Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 20, 2010

the broken system of grading

Cathy Davidson, a professor of English at Duke, announced last year that for one of her classes, “Your Brain on the Internet” — yes, that’s an English class — she would outsource the grading to the students.

I’m trying out a new point system supplemented, first, by peer review and by my own constant commentary (written and oral) on student progress, goals, ambitions, and contributions. Grading itself will be by contract: Do all the work (and there is a lot of work), and you get an A. Don’t need an A? Don’t have time to do all the work? No problem. You can aim for and earn a B. There will be a chart. You do the assignment satisfactorily, you get the points. Add up the points, there’s your grade. Clearcut. No guesswork. No second-guessing ‘what the prof wants.’ No gaming the system. Clearcut. Student is responsible.

But what determines meeting the standard required in this point system? What does it mean to do work “satisfactorily”? And how to judge quality, you ask? Crowdsourcing. Since I already have structured my seminar (it worked brilliantly last year) so that two students lead us in every class, they can now also read all the class blogs (as they used to) and pass judgment on whether the blogs posted by their fellow students are satisfactory. Thumbs up, thumbs down. If not, any student who wishes can revise. If you revise, you get the credit. End of story. Or, if you are too busy and want to skip it, no problem. It just means you’ll have fewer ticks on the chart and will probably get the lower grade. No whining. It’s clearcut and everyone knows the system from day one. (btw, every study of peer review among students shows that students perform at a higher level, and with more care, when they know they are being evaluated by their peers than when they know only the teacher and the TA will be grading).

I have a few comments.

1) Several of the phrases here give us a pretty good idea what motivated Davidson to make this change: “Clearcut. No guesswork. No second-guessing ‘what the prof wants.’ No gaming the system. Clearcut. Student is responsible.” I.e., “I’m sick of grade-obsessed students who just want A’s and complain bitterly if they get anything else.”

2) Note that you can blow off at least some of the work and still get a B. Not only do you not have to do good work to get a B, you don’t even ave to do it all. And the dread letter “C” is never invoked.

3) Davidson is naïve if she thinks she can come up with a system that students can’t game. Her announcement received many responses, including this one: “Never underestimate grade orientation . . . I tried something similar several years ago at Buffalo. My mistake was to make it a ‘curved’ class (though only a positive curve). Two ‘gangs’ (one a group of fraternity brothers, the other just people who met and formed up) reached an agreement that they would vote up each others’ work no matter what, and non-members’ work down, no matter what, in order to increase their own grade in the class favorably, and hurt others’ grades. . . . When I intervened, I got complaints: I had set up the rules, several said, if I didn’t like the outcome, how was it their fault.” And of course even without the curve there can be problems. . . .

4) Result: “Davidson, the Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English, said that of the 16 students in the course, 15 already have earned an A and she expects the remaining student to soon finish an assignment that will earn an A as well.” How does Davidson feel about this? “It was spectacular, far exceeding my expectations. It would take a lot to get me back to a conventional form of grading ever again.” So maybe not a problem after all.

I actually have a lot of sympathy for Davidson: she is, I think, genuinely trying to recover for her students an experience of actual learning that the grading system, and students’ obsession with it, systematically undermines. But it’s impossible to make the argument that these grades are legitimate as grades — as serious evaluations of the quality of student work. Students lack the knowledge, the training, the experience, and the motivation to evaluate their peers’ work responsibly and accurately. When Davidson sends those grades along to the Duke registrar’s office, she is collaborating with her students in “gaming the system” — gaming it massively and wholly. And she may well be avoiding some of her own responsibilities as a teacher, which, as Leonard Cassuto points out, will not be good for our profession in the long run.

To be sure, in one sense the system deserves to be gamed — it’s fundamentally broken — and what Davidson is doing is only slightly more extreme than what most professors, enablers of grade inflation, do every day. But the system needs to be faced and critiqued more straightforwardly, more honestly. What Davidson has set up is an elaborate piece of academic theater, and Lord knows the academy is theatrical enough already. She would do better, I think — not well, but better — to decide before even planning a class that everyone in it will receive an A, and then ask: How shall I teach this material, how do I think it really ought to be taught, now that every thought of grading has been banished from my mind?


  • I had a class very similar to this at Wheaton. Grades in Mark Fackler's Media Ethics class were based on an objective set of goals and the completion of projects. And rather than encouraging grade inflation, my memory was that getting an A in the class was actually more work than in most of my other classes. (As I recall, there was some sort of honor system in place as well, so gaming the system would have been possible, but no one ever tries to game the system at Wheaton, right?) As I student, I found it a much better system than classes in which you could game the system by writing papers that played to the professors' biases and passions. I'd be curious to hear Fackler's perspective from the other end of the desk.

  • Ted Olsen didn't need to game any system, with his intelligence and perseverance. The system actually works to the advantage of teaching how to organize time, plan, work to your strengths, and take initiative. Students who struggle with this system arrive with a middle-school sense of "just tell me what I gotta know, I'll know it for an exam, then..." The SYSTEM of contract learning separates learners from those who merely show up. Yes, you've got to find the right groove. I keep a 3.1 GPA as annual average, pleasing deans, encouraging students, and satisfying my sense of fairness. Each semester one or two of 40 fail. Some never get going, even when I resort at last to middle school incentives.

    Mark Fackler, Calvin College

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