John Sides and Inside Higher Ed today discuss a rather, er, innovative approach to
grading classroom assessment (gotta go with the Newspeak term)—essentially, rewarding effort, consistent participation, and de minimis competence, and having students be the judge of said de minimis competence.
I have a couple of reactions: first, while this might work with a student body as generally overachieving as Duke’s, I shudder to think what would happen if I handed over control of my gradebook to the median student in my current general education summer classes, who can be best characterized as mildly disinterested in the material at hand. (I can’t say I blame them on this score, either. I hardly was thrilled by gen ed in my undergrad days, even if some of the classes turned out more interesting than I had expected.)
The second problem is located by a professor commenting at IHE who tried something very similar and found it did not survive repeated contact with the student body at my graduate alma mater:
I tried this for several years in the mid-nineties. I found it worked wonderfully—the first time I tried it. The students worked much harder than they ever would have for a grade, and enjoyed the learning experience more, and told me later it was the best class they took in college. But the next semester it worked worse, and it kept working worse and worse for the three or so years I used the system. I kept tweaking it, trying to find a way to restore its original success; but no luck.
I finally realized what was going on: word was out that my class was an “easy A,” and it was attracting all the laziest students. I invariably had one or two motivated students who were there for the novel learning experience, and then a whole slew of slackers who wanted to coast. ...
My project was an overidealistic one, I finally realized (and, gritting my teeth, went back to more traditional grading): I wanted to RELEASE my students’ “natural” love of learning from the bonds in which they had been encased by fourteen or fifteen years of grade-slavery. I love to learn; hence, a love of learning is “natural”; hence, grade-based opportunism is artificial; a conditioned jail; hence, my students need to be liberated from their jails. I realized at some point that my project was actually one of reconditioning my students to be more like me—and that, while it did work in some cases, not only was a semester not a long enough reconditioning period, but the project itself was suspect.
There are some more positive reactions, including one quoted by the author of the IHE piece that… well, you be the judge:
I’ve done something like this with my big undergrad class, ‘Intersections: Race, Gender & Sexuality in US History,’ for years now. They do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there. The greatest thing about it is that many students without previous educational privilege love it and often do extremely well when not being judged in the usual way—reading a book a week, writing response papers every week, and ultimately participating at grad student level. Entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style do not like it at all.
Once one starts using terms like “students with previous educational privilege” to refer to students who complete the required readings, who have bothered to learn the rudiments of writing clear, coherent prose, and who exceed the bare minimum standards one’s TA is enforcing, one may have lost the plot entirely.
Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that the true motivation here lies less in “liberating” students from the yoke of grades (or at least bad grades) than it does in liberating faculty from their own responsibilities to sit in judgment of their students’ work, with all of the potential hard feelings that said responsibility entails. I suppose this is the natural consequence of faculty already abdicating their responsibilities to conduct classes small enough to interact with students—enter the “discussion section,” and your cadre of TAs brought in with little prospect of future employment beyond the fast food industry to keep the students happy while you
blog your New Age theories of pedagogy do research. Once you’ve collectively decided you no longer give a damn about teaching, I suppose it’s a very short walk to ceasing to give a shit about assessing student learning either.