Alternative grading in international contexts
Keeping grades focused on learning when language is a barrier
This week, we welcome a guest post from Keith M. Graham. Prof. Graham is an assistant professor in the School of Teacher Education at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan (R.O.C.). He teaches preservice bilingual teacher education courses and is actively involved in in-service secondary bilingual teacher training and English-medium university faculty training around Taiwan.
Consider a university that has traditionally taught in one language now taking a different approach: within ten years, half of all classes will be taught using a foreign language. This is the current reality at my university.
At National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), where I teach, the dominant language for most students is Mandarin Chinese. However, a new national policy encourages students to take academic courses in English. By 2030, the expectation is that 50% of sophomores will take 50% of their courses through English.
It’s important to note that this isn’t just about language classes or English majors; this policy affects all students across every major and discipline.
Such a drastic change in the language of instruction naturally poses significant challenges for student assessment. The English-medium courses conducted on my campus are supposed to be no different from any other content course that a student would take in Mandarin, with grades aimed at reflecting content knowledge, not language ability. However, this becomes very difficult in practice since students may know the content well but be unable to demonstrate that knowledge due to their English proficiency.
Readers from English-speaking contexts might draw parallels between this scenario and the experiences of international students at their universities. But consider that this policy began around 2021 at my university, meaning that, unlike international students who chose to learn through English (and prepared accordingly), having to take English-medium coursework was an unexpected surprise (nightmare?).
Acknowledging the potential inequity of this policy for many students, I knew I needed an assessment system for my courses that could rigorously measure students’ knowledge and skills while also accounting for the many traps students could fall into because of their lack of English proficiency.
And that’s when I found this blog—Grading for Growth.
The Role of the Feedback Loop in Supporting English-Medium Assessment
I discovered that the four pillars of the feedback loop perfectly aligned with what my students needed for support.
First, having clearly defined standards allows my students to know exactly what is expected of them in terms of academic knowledge and skills. This allows them to adequately prepare themselves before the assessment to minimize the challenges English may present.
Second, helpful feedback, especially when given in person, fosters a collaborative environment where both instructor and student can identify and tackle issues together. This approach is particularly beneficial when language proficiency, rather than content understanding, poses a barrier to effective assessment. Feedback can help prompt students to find other means to better express what they actually know.
Third, it is critical that marks indicate progress in the subject matter itself rather than language proficiency. This is one of the main challenges for English-medium instructors—ensuring grades reflect the course achievement, not the student’s English proficiency.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, reassessment without penalty acts as a safety net for students who face difficulties showcasing their learning. When language difficulties or English-testing anxiety kick in, this pillar gives students an alternative route to demonstrate what they have learned.
My Course and Grading System
It’s not just universities grappling with this shift to English-medium instruction in Taiwan. The government is concurrently pushing Mandarin-English bilingual education in public primary and secondary schools.
This bit of context matters because my classes are geared toward preparing future bilingual teachers. Essentially, my students are affected by the policy as students while simultaneously involved in its future promotion and development in public schools as future teachers.
In this sense, my alternative grading system is both a tool for assessment and an object of learning for my students.
Reading the Grading for Growth blog led me to Linda Nielson’s Specifications Grading book, which drives my current grading system. Although I use this system in all my courses, I will use my Bilingual Education Materials and Methods course as an example.
NTNU’s School of Teacher Education, the largest teacher preparation program in Taiwan, began the bilingual education endorsement program in 2020 to support the Bilingual 2030 policy’s bilingual education initiative. The policy seeks to establish bilingual education in one-third of Taiwan’s public schools by 2030, requiring an estimated 15,000 bilingual teachers. To give you a sense of the magnitude of this shift, there were essentially no bilingual programs in public schools prior to 2019, with the exception of a few pilot and experimental programs.
The bilingual education endorsement program is elective and not required for teaching certification, but the increasing number of bilingual jobs makes it an important credential for our students’ competitiveness in the job market. Our program typically admits a cohort of 100 students per year, determined through an application process.
The Bilingual Education Materials and Methods course (2 credit hours) is one of the five courses (10 credits total) in our bilingual education endorsement program. The course provides students with the skills to design bilingual lessons in their subject, including creating a syllabus, designing assessments, writing unit plans, and developing supplemental materials. I teach one section of the course. This semester there were 54 students in my section, coming from a variety of academic disciplines with an approximate even distribution of undergraduate and graduate students.
My grading system is based on the following tiers: C-level work, B-level work, A-level work, and A+ level work. My institution uses a system somewhat different from what I was familiar with in the U.S. A grade of A+ translates to a percentage of 90-100%, and 85-89% is an A. For each grade level, there is a plus/minus, but for simplicity, I have opted to use the pure letter grades in my system, with an exception for A+. The minimum passing grade for graduate students is B- and for undergraduates C-. The latter is why I made C-level work the starting level.
All assignments are “Pass” or “No Pass” with opportunities for reattempts based on my feedback. Here is an example of the specification for one assignment, the bilingual syllabus:
The syllabus should detail 20 weeks of instruction (one semester)
Content objectives follow the principles of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound)
Communication objectives clearly connect to content objectives
Targeted national curriculum guidelines are specified and relate to the content objectives
The syllabus must undergo peer review (in class)
The syllabus should be written in internationally intelligible English
To receive a “Pass”, all specifications must be met. When students receive a “No Pass”, I arrange an in-person meeting with the student, typically after class. This session is dedicated to providing verbal feedback, understanding their challenges, and determining the specifics for a reattempt. Each reattempt is tailored for the individual student, considering the particular specifications missed and the student’s needs.
As a general rule, I do not emphasize language in my specifications for assignments, aside from stating “be written in internationally intelligible English.” English-medium courses, including in my course, focus solely on content. Language is simply a medium, not an outcome. I expect my students to use English in a manner that is comprehensible, but I do not expect them to conform to the standards of any specific variety of English (e.g., standard American English).
The foundational assignment for my course is a series of exit tickets for C-level work. After each attended class, students must submit an exit ticket answering the following: Write 3 things you learned in today’s class; Write 2 ways you will apply this learning as a bilingual teacher; Write 1 question you have or 1 thing you’d like to know more about. I require 10 exit tickets (14 total) to receive a “Pass” for C-Level work. This provides evidence that the student has a basic understanding of approximately 70% of the course material. Students who do not meet the C-Level work requirements must meet with me to discuss an appropriate grade (below C) based on the work completed.
B-Level work assesses students’ abilities to apply the course content. Assignments for my course include designing a bilingual syllabus and a bilingual assessment for their future target grade level and subject. In addition, to receive a B in the course, students must also complete C-level work.
To receive an A in the course, students must complete C- and B-level work, and create a unit plan with supporting bilingual learning materials and assessments. This assignment requires students to apply learning from the B-level syllabus and assessment assignments and demonstrate additional bilingual material development skills. Essentially, this assignment requires students to synthesize their learning across the semester.
To be eligible for the final level, A+ level work, students must “Pass” all previous levels and, additionally, evaluate a bilingual lesson in a public school based on the principles learned in the course. Students must schedule a meeting with me after the observation to discuss what they observed and learned. This conversation between me and the student is semi-structured, but my goal is to challenge them to think deeply about the intersections of what they observed, what they learned in the course, and what it means for their development as a future teacher.
Each tier of assignments gradually increases in both cognitive and linguistic difficulty. However, the four pillars of the feedback loop allow me and my students to focus on their development as future teachers and minimize any linguistic barriers students may face in the assessment process.
Reactions from the Students
In preparation for this guest blog post, I informally and anonymously solicited feedback from my students on the alternative grading system in this course. All who responded indicated they were satisfied or very satisfied with specifications grading. Here are some of the reasons they gave for their response:
“Grammar and pronunciation are not important in this class, and it is really different from my previous English learning experience.”
I appreciated this comment because it speaks to the heart of why I sought an alternative grading system—I did not want to let language get in the way of assessing my students.
“Reduces a lot of pressure due to the feedback and reattempt system after the grading, and you can always check and reevaluate yourself.”
Student pressure was a motivator for my seeking an alternative grading approach. English is my native language, but given my environment, I often must use Mandarin Chinese in professional settings. Saying I feel pressure when using Mandarin professionally would be a huge understatement, so I can relate to my students’ anxiety about English-medium courses. I make great efforts to cultivate a safe learning environment; specifications grading is one of my key strategies.
“English-medium class is tough and confusing enough; therefore, we should use this clear grading system.”
Several students commented that the structure and clarity of specification grading were welcomed, especially as they navigated their challenges with learning through English.
However, students also acknowledged some of the challenges such a system would face, especially in a grade-driven academic culture as present in Taiwan:
“I dislike the part where once the presentation meets the specifications, everyone gets the same grade, regardless of greater and weaker performance.”
With that in mind, instructors in similar academic cultures must take great care to explain the benefits to students. I have not received a complaint in the three semesters I have used specifications grading. However, I am acutely aware of the academic culture in my setting and go to great lengths to sell my students on this system.
My Reflections and Future Development
Overall, specifications grading has made what is often a difficult situation (i.e., learning through a foreign language) very manageable for me and my students. It has allowed us to set aside the difficulties of language and put the focus on the content of the course. The feedback loop allows me to make sure each student learns and grows as a future teacher, regardless of their English proficiency. There have even been some surprise outcomes–for example, many of my students incorporated specifications grading in their assessment assignments, which was a pleasant unexpected surprise.
Yet, as many others have shared, the downside of this approach is it can be a lot of work for me, especially if many students receive a “No Pass.” I do my best to make the reattempts reasonable for both me and my students, focusing on specific specifications and using breaks between periods as much as possible to reduce the time burden. Several colleagues have commented with shock at the amount of time needed to make my grading system run. But to me, it is worth it. After all, I have been charged with developing the next generation of teachers, and some of them may teach my son. Making sure they have the skills to successfully guide their future students is time well spent in my mind.
Despite the many successes, my journey with alternative grading is far from over. To wrap up, I’d like to share two future directions I’m considering as I continue to develop my grading system.
As an instructor, while specifications grading is working well, I wonder if it really should be applied in all my classes. Being a long-time reader of this blog and proud owner of David and Robert’s new book, I am considering experimenting with standards-based grading (SBG) in some of my courses. I feel like SBG may better fit the nature of some of my courses than specifications grading does. For example, another course in the program, Practice in Bilingual Teaching, currently requires students to do a series of teaching demonstrations. I use specifications grading for this, but I have been considering changing the assessments to focus on specific teaching strategies. I feel my students need more targeted practice in certain aspects of bilingual teaching rather than broad teaching demonstration practice, and I believe SBG may be a good fit for that change.
Second, as a faculty trainer and teacher education scholar, I want to help expand the alternative grading conversation to English-medium and bilingual education settings. I have begun to do this through some of the faculty workshops I have facilitated in Taiwan, but I believe there are colleagues in many international universities experiencing the rapid spread of English-medium teaching in their contexts. I firmly believe that alternative grading can help maintain academic standards despite language challenges, and I hope this blog post serves as a first step for spreading this message globally.
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