Ideas on Grading and Assessment

The past couple of weeks we’ve been looking at assessment. In the wake of last night’s election, I’m a little distracted and frustrated, but I’ll do my best to discuss here without getting too negative. We’ve talked a lot about contract grading, a method in which students help to negotiate the standards to which they are held for the semester. How specifically this is implemented varies. There are a few standard models, and as always, teachers are free to decide whether to use another model, combine models, or use some combination of contract grading and standard grading. I’m still trying to wrap my head around each of the example models we’ve discussed, but I have noticed that many of the models take a lot of work up front for the teacher and the students. They also offload a lot of the responsibility from the teacher to the student, and I think this is my favorite part about contract grading. While standard methods allow a student to calculate what s/he needs to do to get by, contract grading gives the student the opportunity to design (to a limited extent) reasonable self-expectations. This encourages a sort of intrinsic motivation that is very hard to foster.

The problem that I have with contract grading–and I’m going to sound pretty old-school here–is that much of the proposed system seems to enable students to do work that is less than satisfactory while still doing well in the class. Some have argued that this doesn’t matter because assessment and grading only exist within the academic setting. I find this argument completely false. Though careers don’t all have common standards and units of measure, most jobs involve performance evaluation. Even for independent contractors, there are now sites like Angie’s list. Now more than ever before the quality of our work is quantified and uploaded to the cloud for all to see. Students can rate their professors online. Everyone is assessed and turned into a data point. Although I believe this permeation of capitalism is detrimental to the education system and fails to quantify the student as a whole person, this is the world in which we live, and I cannot with a clear conscience send students into a world with a false sense of hope and confidence.

For this reason and many others, I would be willing to consider using a moderate adaptation of a contract grading method in which the expectations for A, B, and C grades are clearly outlined. This isn’t too far from the standard system in which a student is handed a syllabus and given the work for the entire semester. Not only does this allow students to receive grades that they deserve, it also allows them to focus on more important classes if necessary. I once read in Einstein’s Autobiographical Notes that he would often skip class to spend time in the physics lab and later review notes from classmates. He would show up only for tests. Though not many students have the intrinsic motivation to be as autodidactic as the greatest mind of the 20th century, I do think that there is value in allowing those with the appropriate amount of self-discipline the freedom to choose when and how to do their work while also providing a more scaffolded structure for those who feel they need the external motivation.