Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Colearning and the Dilemma of Grading; One Solution: Don't Grade!

My schedule wouldn't let me coincide with the hangout tonight, but I wanted to chime in with something I think is very important for co-learning that came up in a student's blog post in my class today: grading... or, to be more precise, NOT grading. In this post, I'd like to talk about how I've managed to stop doing any grading while at the same time being able to assign grades at the end of the semester as required by my school. I'm able to do this because I teach Gen. Ed. writing classes, not classes that count for a specific major, and that situation allows me to use a "no grading" strategy — lots of feedback, but no grading. I've written up a description of my grades-without-grading strategy here: Grading, and in this post I'd like to add some comments specifically with regards to co-learning.

Here's the remark that the student made in passing in a blog post today which in turn has prompted me to write this post [emphasis mine]:
I'm really grateful I got the chance to take such an awesome class that allowed me to read so many new and cool stories and that freed me to stretch my creative wings when I write without worrying about making the grade all the time
And, believe me, this student really did stretch his creative wings; you can see his fabulous project here: The Voyages of Sigurd the Volsung.

He's a Professional Writing major, and I can imagine that grades do play an important role in the classes for that major. Indeed, from his comment in the blog post, it sounds like the grading can be a source of stress, one that gets in the way of experimentation and creativity. That's something for the Professional Writing faculty to worry about, though; as for me, I'm teaching Gen. Ed. classes that do not count towards any major in particular, and I have students from all the different colleges at my university enrolled — that means from Fine Arts to Engineering, from Journalism to Geosciences, and so on.

As a result, in any given class, there are many reluctant writers, and some are really struggling. Occasionally, though, there are Professional Writing majors who enroll in the class, and obviously the writing they do builds on a huge amount of experience that the other students have not had. That discrepancy would be a nightmare if I were one of the High Priestesses of Rigorous Grading... but for the Church of Co-Learning, that diversity is instead a great opportunity!

So, for a Professional Writing major, a class like this provides a more relaxed approach to the writing, with the opportunity to take risks and experiment wildly. In turn, the other students in the class get the benefit of watching a really skilled student writer at work — and when it comes to writing, I have the strong impression that students learn more and are more inspired by seeing the excellent writing of their fellow students, far more so than any other kind of writing model. You can see the incredibly positive responses that this writer has enjoyed at the Comment Wall for his project, for example.

Yet again because of the variety in the class, students also get the opportunity to learn together with other writers who might be struggling as they are. Instead of being left to assume that they are alone in their struggles, they get a chance to connect with other students who are also working on some basic writing skills.

In sum, everybody has lots of work to do (no one's work as a writer is ever done), and by doing their work together, they are able to make progress together, each at their own pace and on their own path but with the support of their co-learners. If you are curious just how that works in terms of revisions and flexible assignment schedules, I've got some of the nitty gritty here: Writing - Feedback - Revision, Storybooks: The Big Picture, and The Portfolio Option. I also did a "make" for this unit with a selection of student comments on each other's blogs here: Co-Learning: Thoughts from students on blogging and sharing.

I feel very lucky that I've been able to design the class in this way so that I don't have to be a grader, the dispenser of pleasure and pain in some bureaucratic Skinner box. As we work on this co-learning topic together over the next two weeks, I'll be curious to learn how other people have coped with the grading dilemma in the promotion of co-learning in their classes.

For a graphic, I'll go back to the great Connected Learning graphic that covers so many important aspects of connected learning: you will find the word feedback on that graphic, but you will not find the word grading! More about the graphic and more thoughts on grading here: Connected Learning: Grading (bad!) v. Feedback (good!).

And tomorrow I'll take a listen to the recorded hangout and see if the topic of grading came up there! For now: goodnight to all, and happy learning tomorrow!

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