Grading for growth in an engineering math class: Part 2
What I learned from my latest iteration and what I'll change next time
Last week, I posted the first of a two-part series looking back at my grading setup in the course I just finished, MTH 302: Linear Algebra and Differential Equations. In the first article, I outlined the "theory" of the course: Its background, purpose, workflow, and the assessments and grading scheme. This week, I'm going to look at how that theory worked in practice and what I learned in the process.
It's fairly easy to devise an innovative-looking grading system that incorporates the Four Pillars, looks cool, and gets lots of retweets. What's hard, is rolling out those fancy systems on day 1 of the semester to a crowd of high-performing students who have spent most of their lives mastering the nuances of traditional grading.
Some of these students struggle with earning grades, and I would say most of them dislike traditional grading. But they are reluctant to try anything else, because traditional grading is the devil they know. Grades provide a handhold on a course that is otherwise unfamiliar and possibly terrifying. So when you unveil the fancy system in the syllabus, it's a dangerous moment and it requires a great deal of caution.
Here are a couple of things that helped with my class:
First, I built in a lot of time during the first week of classes for onboarding activities, a good portion of which was practice using the grading system. "Onboarding" refers to tasks that new employees at a company do to "get on board" and learn the company's history, culture, and so on. In MTH 302, I set aside most of the first week of class not to read the syllabus but to practice with the systems. One activity that works well is a series of stories of hypothetical MTH 302 students at the end of the semester, where I list their accomplishments and ask my real MTH 302 to determine the course grade using the syllabus. It's simple practice feeding information into the table in the syllabus and producing a base grade; simple and therefore effective because it demystifies the process. I found that 45 minutes of time spent on this during week 1 eliminates lots of misconceptions and questions about grades later; we never really brought up the grading system again until the end of the semester.
Second, I used my go-to icebreaker on Day 1, where I ask students to discuss two questions:
I give this icebreaker on day 1 of each class I teach because it naturally leads to some important questions we need to discuss first: How does a person learn something important? How did you learn the most important things in your life? Students know perfectly well what the answers are: Significant learning happens through feedback loops that drive motivation, and it requires trying and failing, and then the learning process really happens.
This realization, that all significant learning happens through engagement with a feedback loop, sets the stage perfectly for an introduction to alternative grading in the course. It's as simple as saying: Well, if this is how learning works, then grades should serve this process of feedback and not work against it, right? And when we start getting into the weeds of the system, or if students start wishing they could have points and partial credit, I always pull them back to this illustration. How did you learn all the most important things in your life? Through partial credit and points, or feedback and iteration?
Students were a little cautious about my grading setup initially, but they quickly caught on and many were quite enthusiastic about it. Although the details were still a little hazy after the first week, they got the benefits right away: You're not penalized for mistakes as long as you can eventually learn the idea and demonstrate your learning. If you turn something in, you'll get verbal feedback and then you can fix stuff if needed. Your grade never goes down. Once the penny dropped for these students, I could sense a palpable feeling of relaxation, like the entire class had started breathing again.
What also helped, which is a luxury that I am starting to have here at my university, is that a lot of other professors in the STEM disciplines are using alternative grading practices as well. Several students in my classes had taken math, physics, or computer science courses with profs who had used alternative grading, and those students were not only familiar with the concepts, they evangelized other students who were not as familiar1.
How my system impacted the day-to-day
I wouldn't say that the everyday activities in my class were particularly innovative. We spent time going over questions from class preparation; having some demos and short lectures over new concepts; time spent working on problems in groups and then going over the results. I was definitely trying to use active learning as much as possible but otherwise, MTH 302 for me looked like a lot of math classes in a teaching-focused institution -- active and student centered, I hope, but nothing earth-shattering.
For the most part, there really just wasn't much of a visible impact that the grading system had on how the class went. For most students it just wasn't a big deal, and while there were occasional questions about specifics, there wasn't any pushback; I didn't have to work to get any "buy-in" with students; and the whole thing just ran in the background without any real issues.
However, I'd speculate that the presence of this grading system that evaluates students based on what they eventually know rather than on one-and-done assessments and points -- the bedrock of most engineering students' entire careers so far and a main source of stress in their lives -- allowed us to have active, student-focused class time and a successful flipped learning environment. It helped us have a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere where experimentation and mistakes in class weren't red flags. People were not constantly asking if "X" was going to be on the test and getting bent out of shape because I was asking them to watch videos and answer questions before class. Students and I had an understanding that I'd crafted this course for them, as learners with whom I want to work rather than for myself as a professor working against students.
There was one exception, namely the "Application/Analysis" assignments done weekly. Those didn't work as well as I'd have liked, and I'll say more about that shortly.
An unexpected interview
About 2/3 of the way through the semester, my university was contacted by a journalist wanting to write an article about ungrading. They had seen this article on NPR (inspired by this Hechinger Report article) and had questions for me, among which was a question about how students are feeling about my use of "ungrading".
I never actually responded to that journalist, but I thought it might be interesting to pose their questions to my students. I called a time-out in class one day and told the students about the journalist's questions and asked how the grading system was working for them now. It was a very animated conversation with the overwhelming majority of students speaking up in favor of alternative grading, and not just "in favor of" but vehemently against traditional grading -- vehement even by my own standards, which is saying something.
But this doesn't mean that alternative grading was working for all students, so I called another time-out and made up a quick Google Form asking students: How do you feel about grades and/or the trend toward alternative grading methods (like what we use in MTH 302)? Then I gave them 10 minutes to type in responses if they liked, no names attached. Here are some of their unedited responses:
Grades create motivation to complete assignments. There needs to be some sort of consequence or else students will not do work. I agree with mastery grading though instead of a strict grading scale because it forces you to actually learn the material and correct your mistakes. Overall, grades shouldn't be taken out of the picture, but maybe just rethought in a different way.
I really like it. It takes away a lot of the stress and cramming and allows for me to actually learn the material and let it stick in my head for more than 5 minutes following an exam.
This class is the one that I feel the most confident about actually knowing the content and fully understanding it, and it is also the class I know I will have a good grade in, I don't have to worry at all.
I like the idea of it. I did get behind and busy unfortunately with other classes, work, and extracurricular clubs, but it is a great method. It is better and I feel less stressful which is nice compared to other classes.
The class is certainly less stress when compared to a normal class. I like the way that you know exactly where your grade is each week, unlike a normal class where you need to calculate and worry about what your grade might be after a tough exam. I think approach makes work less stressful and allows for assignments to be less of a chore. I especially like the success/retry on the skill quizzes as well.
School shouldn't be focused only on grades, it should be focused on actual learning, because a degree is just a piece of paper. The person holding that piece of paper should actually know how to do the things that they are expected to do. Grades are necessary as I don't think everyone should receive a degree just for showing up, there must be a way to identify how much people know. But it should be focused on learning and improving, not memorizing and forgetting.
These sentiments showed up in more or less the same form on my end-of-semester student evaluations of teaching along with some good criticisms of our particular implementation (below). The main impression I get is that these engineering students, who are quite savvy in the ways of systems and design, aren't too impressed with traditional grading systems once you start really looking closely at them, and they perceive that some kind of upgrade to the system is needed on a large scale.
What I will do differently next time
I'm not sure when I'll teach this class again, as it's a fairly popular one among faculty in my department. But when I do, I'll be making some changes. It was a new prep and some things in the implementation could have been done better.
Change how Application/Analysis worked. Application/Analysis assignments were meant to fill the gap between basic computational practice and high-level creative applications. As I mentioned last time, I set this up so that students worked in groups on these kind of mid-level problems and then turned in selections from them, marked on the handout, to be written up individually. This way they could work in groups and then finish up at home. (Here’s an example of a group activity with the Application/Analysis excerpt marked (“AA8”).)
While I thought this was a good idea, it had issues in practice. The biggest one was that students tended to work only on the problem designated for turn-in, and ignored the others, never mind that usually you needed to work all the problems before the starred ones in order for the starred ones to make sense. They were obeying a basic cost-benefit analysis: The marked ones get a grade, so make sure those are done and forget the rest. Toward the end of the semester, I started announcing the marked problems after the class was over, so students didn't know which ones would be graded until later. This solved the problem of selective focus but it felt a little like I was trying to trick the students, which I didn't like. So I'm still thinking about how this could be improved.
Reconsider skill quizzes. We had 11 Foundational Skills in the course, on which students demonstrated skill by working quiz problems in class. One successful skill quiz attempt was sufficient for "mastery". (Here is an example.) These quizzes were supposed to be almost an afterthought: The problems were simple, and I let students complete them at home if they ran out of time (with an 11:59pm same-day deadline). In practice, the students over time became more and more focused on these quizzes. For some, it became the only thing they could think about in the course, and the focus turned into anxiety. At times I thought if I heard the word "quiz" one more time I was going to go crazy! On the one hand, the quizzes didn't seem like enough; a single successful attempt, with technology allowed on some and with the entire day to finish them, felt more like a pulse check than "mastery", and I am wondering if two successful attempts wouldn't be more appropriate. On the other hand, I really hated how the entire course became about quizzes, quizzes, quizzes for some students. I think there's still a need to demonstrate mastery on low-level learning objectives, but is this the right way?
No more unlimited flexibility with deadlines. I know this won't win me many retweets, but after using a flexible deadline policy in my classes for the last couple of years, I am starting to think this causes more problems than it solves for most students. Definitely students really need, and are entitled to, some flexibility in deadlines. But in this class, for the first time things got out of hand. I began to get unreasonable requests: two-week extensions for example, or requests coming in 3-4 days after the deadline. Upon speaking with some of the students making those requests it was clear that the extension wasn’t really needed — they had the time, space, and tools to get things done on time, but just preferred not to. And that just struck me the wrong way.
Now, who am I to judge? Certainly as engineering majors, my students have a lot going on all the time: Labs, projects, co-op interviews, not to mention their outside lives. And I do not mean to blame or shame these hard-working students, or suggest that their hearts weren’t in the right place. But I also think, given our experience, that the benefits of an unlimitedly-flexible deadline setup can be realized just as well using good old-fashioned tokens for deadline extensions. By putting some (admittedly artificial) scarcity on the supply of deadline extensions, it might help students not use the deadline extension policy merely as a convenience but more of a “break glass in case of emergency” policy, and make more professionally appropriate choices about when to ask for an extension, all without disadvantaging any one student. (Because if a student under a tokens policy had ongoing issues getting work in on time, I’d have the same conversation with them that I had without an unlimited-extension approach.)
Maybe ungrade this course. I started this series by saying I decided early on not to ungrade MTH 302 for a number of reasons. I think it was the right call. But also, these students were very grade conscious: high-achieving students in an extremely demanding program usually are. I had hoped that my system would induce them to relax and just learn, and it did -- to an extent. But the grade-consciousness was latently strong, and the closer we got to the end of the semester the worse it got. It’s not the students’ fault; it’s just a terrible vestige of the grading systems they’ve survived.
Many times I thought: The only way to get control of the grade-consciousness in MTH 302 is to eradicate grades entirely. I know I've said many times that ungrading is only as good as students' abilities to self-assess and self-regulate, and frankly MTH 302 probably has the highest-performing students I've ever seen at my current university in that regard. So next time, maybe I'll just throw the entire grade setup out the window.
I’ve been using specifications grading as my main approach to grading ever since I started doing alternative grading at all. It’s not without its issues, but it still feels like the best fit for most of the courses I teach. What I hope you get from these two articles, though, is that despite a relatively long history of use, there’s still room (and lots of it) to learn, grow, and improve. Because every time you teach a course, it’s different: The students are different, the subject itself and the way it’s learned is different2, and most of all you are different.
One thing is never going to be different, though: Any significant learning that you or your students experience, is going to be the result of engagement with a feedback loop. So whatever the world throws at you, movement in the direction of alternative grading and away from traditional grading is going to be the smart move.
Thanks for reading Grading for Growth! Subscribe for free to receive new posts in your inbox every Monday.
You might be asking: How do I get to the point, at my institution, where I am not the only person thinking about alternative grading? It’s a complex answer (probably worth a blog post here, on its own) but the answer is simple: It starts with you, with one person who has the courage to try something different in the name of student success, one person willing to stick their necks out to make change. Once one person has done it, other people will start to come out of the woodwork. There’s a lot more to say about this than a footnote will contain, but let me encourage you to keep going and not give up.
As a very big example, consider how you might be teaching your Fall classes differently based on the emergence of easily-accessible generative AI. I know in my case, that the way students learn discrete structures is now permanently changed, and my course planning, grading, and all the rest will need to adapt as well. Like it or not.