How alternative grading supports the "heads and hearts hypothesis"
The pillars of alternative grading also undergird effective active learning
In a paper published in 2020, Elli Theobald and a team of researchers investigated whether underrepresented students experienced lower achievement gaps in their college STEM courses than underrepresented students in traditional lecture classes. An “achievement gap” is an instance where underrepresented students have lower measures of academic success than overrepresented students. They found that on average, active learning was connected with a 33% reduction in achievement gaps as measured by exam scores, and 45% lower in terms of course passing rates. They also found that only the classes that implemented “high-intensity” active learning saw these drops in achievement gaps.
This is good news, and a very good result to bring up when arguing the benefits of active learning. But what does it have to do with alternative grading? Particularly when the achievement gaps were measured using points-based and otherwise very traditional grading systems, which as we’ve said here are problematic for gauging real student growth and academic success?
Well, there are at least two reasons. First, active learning and alternative grading go together hand-in-glove. We haven’t really talked much about actual pedagogy — the day-to-day choices you as an instructor make when working with your students to learn something — here on the blog. But active learning is always assumed to be the beating heart of our courses, no matter what approach to grading we may take (including ungrading). The design of a course or lesson involves a direct sequence of connections like this:
Courses and lessons are designed with clear, measurable learning objectives. Then the activities instantiate the objectives and provide meaningful practice with them. Then the assessments are aligned with the activities (and are therefore aligned with the objectives). It’s only then that our grading or ungrading systems can provide truly meaningful, actionable information. The engine that drives all this, is active learning.
So it’s important, if you’re interested in alternative grading, to also be interested in active learning, and Theobald and team’s paper is a strong argument for the impact that your pedagogical choices can have on equity. (There are similar arguments about the effects of grading on equity, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the future.)
But there’s a second reason this paper is worth mentioning. In the discussion of their results, Theobald and team say the following (emphases are mine):
We propose that two key elements are required to design and implement STEM courses that reduce, eliminate, or reverse achievement gaps: deliberate practice and a culture of inclusion. Deliberate practice emphasizes 1) extensive and highly focused efforts geared toward improving performance—meaning that students work hard on relevant tasks, 2) scaffolded exercises designed to address specific deficits in understanding or skills, 3) immediate feedback, and 4) repetition. These are all facets of evidence-based best practice in active learning. Equally important, inclusive teaching emphasizes treating students with dignity and respect, communicating confidence in students’ ability to meet high standards, and demonstrating a genuine interest in students’ intellectual and personal growth and success. We refer to this proposal as the heads-and-hearts hypothesis and suggest that the variation documented in Fig. 2 [which shows the drops in achievement gaps] results from variation in the quality and intensity of deliberate practice and the extent to which a course’s culture supports inclusion.
The “heads and hearts” hypothesis, in other words, is the idea that achievement gaps happen when course designs combine deliberate practice (the “heads”) with inclusive teaching (the “hearts”). While Theobald and team were using this term to describe high-functioning active learning environments, alternative grading systems — and particularly the four pillars of alternative grading — also support the heads-and-hearts hypothesis in the following key ways
The pillar of Clearly Defined Standards helps instructors to create learning activities that allow students to “work hard on relevant tasks” and as Theobald describes. Without clearly defined standards, it’s hard to know whether the tasks that students work on are truly “relevant” (relevant to what?), and in return it’s hard to work hard on something if you are not yourself convinced of the task’s relevance. We don’t want the measure to become the target in our classes, but we can use standards to give context and direction to tasks.
The same pillar can help instructors create “scaffolded exercises designed to address specific deficits”. Without clearly defined standards, it would be hard to construct a helpfully scaffolded exercise around a topic or skill. A well-written standard, on the other hand, provides a clear description of the end state of deliberate practice. In my discrete math class, for example, I want students to be able to say — truthfully, and eventually — that [They] can calculate a binomial coefficient and correctly apply the binomial coefficient to formulate and solve counting problems. (That’s one of 20 Learning Targets, my “standards”, for the course.) Like the diagram above indicates, once that standard is in place, I can design a scaffolded exercise around it. But probably not before it’s in place.
The pillars of Reattempts Without Penalty, Helpful Feedback, and Marks that Indicate Progress are at the very heart of “immediate feedback and repetition” in the description of deliberate practice.
Finally, the entire purpose of alternative grading — which we’ve hopefully captured with the Four Pillars — is to foster growth by treating students like human beings and their work as a worthwhile object of sustained attention. We engage with alternative grading not because we’re bored with our current practice or because we’re all about the next big idea in teaching. We do it precisely because we want to “[treat] students with dignity and respect”, to “[communicate] confidence in students’ ability to meet high standards”, and to “[demonstrate] a genuine interest in students’ intellectual and personal growth and success”.
Last semester in my discrete math class, we stopped several times in class to talk about why we were doing grades the way we were doing them. Once, some of the students expressed that they didn’t understand why they couldn’t get partial credit on their problem sets. I explained to them that we could do things one of two ways: We could give them a single shot at the problem set and award partial credit to the result, but no reattempts; or we could forego partial credit and allow repeated reattempts until they met the standard. Which way promotes growth? Which way communicates confidence in their ability to meet high standards? Which way demonstrates real interest in their work? As I explained, We forego partial credit because I have extremely high confidence in your ability to grow.
So if we want to see course designs that implement the heads-and-hearts hypothesis and provide a more equitable learning environment, it has to happen not only in the choice of pedagogical method — active learning — but also in the grading system. If you build an extremely clever alternative grading system around a class that uses nothing but passive lecture, you may win Fake Internet Points for your efforts, but the grades you give won’t indicate much. Likewise, if we build a course around active learning like we should be doing, we’ll only reap the maximum benefits of that choice by providing a grading (or ungrading) system that supports both deliberate practice and a fundamental respect for students. Fortunately, active learning and alternative grading both move in this same direction.
Sadly, one of the reasons I think some students take such a long time to finally accept and trust an alternative grading system is precisely because it places such a high level of confidence in their abilities to grow. Many have never experienced that level of confidence from a teacher before — in fact many have only ever had professors who specifically dis-believe in students’ abilities to learn and grow, as seen not only in the grading systems used but also in the predominately lecture-based pedagogical models of class.