me as an instructor with enough variety in the course to prevent the material from becoming mundane.

A good example would be the course in Media and Society I taught on a regular basis. One of the assignments that students are given is to log their own media usage. In this media journal, which for different students occurs at different times during the semester, they are instructed to tie their own media usage in with the concepts discussed in class and theories read in the books. Some students will merely chart their own media usage and hand in a log. Others will take it to the next level and attempt to place it into a bigger picture. Proficient students will attempt to relate what they’re experiencing with what communication scholars were discussing in the texts. Each gets a point value based upon the level of description and analysis. No one fails until the end of the semester when all media journals, quizzes, exams, projects and class participation are tallied up. This gives those students who have yet to realize that they are in control of their own grade to catch on that the minimum amount of work nets them fewer points than they expected.

Overall, while there are those who prefer the traditional system (because they have managed to learn how to manipulate the system instead of learning how to learn), the majority of students seem to feel as if they are in more control over what it is that they are learning. They begin taking an active role in what they are learning, bringing in articles and news reports of events that directly relate to topics that they are studying in class or have recently studied. The News Forum, where I collected local news personalities from a variety of media outlets in Orlando, emerged as a direct result of one graduate student seeking to push the envelope. Yet another graduate student organized a ‘Bias-Free Communication Seminar,’ falling directly in line with class discussions of modernity, intercultural and international media and interpersonal communication.

Undergraduates have done everything from interviewing CEOs of Orlando’s top media corporations for their research papers to producing their copywriting assignments (not required) to providing demonstrations of high-tech music recording instruments (coinciding with the New Media Tech Survey’s topic of ‘Recorded Sound’). It is not often that one hears of students doing something beyond what is required of them because they want to. It’s important to note that while these projects may not be broadcast quality, these were often done using home/consumer equipment in order to learn how to do it. From a professor’s standpoint, the process of learning is so much easier when the student is proactive in the process.

Not everyone likes this system, it is true. Typically the straight-A student has managed to go through their college career guestimating how much effort it would take to get an ‘A’ or, at the very least, a ‘B.’? Starting off with zero, however, makes it difficult for them to guess precisely how much work they will have to do, and forces them to do their best (because they no longer know what will ‘suffice.’). It certainly breaks the mold of what they are used to in terms of evaluation. Typically students go through three phases of acceptance: the first phase is usually enthusiasm for being able to put their best foot forward, albeit somewhat leery. The second phase is often frustration as they come more than halfway through the semester and have about a third of the required points for a passing grade, much less an ‘A.’ It’s at this point that they feel that it’s most difficult to trust me when I tell them what grade they are ‘on track for.’ Given that the bulk of their assignments (final papers/exams) make up the bulk of their points, built on their previous work and effort and won’t be due until the end of the term, it is only natural that they are not going to be anywhere near the finish line at that point. The third phase, though, is when the material that they’ve been working on all along begins to make sense, coming together in the last two to three weeks of the semester. They understand that they’ve managed to learn something despite having a different evaluatory infrastructure, and they feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

This is more than just a ‘weeding out’ process, however. While I am demanding and unyeilding in my requirement of high quality material, I am also extremely fair. Not all students possess the same strengths or weaknesses, and I take pride in the individual attention paid to each student.

In fact, one of the keys to this process is constant feedback with the students regarding their process. This has been made easier as technology has begin to permit a “live” updating of student grades. Upon entering their points into the class database, it is automatically made available for secure, private browsing by the students.

Overall, I take tremendous pride and joy in my teaching, and in the fact that my students take pride and joy in their work. It’s important that students begin to find a path to what they want to do while they are still in school, and I attempt to strike that balance between guiding them towards professional goals without losing sight of their personal ones.

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