Planning for grading for growth: Finding focus
The focus of your course determines much of what happens in it.
This is the third installment in a series we’re doing on how to build an alternative grading system in your course. The first article gave a long list of questions to ask about your course first, so you can have a strong grasp on its background and context. The second one dealt with the structure of the course — both the macro-scale modular breakdown of the course itself and the micro-scale learning objectives. This time, we’re going to keep thinking about your course at a rather high altitude by looking at the focus of the course and the systems you might use in it.
We’ve used the word system a lot to refer to the assessment and grading setup in a course. This term is intentional. We want our entire course to work as a cohesive unit, with the assessment and grading aligned with standards and all of this working in sync with classroom activities and other experiences. To build a system for assessment and grading, we have to make sure the assessments we give and the methods by which we evaluate student work are in tune with the overall focus of the class.
The focus of your course
By the focus of the class, we don’t mean the subject matter or content in the course, but rather what kinds of learning (generally speaking) students will do in the course. Not all courses within the same subject area, or even with the same content, are created equal in this sense. Some mathematics courses, for example, focus on building skill in computation and applying those skills to basic real-world problems. But others focus on high-level abstraction, analysis of models, and the writing of clear and coherent mathematical proofs with relatively little focus on “skills”. Both courses will be filed under “Math” in the school’s catalog, but they require very different approaches to assessment and grading.
We can identify two main areas of focus, for just about any course:
Courses that are primarily focused on content and skills,
Courses that are primarily focused on concepts and general processes.
By “general processes”, we mean activities and competencies that professionals use in a discipline that apply to broad categories of work, as opposed to specific tasks that one might perform. For example, organizing and writing a significant research paper is a general process because it is a broad competency that applies to entire categories of tasks and across disciplines. So is forming abstract mathematical conjectures and writing proofs. By contrast, writing a single thesis statement or factoring a polynomial is a skill, a discrete action with a relatively limited range.
Most courses have a foot in both camps, with some focus on content/skills as well as some focus on concepts/processes, as students move up and down the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example, an introductory Spanish class (taught to non-Spanish speakers) might frequently focus on foundational vocabulary and grammar, but will also from time to time highlight overarching concepts of the language and culture. Likewise, an upper-level Spanish class might focus mostly on culture and history as viewed through larger texts, but it might occasionally need to delve into low-Bloom-level activities on specific points of vocabulary or grammar.
What’s my focus?
No single course should typically focus entirely on just one of the two areas above, because we want students to experience as wide of a range of intellectual experiences as possible. The question to answer in this step is whether your course has a primary focus on one of these, and if so, which one. So, how do you find this out?
This is a good time to look back at the learning objectives you drafted earlier, and make sure that they are appropriately aligned with the nature of the course that you determined even earlier. For example, if you know your course is primarily taken by advanced students in a particular area of study and that those students have completed several lower-level courses in the discipline prior to your course, most of your learning objectives will likely be concentrated in the top half of Bloom’s Taxonomy, making the course concepts/process focused.
However, if you wrote mostly low-level learning objectives, you’ll need to reconsider either the nature of the course, or how you wrote those objectives. Likewise, if your course is entry-level and taken by students in their first semester with inconsistent background knowledge, it’s likely that the standards will be concentrated in the lower half of Bloom’s Taxonomy, making the course more content/skills focused (although, again, it can and should have some high-level learning tasks embedded within it).
If the learning objectives tend toward the lower half of Bloom’s Taxonomy, then the course is probably a content/skills focused course. If the tendency is to the upper half, then it’s more of a concepts/processes course.
Some courses are an even mix of content/skills and concepts/processes. In my discipline of mathematics, Linear Algebra is like that; there is a lot of computation and discrete skills to master, but also a lot of deep conceptual knowledge, and they feed off each other. Having a truly even mix is OK! But still, many courses will tend toward one category or the other. There is no scientific way to determine the focus; you just need to use your professional judgment along with your detailed notes from earlier steps.
From focus to systems
The reason we are thinking about the primary focus of the course is that this focus is useful in determining what kinds of assessments to use, and then what kind of grading structure should be in place. At this point there is no need, and we are not ready, to start writing syllabus language for assessments and grading systems. But there are two important questions to ask about assessments now:
What general kind of grading system might be a good fit for the course, given its focus, structure, and background? Look back through your notes, and think back over the discussions and case studies you’ve seen on this blog and elsewhere. What approaches resonate with you? Hopefully there are a lot of examples you can identify that pique your interest that you may want to try. You can’t do them all, so narrow down your options by looking at the facts of your course, its structure, and the primary focus you just decided. While there’s no deterministic way to decide on a specific grading approach, generally speaking:
Content/skills focused courses tend to work well with systems such as standards-based grading where there is an emphasis on demonstrations of skill on fine-grained specific tasks, that accumulate over time;
Concept/process focused courses tend to work well with systems such as ungrading and some specifications grading where there is less emphasis on discrete skills and more on the holistic qualities of work, creativity, and cross-cutting general processes.
Often, you’ll find that your course is a hybrid: Some assignments are more skills-based and are best graded using standards-based grading. Others focus on processes and are better addressed using specifications grading or ungrading. It’s fine to pick different approaches for different types of assignments, as long as you don’t violate the Prime Directive: Keep it simple!
Go ahead and make a preliminary sketch of the general approach you might want to take that fits the course’s background, its overall structure and goals, its primary focus, and – very importantly – your own curiosity and excitement level. You’re more likely to succeed by designing a system you are interested in, than by limiting yourself to a copy of somebody else’s system.
The second question to ask is: What general types of assessments might you give in your course? Again, base the answer on the courses background, structure, and focus. And keep in mind you’re not writing the syllabus yet, just building a prototype. Work in terms of general categories of assessments rather than specifics, and each time you imagine one of these categories, explore why you are considering it. For example, you might decide that Weekly Quizzes done in class would be a useful category of assessments to use. If so, then fill in the blanks:
This will be a useful kind of assessment in my course, because it will give me the following information about student learning: _____
This kind of assessment fits the context of my course because _____
This kind of assessment fits well with the modules and learning objectives of my course because _____
This kind of assessment fits well with the primary focus of my course because _____
If you find yourself unable to finish any of the above bullet points with an honest and truthful answer, you might want to reconsider that assessment. For example, having a series of 50-minute timed exams that cover actions from the lower half of Bloom’s Taxonomy might gather useful data about some forms of student learning; but they may not be a very good fit for a high-level concepts/processes course, or a course that is asynchronous online, or a course most of whose learning objectives are in the upper half of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
These two questions don’t have to be addressed in the order shown above. Some instructors might benefit from thinking about the grading system first and then ideating the assessments to give; others might find it more helpful to start with the learning objectives, then think about the assessments that cover those objectives, and then decide on the grading system. Others may wish to bounce back and forth between the two.
If you’re playing along with this series, then by this point you will have
A course picked out
Thorough notes on the background and context of that course
A modular structure for how the course will unfold
Course- and assessment-level learning objectives
A clear sense of what kind of course it is
Initial choices about the grading system and assessment setup
This feels like progress, and it is! If you’ve gotten this far, you will definitely be thanking yourself in a few weeks as the start of Fall semester becomes an unavoidable calendar event.
But there’s more to do. Next time (in two weeks) we will begin to work out some of the details of those general assessment categories you wrote down, as well as how you will mark those assessments — if at all.
Thanks for reading this post and this series. What did I leave out, and what did I get wrong? Let me know in the comments.
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