Grade cynicism and the One Rubric

I have three days left to prepare six classes, and I keep staring at the grading load for each and wondering whether there isn’t a better way.

As organized, each course has a 100-point system, with items like assessments and assignments each earning a particular number of points depending on their quality.

Traditional. Also dull. Also a trap, for me as much as for them.

Back in 2010 I was whining about rubrics , and in that post I mentioned that my (now retired) colleagues David and Don Megill once said in a teaching meeting (we don’t have those anymore) that there is no such thing as an objective exam – all grading is subjective. They were right. So why the numbers, percentages and other trappings of objectivity? I should just decide their grade. The fact is, for about 85% of my students I can tell in the first two weeks what grade they’ll get at the end of the course.

So the traditional schema traps me into assigning points for things, and reorganizing the grading scheme depending on what I think should be worth more or less, and at what point it should be evaluated. Which means I have to evaluate right then, even if it really isn’t a good time for them or for me. That’s the exam date, so that’s it, even if half the class doesn’t have the essay idea down yet.

That sounds like a fairly progressive way to think about it, trying to avoid pseudo-objectivity. Now on to the really cynical part.

Last semester I learned that students don’t see grading as “feedback”. Only direct, personal, extensive commentary on everything they submit is considered “feedback”. All else is “grading”, and it doesn’t count somehow as communication. Correspondingly, any kind of group commentary (for example, posting a sample essay for comparison or commenting on the particularly good posts and explaining why they’re good) also doesn’t count as feedback, as I’ve noted in a previous post. This is despite the fact that when individual feedback is given on, say, an essay exam, they often don’t read it or don’t respond to it by changing their work in any way. My most positive results last semester, where students really changed their work in response to my commentary, happened as a result of them asking for personal feedback by chat during my online office hours. Without that very personal touch (with 240 students?) they have trouble seeing that any other form of feedback applies to them.

I’ve considered more individualistic grading schemes (letting students decide what percentage of their grade is assigned to each item, for example) but they all look like big bookkeeping nightmares at 40 students per class. I have forced them to read the rubric and evaluate their own work in the Contribution Assessment, which has been extremely valuable but still doesn’t prevent complaints about “not enough feedback”. The burden over the last few years has shifted from them trying to improve their work in response to my commentary to me trying to individually improve their willingness and ability to improve their work. Yuck.

So how about this – One Rubric to Rule Them All.

Course grading rubric

A = all or almost all of the time
B – most of the time
C = about 70% of the time
D = not often enough to succeed
F = rarely or never

__  Being in class on time every day (unless sick)
__  Taking notes during class or actively engaging the topic being presented or discussed
__ Contributing to discussion in a way that increases inquiry or understanding for the class
__ Completing all reading and homework at a level indicating significant comprehension of materials
__ Working at a high collegiate level on any assignments or writing
__ Applying creative thought to historical problems
__ Researching independently any vocabulary or events that are difficult to understand
__ Actively seeking help from the instructor or college services when needed

For self-assessment, they can mark on the lines what letter grade they’re getting in each, and average them out. Or I can do it. Or both. They can do this many times during the semester, to see how they’re doing. Then at the end, I assign a course grade. And that’s it.

I wonder whether I should give it a try.

7 comments to Grade cynicism and the One Rubric

  • Michael Kimming posted this in the DNLE community just before Christmas “It’s all an invention.” – Give everyone an A… – Let’s change perspective and see, what Benjamin Zander has to say to this:

    Benjamin Zander – Work (How to give an A)? – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTKEBygQic0

    I hadn’t come across Zander before but I loved this.
    I also struggle with the whole grading/assessment thing and I like your one rubric to rule them all – would love to hear if you do use it – I’d be keen to give it a go myself.

    • Hi Clare! Well, I’m using it. I talked about it on the first day of my on-site class, they asked a few questions, and the expressions on their face were satisfying – they nodded and seemed to appreciate both the idea and the high expectation it implied. All showed up on Day 2 with their homework complete and it was the best batch I’ve seen, and they were all willing to share their work. I’ll keep you “posted” – LOL.

  • Hi again, Lisa – I missed this post, but saw it in the sidebar when I commented on the quizzes. This is also something I’ve pondered a lot… although I think my solution (with which I am pretty happy) can only work for the kind of course load I have (appx. 90 students per semester total across 3 courses… I know you have way way way more students, right?).

    Anyway, I have ditched letter grading for any piece of work and gone for feedback only – and the way I am sure they read the feedback is that every piece of feedback from me is part of a revision process that lasts all semester long, week by week (component of their final project for me to read each week – I give feedback, which is the basis for revision in the following week; revision weeks alternate with original writing weeks all semester long). That has worked really well. Admittedly, some students just fail to participate some weeks and get zeros for the weeks they skip (but the project is inherently flexible – if they skip one week or two or three or four or even five weeks over the semester, they can still finish the final project – although their final product will be shorter than the projects of students who work on their project every week of the semester, and by missing out on points, they drift into the B and C range). That project constitutes half of their overall grade – they write and revise (35% of overall grade, with points week by week), and they read and respond to each other’s work (15% of overall grade, with points week by week).

    The other half of their points come from weekly readings with quizzes (see my other comment) plus two writing assignments each week that they do in their blogs. Those are self-graded based on a very simple rubric, along with reading and commenting on each other’s blogs. That part of the class more or less runs itself, although I keep an eye on things. Some students write wonderfully, some not so wonderfully, but they are not getting a different grade – it’s more like the equivalent of class participation where of course the quality of contributions varies, but mostly you are just glad that people are participating and hoping that they will learn from each other along the way (I find that when students see great writing by other students it really makes a difference, inspiring them far more than any grading system would).

    I am happy with this system, but it has a distinct size limitation; since it takes me 15-30 minutes to give feedback each week to the students about their projects, I just cannot manage more than 90 students per semester today. That’s what my university expects from me in terms of a teaching load. If that were to change, I have various ideas in mind for how I might be able to adapt this system to a larger group of students… but I sincerely hope it does not change. It works well in terms of really helping students to improve their writing (ALL students – poor writers, great writers, everybody improves) and also making my job as the instructor very enjoyable, since I really like seeing their projects develop. :-)

    • Yes, I have more students: limit is 40 per section, 5 sections per semester plus one overload section for a possible total of 240. I cannot give feedback individually on everything I want them to do – the thing I find about online classes is that I want them doing several things each week so that they are continually having to log in and do something. With no “major” research papers or monster exams, this regular pattern encourages them to keep working, and many students have commented on how the pattern keeps them engaged. So what I do is “group” feedback each week through my forum post, which they have to read since it contains the instructions for what they do the second half of each week. I use this space also to share the really good stuff. This semester I’ve gotten rid of all “private” submissions and we’ll see if that causes the kind of learning from each other your describe.

      • Kudos to you, Lisa! That is exactly the kind of solution I have in mind if my school were to change the way they do course loads for the online instructors – feedback going to very small groups, rather than to individuals as I currently do. In some ways, that would be a fun experiment… but I really like the opportunity to get to know the students one-on-one as I do now. Meanwhile, I admire so much your approach to working with that many students. I would enjoy taking a class with you, that’s for sure! :-)

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