Gateways, not gatekeeping
Or, how not to scare away new alternative graders
Interest in alternative grading has exploded since the beginning of the pandemic. But even with that remarkable growth, it’s still a fairly small niche. Today’s post is for everyone who’d like to see more people get involved in alternative grading, and who might spend time spreading the word about it. Let’s begin by thinking about an analogy.
I love board games. Games have seen a revolution since I was a kid: There is a whole world of modern games that look quite different from “traditional” games like Monopoly, Sorry!, or Life.
How are “modern” games different? They put an emphasis on giving players agency and making meaningful decisions1, aim to keep players engaged throughout2, and even provide whole new ways to interact, such as cooperative games where players work together, winning or losing as a group.
Boardgaming is a growing hobby, but it’s still a niche. Few of my favorite games – Pandemic, Glass Road, Race for the Galaxy – are known beyond “board game geeks”. And so there are constant debates in the boardgaming world about how we can bring more people into the hobby. We all know how fun modern games can be, and we want to share that experience with others. What’s the best way to “get people hooked” or “see the light”?
Imagine this scenario: You occasionally play Monopoly or Uno or similar, maybe with your family, but that’s it. An acquaintance discovers this and launches into an excited monologue outlining all of the flaws of your favorite games and telling you how boring they are. Then they continue the barrage by telling you how much better their favorite games are than your favorites.
How would you react? As you might expect, the result isn’t good. Telling someone that their favorite games are bad, or making fun of the games that form happy childhood memories, is a recipe to shut them down or start an argument. This isn’t a theoretical question; more than a few boardgamers begin “recruiting” a traditional gamer with the message: Gosh, what terrible games you like! You must not know about the better options out there.
Enthusiastic boardgamers often view their own favorite games as the highest expression of the hobby. When they meet a new player, they try to shove them right into the deep end (perhaps so they have someone to play their favorite games with). My friends who enjoy a quick game of Uno with their kids are not going to be excited by a 2 hour exploration of farming in the middle ages, even if it is my top game of all time. It’s easy to let my enthusiasm for a game blind me to what’s relevant, appropriate, and interesting to the other person.
From personal experience, there is no one “best” way to bring people into the hobby, but there are many successful entry points. What works is highly situational and requires really knowing my audience. If I’m talking with somebody who’s already curious to try modern games, then I find a game whose theme matches their interests, sit down, and start teaching them how to play. If I meet somebody who likes traditional games but doesn’t know about newer alternatives, I look for a way to hook them by finding a “gateway” game – one that is recognized as being a friendly entry point into the hobby – that might align with their interests and improve on any complaints they have.
It’s a truism in boardgaming circles that once somebody has tried a modern game, it’s a glass-shattering moment. They enthusiastically dive into the hobby, trying more games, learning about new types of games, and never looking back. But that only happens with a positive and appropriate introduction to the genre.
Back to grades
Alternative grading, just like board games, is a growing but still niche world. Many of us feel the urgent need to share what we know with others. When we do, we face the same issues as board game geeks: How do we bring new people into the fold? How do we convince them that these new ideas improve on traditional grading? What’s the best way to get new people into alternative grading?
Just like with board games, the world around us is used to the “traditional” way of doing things: points, partial credit, weighted averages. So we face an uphill hike just to convince people that there is anything besides traditional grading, much less the idea that alternative grading is a better approach.
We can learn some lessons from board games. The same principles apply and can be described in one word: empathy. The ability to see through others’ eyes, to understand what they care about and what motivates them, to find appropriate gateways into new ideas, is key to successfully introducing someone to alternative grading.3
What are some things that work? If I’m talking with somebody who has already expressed interest in alternative grading, then I probably don’t need to convince them of its value. But I do need to convince them that it’s doable. That means taking the time to learn why they are interested in alternative grading, what they teach, and the key characteristics of their classes (large? small? introductory? upper-level? what kinds of assessments are involved?). Then I can select an appropriate model that matches their context, and help them get started with it.
For those who haven’t heard about alternative grading before, there are many entry points. I usually look for a “gateway” – some aspect of alternative grading that’s likely to resonate with their experience or interests – and bring up the topic that way. This can range from philosophical to practical. Part of the challenge (and fun!) is finding something relevant that will make a connection:
Are they dissatisfied with students ignoring feedback? Alternative grading is built around the idea of engaging with feedback loops, so perhaps this is a good introduction to those ideas.
Do they wish grades encouraged learning rather than promoting a “one and done” mindset? This is a strength of alternative grading, and the four pillars help explain how this works.
Are they generally dissatisfied with “point grubbing” and negative student interactions? Alternative grading tends to encourage positive, learning-focused interactions. Perhaps a personal testimony about how I’ve experienced this myself would help.
Are they concerned about cheating, the rise of ChatGPT, and the like? There’s some remarkably on-point research that shows why the four pillars are associated with reduced academic dishonesty.
If I’m speaking to a large group, I find that making a connection to how humans learn is quite effective: We want grades to support learning, not get in the way of it or encourage students to “play the game” rather than learning. This leads directly to the four pillars. Then I provide a few concrete examples of how to put the pillars into action.
What doesn’t work
Just as in boardgaming, certain common approaches don’t work to pique a person’s interest. There are two specific, and unfortunately common, approaches to spreading the word of alternative grading that I want to call out:
Burn it all down. When faced with a friendly, traditional-grading-skeptical audience, there’s a tendency to go the route of burn it all down, traditional grades suck! I don’t mean just pointing out problems with traditional grades. I mean setting out to light the audience on fire with righteous anger over the evils of traditional grades, to shock them with the horrors that traditional graders visit on their students, and along the way, implicitly or explicitly, to insist that those who use traditional grading are in fact bad people. This kind of burn-it-all-down talk can attract some enthusiastic followers. And let me say, it is really fun to do this when you have a sympathetic audience.
And there’s the first problem with this approach: A sympathetic audience was almost certainly already skeptical of traditional grading – they probably would be hooked regardless of the approach. So why not spend time digging deeper into alternative grading, giving some models, some practical advice, some concrete next steps? That can help them put ideas into action.
There’s a bigger danger with the burn-it-all-down approach. Most audiences aren’t filled with people who were already leaning towards the alternative grading camp, and this approach can turn away exactly the people who are most uncertain, who could be welcomed into the community. This is the same as making fun of somebody’s experience with traditional board games: It doesn’t show them the “error of their ways”, it just turns them away from an apparently unpleasant group of people.
There’s some subtlety here: I’m not saying that it’s an error to point out the issues with traditional grading. But the righteous-anger approach doesn’t just point out problems with the ways we’ve traditionally graded; it attacks the people involved. It makes fun of their choices. It tells them, explicitly or implicitly, that their grading choices make them a bad, harmful, uncaring person. (This is remarkably common – once you start recognizing it, it’s hard to un-see. And I’m not immune — it’s quite easy to cross the line between “why traditional grades are bad” and “why traditional graders are bad”.)
People who are subjected to this kind of approach – or who see it happening to somebody else – come to the very reasonable conclusion that they don’t want to be part of a community that treats them this way. People who have this reaction rarely say anything – they sensibly walk away from the uncomfortable situation. But I do hear from or see comments from one or two such people each month or so, and that suggests to me that we’re actually turning away many more who never say a thing.
The one true road to the ideal grading system. More subtly, even when we avoid the barrage of negativity, we risk overwhelming people with the message that they need to do all the things in order to do alternative grading “right”. Just like it would be a poor choice to get somebody who’s only ever played Monopoly to jump into an 8-hour long massively complex wargame, so is insisting that alternative grading must be done all-or-nothing, that it’s a jump-in-feet-first, go-big-or-go-home venture.
We often imply that there is an ideal form of alternative grading, something that we should all be aiming for. It’s rarely explicitly stated this way, but it’s there in how we talk about grading. Often the message is implicit in how alternative grading is presented: I have heard many talks and read many posts about how certain types of alternative grading don’t “go far enough”. Or, a picture shows different grading methods marked out along an arrow, with the author’s preferred approach inevitably all the way at the far end (the rest of us are still “catching up”). The choice of words with positive or negative implications to describe different types of alternative grading (“a first step” or “more extreme”). Righteous, burning rants about how harmful any form of grades are, with the very, very strong implication that anybody using grades in any form is intentionally harming students.
These sorts of approaches push new people away from alternative grading. They are gatekeeping, not gateways. They tell newcomers that if you don’t go all out with alternative grading, why bother? And if you aren’t going all-out, you’re clearly not good enough. People react quite reasonably: I don’t have the time and energy to completely blow up everything I do, and these people are making me feel inferior for not being willing to do that – so I’m going to ignore this idea instead and spend time on what I can do.
Even those who are already engaged with alternative grading can be turned away. It’s pretty discouraging to be excited and working hard to understand an entirely new way of thinking about grades, only to be told that what you’re doing is simply not good enough (helpful feedback, right?).4
Beyond all of that, the implication that there is one best way to use alternative grading just isn’t true. There are as many helpful and effective ways to implement alternative grading as there are people using it. Standards-based testing is an example of a fantastic approach that works well in large or coordinated classes and doesn’t require blowing up everything and starting over. Implementing reassessments without penalty on one or two key assignments is another example. Indeed, going to extremes can be bad for both instructors and students, as I wrote in the post that inspired this one.
So what now?
The surest way to bring new people into alternative grading is for them to experience it for themselves. It’s a glass-shattering moment, and they don’t want to go back. They enthusiastically dive into the world of alternative grading, learning what works for them. Many people develop a driving philosophy of grading over time, as they experience and experiment with alternatives, not the other way around.
I want alternative grading to be a welcoming, friendly, and practical community. And for the most part, we are. But we don’t always realize how our approaches affect newcomers. So to tie things up, here are a few concrete suggestions for ways to open gateways that welcome newcomers, rather than being gatekeepers:
Nothing beats concrete, practical, appropriate models. Show people what they can do, how they can do it, and why it’s a good idea. Just like with board games, that first encounter with alternative grading should be tailored to the audience, with their needs and interests in mind.
Lead with positive elements of alternative grading that address real problems or concerns of the people you’re talking to. To paraphrase Dan Meyer, if alternative grading is the aspirin, what’s the headache it will solve? This subtle shift in messaging that can make a big difference.
When talking about traditional grading, focus on the ideas, not the people who use them. Rather than call out instructors who use averaging as “hurting students who need time to learn”, focus on how the averaging itself causes problems. Again, a subtle shift, but an important one.
Avoid implying a hierarchy of alternative grading approaches, or that there’s one right way. For example: “you’re just beginning your journey into alternative grading” or “if you can’t do more, then…” Instead, talk about finding what works or what’s appropriate in a given context. Emphasize that one of alternative grading’s strengths is how it can (and should!) be adapted to each practitioner’s needs, and that there isn’t one right way to do it.
Finding an appropriate, context-sensitive, empathetic way to welcome new practitioners to alternative grading isn’t easy, but finding gateways is essential if we want to spread the word.
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Compare this to the “roll a die and move that many spaces” approach of Chutes and Ladders or Sorry! which leaves the player little agency and no meaningful choices.
Unlike “player elimination” games such as Monopoly where players can go bankrupt well before the game ends, leaving them to sit and watch others have all the fun
It’s also essential to success in teaching.