December 7, 2013

Grading in a Digital World

This post is not about a specific tool, but instead a more general post about grading in an online class and what a big difference it makes. Elsewhere I've written up a statement about my grading philosophy which I share with my students (indeed, I consider it vital to share that with my students), and in this post I want to reflect on how the grading system I use is really possible only in a digital environment.

When I started teaching at OU in 1999, I was stuck with a very limited range of options. We didn't even have an LMS back then, so it was really all about what happened in the classroom: either quizzes and tests administered in the classroom, or papers that students handed to me in the classroom. As my professors had done, so did I: I graded based on some combination of quizzes, tests, and papers. I wasn't very happy with it, and the students weren't very happy with it either. Not that they complained; it was that way in all their classes. But still, I felt stuck - not just because of the limited assessment options in a classroom, but because of all the classroom's limitations. Not enough time, not enough "stuff," not enough of anything. I wanted more and better for my students and also for myself as a teacher.

So, when my school first decided to start offering fully online classes, I leapt at the chance. In fact, I resigned my job as a tenure-track professor and became an online instructor instead; my interest was always in teaching rather than research, and I realized that as a professor I could never give my teaching the time it deserved. The job my school had created was ideal: my only responsibility was teaching online, and I had three sections of 25-30 students each to teach. Perfect: 40 hours per week, and around 80 students to work with. The job of my dreams!

I realized immediately that the model of quiz-test-paper was meaningless in this new world of teaching abundance - an abundance of time, and an abundance of resources, too. So, I began the process of inventing classes that would take advantage of that abundance. Luckily, I made some very good choices right from the start; my classes have grown and evolved over time, but at the core is the same basic model I created when I first got started over ten years ago.

Time for reading and writing. There would be no more wasted time with students passively sitting and listening to me talk too much in the classroom (and I always talked too much, as you can imagine from the length of this blog post, ha ha). Online, the students could now spend their time - all their time - doing something really useful: reading and writing. I knew that I could reasonably ask about 6-8 hours per week of my students' time, and I knew that my main goal was to have them create things - to tell stories and share them online. I decided to divide the class into two roughly equal areas of activity which together would take appx. 6-8 hours of their time every week: reading stories (myths and epics) so that they could write new stories based on the old ones, along with a semester-long project where they would choose their own topic and do something similar but on a bigger scale, retelling traditional in creative new ways. They would do the weekly reading/writing assignments in a blog, and the semester-long writing project would be a website.

Then, after I had decided on the class activities, I needed to find the best ways to do the assessments, both for feedback and for grading. I was really not at all interested in assessment-as-grading, but I was very interested in assessment-as-feedback, and going online gave me so many great new opportunities for more and better feedback.

Feedback: Reading. For the reading, students could take quizzes that were graded automatically. I could build big question pools with questions coming up at random, allowing them to re-read and take the the quiz again if they did poorly. The reading quizzes were now a self-diagnostic tool to help the students make sure they had not accidentally slept through the readings or skimmed so quickly that they really got nothing out of it. Since students are not used to the idea of quiz-as-diagnostic, I make sure to explain to them how that works: Reading Tips. Right now I use Desire2Learn for this, but the way it manages question pools is incredibly poor, giving me no useful statistics from semester to semester; indeed, it does not even track questions re-used from quiz to quiz. I need a better quizzing tool (, for example, is far superior).

Feedback: Writing. By having all the writing in blogs (Ning) and websites (Google Sites), it was now easy for students to give each other feedback, in addition to getting feedback from me. So, each week, the students comment on the stories in their blogs and websites, and they also get detailed feedback from me. I'll explain in a separate post exactly how all that works, but you can get a sense of the importance of feedback and revision from what I've written here: Web-Based Projects and Pacing the Semester.

Grading. In terms of my own teaching philosophy, I'd be happy to stop there, with assessment-as-feedback. My school, however, demands that I give grades, and my students (college seniors) have also become deeply dependent on grades - you might even call it an addiction - after 16 years of full-time schooling dominated by grades, grades, and more grades. So, as I explain in my grading statement, my goal is to find a way to take a feedback-focused system and have it result in letter grades at the end of the semester. To do that, I use a points-based system. The quizzes are worth 10%, the blog posts are worth 25%, the website project is worth 35%, and commenting on blogs and websites is worth 30%. Note that these are all points that accumulate week by week. There is not a final grade even for the semester-long project. No grades, just points. When they get the points they need for the grade they want, they are done. (Some students who are really busy with work in other classes opt just to get a B or a C in the class, and that's fine with me.)

Results: Fabulous. The end result of this system is that the students work hard, and they often comment in the evaluations that this class is more work than any of their other classes. I'm not sure whether that is true or not, but I am pretty confident that they are doing more writing in this class than in any other class - and getting far more feedback about their writing, too. As a result, they learn a lot, and they produce some amazing projects. You can see the projects for this semester in Myth-Folklore and in Indian Epics. Even students who openly declare that they hate to write end up with really good projects. Why? Because instead of putting everything off until the last minute (you know that is what happens in most classes, right?), they work on their project every week all semester long, with abundant, supportive feedback from me and from the other students.

Work: It Works! Although some people think of online classes as being less work than a classroom-based class, that is not the case in my classes. Just the opposite: the students work really hard. That's an inevitable consequence of how the class is set up; there is no other option. For almost all of them, it is the first time they ever created a website. Even more importantly, it is often the first time they ever made a commitment to their own writing and to sharing their writing in public. If you are a student who struggles with writing, you are used to giving the teacher something you scribbled off in haste, knowing you will get a bad grade - and you just say to yourself, "Whatever." This class is different: doing poor quality work is just not an option. Students revise (and revise and revise) their writing so that it improves, and they also share their writing with other students - it's not just for the teacher. For a lot of students, that experience is downright scary at first... but by the end of the semester, they see their own success and are justifiably proud. As for me: I am proud of what they do too!

Grade Inflation. And that is why I get angry - really angry - when I read articles like this one about grade inflation: Can Harvard stop awarding so many As?  by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. It's fine with me if Dr. Trachtenberg has a different approach to grading than I do; everybody should do what they think is best - best for their students, best for their school, best for their subject matter. The problem, however, is that Dr. Trachtenberg seems to think that there is one way, and only one way, to grade. He apparently supposes that every teacher must be a "judge" whose success is measured not by the number of good grades earned by their students but instead by the number of bad grades. That may sound good to him; to me, it sounds like a recipe for failure. I could never teach that way, and I am very disappointed that Dr. Trachtenberg seems not to have even considered the possibility that there are alternatives to the grading model that he takes for granted. He may contend that I have "abandoned my responsibilities" by the way I grade, but I see myself instead as finally living up to my responsibilities as a teacher, making sure that each one of my students has a great learning opportunity, a chance to work hard and achieve more than they even thought possible at the outset. Does Dr. Trachtenberg think my class is easy because I give mostly As? Well, he is wrong. And since my students put their projects online, he has a chance - if he wants - to see just how wrong he is. I would say the single best thing we could do for our students, in fact, is to stop putting so much faith in the sacred formula of the GPA and instead have our students show what they can do online.

For me as a teacher, that online option has made all the difference.

Teachers open the door; you enter by yourself. 

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