How do you help students trust that you have their best interests at heart?
When you’ve created a new grading system from the ground up, you know it better than anyone else. It’s easy to forget how alien this system can seem to your students, who are (for better or for worse) used to points, partial credit, and the possibility of being permanently sunk by a bad exam. Worse, many students are used to expecting “gotchas” tricky technicalities that are harshly enforced.
Having a strong plan to build trust with your students will encourage them to “buy in” to your system1, to take advantage of its benefits sooner, and will help you work against a culture of mistrust.
While I’ve previously written about the importance of trust, this week we’ll go into much more detail about how to build trust. Many of the ideas in this post are inspired by Jessica Stewart Kelly’s article “Mastering Your Sales Pitch” (PRIMUS, 30:8-10, 979-994) which, while focused on math, is an excellent read for any instructors.
Start by trusting students. This excellent advice comes from ungrading pioneer Jesse Stommel. The best way to build trust is to show trust.
This doesn’t mean to always trust students blindly, but rather to begin with the view that students are trustworthy and not trying to “get away” with something. Begin by believing that your students can succeed, that they are interested in learning, and that they will act in sensible ways.
Demonstrate this through your words and actions and especially through how you structure your class. Choose course policies that are flexible and not punitive. Ferret out policies that focus on compliance rather than learning. Tell students explicitly that you care about learning and truly want to see what they know: “I want you to succeed, and this class is designed to help you succeed. I believe that everyone in this class can earn an A.”
Be clear and honest in your communication with students. If you realize something isn’t working and needs to be fixed, say so, and clearly communicate the change. Students appreciate clarity and will recognize when you have their best interests at heart (they’ll also notice if something isn’t working and you’re ignoring it).
Spend time helping students learn about your system, just like any other course content. OK, time for some more specific advice. Your students are learning something new when it comes to your grading system. This means that you need to devote time to teaching it, like any other new idea. In fact, since traditional grades are so deeply ingrained in higher education, you may need to devote more time to learning about grades than other new ideas. As Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn CEO, is fond of saying: “When you are tired of saying it, people are starting to hear it.” That’s especially true when students are learning about alternative grading.
Critically, don’t try to explain the grading system all at once on the first day of class, and don’t assume that students understand how their grades will work just from reading the syllabus. Plan multiple encounters and explanations. Here’s a general plan that has worked well for me:
A week before the semester begins, email students and ask them to read the “grades” portion of your syllabus. Or, if you have the time to make it, post a short video summary of the grading system. Set expectations without getting into details: Give only a brief overview of the main points, reasoning, and benefits of your system.
On the first day of class, outline the system in a little more detail, but don’t try to cover everything. One of the most helpful things I do, both to improve understanding and to provoke questions, is to run students through several concrete examples of how final grades are determined. Project a copy of the final grade requirements, and ask students to determine what grades various hypothetical students earned. Be sure to include examples that might be surprising, such as a student who fails to complete one requirement in the “A” row of a grade table. Be ready to address the question of whether it’s fair for a student in this situation to earn a lower grade. Be ready for lots of questions!
Re-explain or go into more detail about key parts of the system as they become most relevant. For example, re-explain how standards or specifications work just before you hand out the first assignment involving them. Then review the meaning of your feedback and marks, and how to reassess, just after handing back the graded assignment. Expect students to have many questions at these points, and plan some time to answer them.
A few weeks before the end of your term, give advice and reminders about common end-of-term scenarios. For example, remind students about limits on reassessments and how to pace themselves to complete as many as they need, or go into more detail about how the final exam (if you have one) counts towards their final grade. The imminent end of the semester tends to focus students and generate new questions.
Share the benefits of your system for students. Tell students early and often how your new grading system is good for them. Be both general (“Struggles can help us learn. In this class, struggling won’t hurt you as long as you learn the ideas eventually.”) and specific (“If you don’t meet a target the first time, it will be on the next quiz, and then once more on the final exam. If you meet it any time, it counts as full credit with no penalty. Yes, really!”). Mention these benefits frequently, in small doses, and in contexts where students are primed to care about them (such as when you’ve just returned a graded assignment).
One benefit that is especially worth sharing is fairness. Students tend to see alternative systems as especially fair, due to the clear expectations for meeting standards, unambiguous requirements for earning each grade, and reduced competition compared to traditional systems.2
Sharing these benefits both helps students understand why they will benefit from your system, and to help make it clear that you care about their success.
Use the language of standards and specifications. A pleasant feature of alternative grading methods is that standards, specifications, and marks that indicate progress all give students language to describe the ways in which they are learning. Model this: Mention relevant standards (and the actions they describe) when students are discussing their work, in class and in office hours. Nudge conversations about grades towards discussing specific standards, concrete steps to make progress, and what’s needed to “meet” a standard.
Also help students understand when they’re working with each standard. Put a full statement of each relevant standard on each assessment. Write relevant standards on the board (or slides) before each class and explicitly call out when you’re using them. Provide models of meeting, and not meeting, standards. Make it clear that the standards really matter to you, and help students understand when they’re working with them. Clarity will help make “alternative” grading feel a bit more familiar.
Communicate progress clearly and celebrate successes. In many alternative systems, students are effectively at an “F” for most of the semester, until they complete a body of work that qualifies them for a higher grade. If your system is like this, make a concrete plan to communicate progress in a way that encourages students.3 Frequent progress reports, general feedback that’s not tied to specific assignments, a quick note to make sure they know they can submit a reassessment — all of these can motivate students or bring up important questions.
Also, don’t forget to celebrate successes. Has a student met the requirements for passing the class? Congratulate them! Did a student show real growth during a reassessment, after struggling on the original? Call out their excellent work and tell them that you’re proud of their growth! Has everybody passed a certain standard? Tell the whole class!
Finally, it’s worth thinking about how to structure your course to to promote early successes. Is there a standard that could be studied and assessed early, that most students are likely to succeed on? Could an early assignment be structured to help students practice with one particular topic that they will use often in the future? This can help students understand your system, but also fight against the perception that your course is a sequence of impossible tasks with an ever-increasing reassessment workload.4
Call out unusual incentives. Students are used to the ways that points and partial credit incentivize their work, in particular by treating assignments as “one and done”, or thinking in terms like “what grade do I need on the final in order to pass?” Your class is likely to be very different, and students won’t be as quick to recognize the differences. For example, it’s likely you will reach a point where some students have already completed certain standards and don’t need to attempt them again. If those standards appear on the next exam, be very clear that it’s not necessary to complete problems that deal with those standards, and that this won’t hurt them. They will likely need repeated assurances about this.
Similarly, if you have limits on revisions, remind students early and often about what they should be doing in order to avoid “wasting” reassessment opportunities.
Ask for anonymous feedback. After students have experienced all key parts of your assessments (e.g. completing an assessment, receiving feedback, and having a chance to reassess), ask for anonymous feedback. I usually do this around the 3rd week of the semester, and then repeat several more times. You can do use a short paper form, filled out in the last 5 minutes of class. I like to use the “Stop-Start-Continue” format to get useful feedback. Don’t forget to ask for reasons! Use responses to make real changes as needed, and don’t ignore themes that show up.
This last item is critical: Keep your fingers on the pulse of the class and trust what students are saying. Even when it feels like you’ve explained how reassessments work a thousand times, if students seem confused about it, find a new way to explain. Remember that your students are humans who are doing their best, just like each of us.
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Here are two papers that directly address fairness in alternative grading:
Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading (SBG) in higher education. College Teaching, 65(4), 151-157. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2017.1302919
Pope, L., Parker, H. B., & Ultsch, S. (2020). Assessment of specifications grading in an undergraduate dietetics course. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 52(4), 439-446. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2019.07.017
For some details about the benefits of structuring for “early successes", check out this article: Chen, L., Grochow, J. A., Layer, R., Levet, M. (2022). Experience Report: Standards-Based Grading at Scale in Algorithms. Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education, July 2022. https://arxiv.org/abs/2204.12046