New Year's Resolutions from the Alternative Grading Community
What are our colleagues and peers doing with alternative grading?
Did you know that there’s an entire forum dedicated to discussing alternative grading in all its forms? The aptly-named Alternative Grading Slack workspace is a friendly discussion board where faculty from all disciplines, institutions, and contexts chat about alternative grading, from high-level philosophy down to the nitty-gritty details. The link above is an invitation to join.
Continuing our theme for this month, we asked faculty in the workspace to share their new year’s resolutions for alternative grading. We hope that you find these resolutions interesting, motivating, and a helpful glimpse into how faculty across the world are thinking about alternative grading in 2023.
Use alternative grading for the first time
A new alternative grader reflects on their plans and hopes.
I'm planning to implement alternative grading for the first time in the intro class that I teach in the spring. I’ll be implementing standards based grading, with a set of skills-focused standards that will be presented in weekly homework assignments, and a set of four “writing and communication” standards that will be assessed in a series of 2 writing assignments + 1 assignment whose format is chosen by the student (written, video presentation, slide deck, infographic, etc). Students will be able to reassess individual skills standards and revise and resubmit communication/writing assignments up to twice (3 attempts total), but only one reattempt per week.
I’m really excited to see how this works! I’ll be determining the exact number of standards required for each letter grade (with limits) on my first day of class to help my students understand and take ownership of the system. No one else in my department (as far as I know) has taught the class in this way, but I think it will be an excellent way to make sure my students actually focus on skull building, and to give them some time to reflect on the content focused on the flag (“global cultures”) that the course carries. I’m also excited to see how it affects my teaching, because I can already feel myself focusing my lecture plans and in class activities toward reinforcing these skill standards rather than cramming in a maximal amount of content via endless lecture.
— Paige-Erin Wheeler, UT-Austin
Provide more structure and support
Many faculty made resolutions to provide more structure and support for students. We often see instructors who “throw open the doors” of flexibility when first using alternative grading, but discover that doing so can cause difficulties for students in different ways.
I’ve used the “feedback only” version of ungrading in my upper-level cancer bio course the two times I’ve taught it so far. One thing I’ve heard from certain students, especially those with ADHD, was that the lack of a direct grade penalty for late work was demotivating for them, especially on weeks we were reading a research study but they weren’t presenting the study. (For people with ADHD, motivation relies on extrinsic motivation and structure more than for neurotypicals.) I got support from my dean and chair to “require” a fourth hour of class as a students-only paper discussion ahead of the paper presentations each week. I think this will be more equitable and effective for a few reasons. First, the students who don’t have personal friends in the class will still get the chance to learn collaboratively with their peers. Second, I’m hoping that the social pressure of having to discuss the papers (without the added pressure of me hearing it) will help the ADHD students and others who need external motivation. All the students would be spending multiple hours per week reading the paper anyway, so I don’t think this will increase their workload. If anything, getting earlier clarification on points of confusion will hopefully make it easier for them to understand the papers! This idea of a students-only discussion section came from the Methods & Logic class that I took like all MIT Bio PhD students in their first year.
— Katie Mattaini, Roger Williams University
I had mixed outcomes with ungrading in Fall 2022; reflecting upon what could be improved next semester, I intend to focus more on student self-reflections accompanying high-stakes assignments. I did not require these as consistently as I had in the past, and they might highlight student ownership over the process. I also want to improve how I keep students updated on their academic progress without (potentially) reducing motivation with constant reminders from me about missing work; that dynamic occurred in Fall 2022, and I think it contributed to a student mindset in which they did not feel accountable for monitoring their own work submission/deadlines: it was clear I would do so for them.
On a related note, I need to have less flexibility with late work. The lack of assignment submission in Fall 2022 was at its height, worse than even Fall 2020, what I had previously considered the most difficult semester in terms of student engagement/motivation. Students clearly do not feel motivated when deadlines are too flexible, so I need to continue to offer flexibility when students request it, but not “lead” with it: that seem to give students the idea that deadlines don't matter at all. I also plan to stay connected to the strong ungrading communities on Slack, Discord, and what remains on Twitter!
— Ashleigh Fox, Community College of Allegheny County
I need to provide more deadlines. I also need to apply some limits to or implement a system to govern retakes. The way I structured last semester allowed unlimited homework tries and retakes on standards. A small percentage of students took this to mean they needed to do nothing in the course other than show up until the last couple of weeks. This lead to short term learning for those students. Not at all what I had intended by providing maximum flexibility!
— Tracy Knowles, Bluegrass Community and Technical College
Raise the bar
An alternative grader resolves to challenge students and model persistence.
I’ve been doing alternative grading (specifications grading) for three years now, and I feel like I’ve almost got it down. Still, there are things I need to fix. In the year 2023, I resolve to raise the bar. Specifications grading has worked so well for me that my students have exceeded my expectations, and I need to meet them where they are. Linda B. Nilson talks about creating more or higher hurdles. Now that most of my students are mastering the basics, I need to create more opportunities for them to stretch, shine and grow.
The other thing I resolve to do is to demonstrate persistence so that my students can see what it looks like. Last year I got behind on my grading because I was afraid of the mental and emotional exhaustion that always comes with it. But the pain I feared was formed by my old grading system. When I finally strapped myself in and started grading, it wasn’t that bad. It was easy, and it went fast. My students often don’t want to look at their revisions and re-dos because they are afraid of the work it will take to fix them. I need to demonstrate to them that sometimes, getting started is the hardest part, but once you do, it gets easier.
— KatieAnn Skogsberg, Centre College
Build on a big scale
Experienced alternative graders look to grow the community.
We are hoping to implement a full program of alternative grading in our dental simulation program at the Melbourne Dental School. We experimented with this in 2022 and learned that we needed more flexible rubrics that encouraged students to have fun and make mistakes because that is what simulation should be — an opportunity to do all the things before you encounter these problems with real patients. The big challenge we face is encouraging all of our staff to join us on the exciting journey and to help very competitive students appreciate that a numerical grade doesn’t matter in this space. We want them all to know that the ability to perform dental simulation procedures consistently at a safe and appropriate standard is more important than being the top of the class in a traditional grading system. We can’t remove all grades due to accreditation so we have a cumulative pass-fail program across the whole year. Our focus is on helping our students and staff realise that people will achieve milestones at different times and that is ok — so long as we guide them to successful completion of the program by the end of the year.
— Clare McNally, University of Melbourne
With ChatGPT now taking education by storm, I now see an even greater need to adapt assessment and grading methods so that the focus is on process over product. We have to think about how to humanize education now that AI is here. My resolution is to try and do more to influence faculty and admins in my role as an instructional designer to move to humanized and equitable assessment methods and strategies that place human needs over administrative processes. I see institutions moving away from a one-size-fits all classes and towards more personalized learning paths so students can design learning experiences that are customized to their needs and goals. Traditional grades have no place in a system designed to serve the needs of every student. I am hopeful this AI disruption will make schools more humanized and I will try to do my part in making that a reality.
— Heather Leslie
I resolve to continue questioning the systems in which we operate and push for more freedom in academics with faculty, staff, and student partnerships.
— Chris Creighton, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
See you next week when we return to our regularly scheduled blogging!
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