David's origin story
Last week you had a chance to read Robert’s “origin story”. This week, I’ll tell you mine. Spoiler: I came from a pretty different direction!
If you’ve read up a bit on alternative assessments, you’ve probably found advocates who speak with great vigor about an assessment revolution in higher education, philosophizing about the inhumanity of traditional grades, and espousing high-minded ideals. Quite possibly some of that was from me.
But way back when I first got interested in alternative assessments, I just wanted a better gradebook.
In 2010, I was a grad student, and I was teaching a lot of Calculus 2 to earn funding. As you might imagine, Calculus 2 relies heavily on prerequisites from Calculus 1, but students can’t always use these prerequisites confidently when they’re needed. Like many brand new teachers, I was annoyed: The students must have passed Calc 1 or else they wouldn’t be here in Calc 2. Shouldn’t they know these things already?
When I have a problem, I take a walk. I remember walking across campus on a fresh spring day, thinking about this problem. We required students to earn a C or better in Calc 1 before they could take Calc 2. But what did that “C” even mean? Could a student have “learned” everything in Calc 1, but at a mediocre level? Did they knock some things out of the park, but completely miss out on others? A “C” couldn’t tell me.
On that walk, I daydreamed up a report card that didn’t give a final grade at all. Instead, it would list all of the main topics from Calculus 1, and record the student’s progress on each one individually. Then a future instructor (aka long-suffering me) could read the grade reports for everyone in his class and understand where he needed more review, and where he could skip ahead.
What a dream! But alas, I was a grad student and definitely couldn’t change an entire university’s grading system. So I tucked the idea away and got lunch instead.
Fast forward a few summers: I was a freshly minted PhD sitting in the audience at a panel on active learning strategies. The panel was part of Project NExT, a professional development program for new math PhDs who are interested in teaching.
One of the panelists, TJ Hitchman, casually mentioned something called “Standards-Based Grading”. His brief description sounded exactly like my old dream: A way of recording a student’s progress on each major topic in a class, rather than muddling everything together into a single mashup of points and partial credit.
TJ’s motivation for using SBG was very different from my dream. Everything he spoke about was from the student’s point of view: TJ wanted to identify where students most needed help, so that he could give them opportunities to grow and learn. His system gave multiple opportunities to succeed, and focused only on students’ final level of understanding, so that they could take time to learn without penalty.
This was a lot to chew on, but it was also exciting. TJ’s ideas got my brain moving.
This all happened about three weeks before my first teaching gig as a postdoc. Just after the panel where I first heard about SBG, my new department called to beg me to teach a graduate-level class in my research area. The usual instructor couldn’t teach it that year, and they needed a last-minute substitute. Three weeks to plan a class?
So of course, I said “yes” and took a walk to start thinking through the course design. My mind was spinning with ideas from Project NExT: I decided this new prep would be a flipped class that used standards-based grading for its assessments. No problem, right?
Looking at my syllabus from that first SBG class is an exercise in humility. For one thing, it’s incredibly complex, filled with do X… except in case Y, then do Z instead, unless A happens... For another, it’s all about me: Why do I use this crazy grading system? “This will show me more clearly what you know and don’t know.” As an almost incidental detail, I mentioned that it might save students from some busy-work, too.
But as is often the case, my choices had some unexpected side-effects. As the semester progressed, I discovered that SBG let students show their eventual understanding, even if that took time and some initial failures. It was almost accidental that this new system didn’t penalize students for multiple tries, and I realized that I was OK with that. Better than OK, actually — I realized that I wanted students to be able to fail, go back, and learn something — and earn full credit for doing so.
My office hours suddenly became busy. Really busy, and I had a lot better discussions with students. The list of “topics” on each assessment helped students identify where they were struggling, and our discussions moved from “why is this worth 7 points instead of 8?” to “I’m having trouble with this specific topic, can we talk about that?”
Most unexpectedly, some of my students begged me to offer an extra quiz… on the day before Thanksgiving break. It wasn’t because they wanted extra credit or bonus points, and I can assure you nobody was excited to be in class that day. But they wanted the extra quiz for an important reason: So that they could show me what they knew. And as it turns out, that’s what I wanted to know, too.
After that first wild semester of using standards-based grading, I started to question my focus when it came to assessments. Sure, SBG does what I initially wanted: It shows me what students understand, and what they need to work on. It brought lots of other benefits for me too. But over the next few years, as I taught more classes using SBG, I came to realize that the real benefits weren’t about me at all. SBG helps students: It identifies where students need help, and supports them without penalty. It respects the messy, difficult, and long process of real learning that students go through every day. It helped me see just how much traditional grading, like traditional lecturing, is wildly inequitable to students. I started to better understand how my choices were reinforcing or even creating systemic inequality that hurt my students. And once I started to have ideas like that, I needed to share them as far as I could. SBG became one part of a much bigger picture. It didn’t begin that way, but I grew into it.
I suspect this is what TJ was saying, but I wasn’t yet ready to think about, back in that Project NExT panel.
There are many reasons that alternative assessments might interest you. Perhaps you’re already strongly anchored in empathy, equity, and justice, and SBG is another way to support them. Perhaps you’re using active learning and have this nagging feeling that your assessments work against the learning atmosphere you’re trying to cultivate in class. Perhaps like me, you’re intrigued by the benefits for you. Or maybe you’re somewhere else entirely.
Wherever you are, you’re welcome to join us! There are a lot of us here, and we all come from different motivations and viewpoints. Once you start down the rabbit hole, you might be surprised where you end up.
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