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Student perceptions of alternative grading systems
What do students say about alternative grading?
Spencer Bagley is an associate professor of mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Westminster University; he lives in Salt Lake City with his husband, two cats, and a large dog. He was previously an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics education from San Diego State University and UC San Diego. He conducts research in the scholarship of teaching and learning mathematics at the undergraduate level. He promotes active learning pedagogy in his teaching and research. He enjoys cooking, baking, knitting, good food, and a nice cup of tea. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lately I’ve been leading workshops at various universities and conferences for people who are interested in alternative grading systems, or AGSs. (Shameless plug — if you’d be interested in such a thing, please contact me!) Something that I frequently hear, after I have sung the praises of how these systems improve learning and are a form of equitable pedagogy and are a way to resist the commodification of students, is this:
“Well, but what do students think about these grading systems?”
It’s a useful and important question! In an environment of increasing precarity, where student evaluations of teaching (SETs1) play an outsized role in promotion and retention decisions, we have to think about the impact of any novel pedagogical move on these indicators. And even absent such concerns, it’s good to think about whether the benefits we tout are actually visible to the students we’re trying to help.
As somebody who’s been using a variety of AGSs for eight or so years now, and as a trained qualitative researcher, I felt like I was in a position to provide some kind of data-grounded answer to this question. I’m excited to share my results in this blog post, and I hope you’ll find them as useful as I did.
Before I describe my data, methods, and results, I should probably say a few words about the context of my institution and my grading systems. Since Fall 2018, I’ve taught at Westminster College (which
will be is now known as Westminster University as of July 1!), a small, private, comprehensive liberal arts institution in Salt Lake City, Utah. Westminster is a particular place: we have small class sizes (capped at 24 but generally much lower in Covid Times) and a culture that supports innovative pedagogy. In particular, most of us in the math department use some form of alternative grading in our classes.2
In the five-year period I’m looking at, I taught a variety of courses, from first-year “Learning Communities” to senior-year capstones, from introductory algebra to upper-division real analysis. I thus used a variety of different grading schemes: in, say, a precalculus or linear algebra course that mostly functions as a toolbox for later courses, I use a blend of specifications and standards-based approaches, but in upper-division proof-based courses, I use collaborative grading (a form of feedback-focused grading, sometimes called “ungrading”). I think that this diversity of approaches provides a usefully broad base for the common themes that emerged from student comments.
Data and methods
Okay, so what’s the data and what did I do with it? I took all my course feedback from my five years at Westminster3 and compiled all the comments students made about grading systems. I’ll pause here to note that I am a white man and therefore my SETs are generally less susceptible to the pervasive issues of bias experienced by scholars from more visibly marginalized backgrounds.
I did a first round of coding to categorize each comment as positive or negative, then looked for common themes in each group. In particular, I walked into this analysis with the Four Pillars in mind as a priori codes that I thought might show up in student feedback.
So what did students end up saying? I want to take you on a brief tour of the themes I found in the positive comments and the negative comments. (Perhaps in a future post, I’ll highlight the ways students responded to or resonated with the Four Pillars, but I’m omitting that analysis here for length reasons.) I’ll illustrate each theme with a representative comment or two, which I’ve lightly edited for clarity. To give a quantitative-flavored overview before the more detailed theme-by-theme analysis, I had 32 total comments, which broke down to 18 positive, 10 negative, and 4 split (where the student said both positive and negative things in one comment).
The first theme that emerged from this analysis is an idea that I’m coding as “understanding over grades:” AGSs are designed to draw your attention away from the marks that are assigned to particular work, and toward your actual understanding of course content. This was a pretty consistent theme, showing up in 10 of the 22 positive comments. Here’s a student from Calculus II in Spring 2022:
“It allowed me to focus on the actual learning aspect of the class and to not be so focused on the grading points. I ended up getting an A because I internalized the material that was covered.”
Another student from an introductory statistics class in Fall 2018 wrote:
“I was not as worried about the grade and more on making sure I understood the material.”
I was very gratified that this theme emerged, because it’s one of my consistent selling points to my students about AGSs. I was particularly glad to see this theme emerge across all course levels, and especially from the service courses that many students find overstuffed and unmotivated.
A second key theme that emerged is “learn from mistakes:” AGSs are designed to close the feedback loop, and to allow students opportunities to reflect on and learn from their mistakes in previous work. This was also a consistent theme, appearing in 10 of the 22 positive comments. A student from a precalculus course in Spring 2020 wrote:
“We are able to look at our assignments after the submission and fix what we have done incorrectly. He takes time to give us feedback on our assignments so that we can further our learning and understand what to do differently so that we are geniuses on everything math related.”
(I was very happy to read that a student in a precalculus course felt like a “genius.”)
Another student from Calculus II in Spring 2022 wrote:
“Being able to redo assignments is helpful because you can figure out what you did wrong and actually apply it and fix it rather than just accepting a bad grade.”
I was again gratified that this theme emerged, because it’s another one of the major selling points I discuss with students. What’s more, it shows that students recognize the key role of feedback loops in the learning process.
Before leaving the positives section, I’ll reproduce one more student comment, from an introductory statistics class in Fall 2019. It’s my favorite positive comment in this dataset because it reflected the student’s understanding of exactly what I was up to and exactly why:
“I appreciated the option to correct our mistakes in a meaningful way because it helped lead those of us who took advantage of the course layout to understand the subject matter more deeply.”
The reference to meaningful revision! The acceptance of shared responsibility for learning! The focus on deep understanding of subject matter! Chef’s kiss!
Of course it is not all kittens and rainbows in my course feedback; students have important and useful negative things to say about my use of AGSs. Each of these themes reflects a genuine opportunity for improvement in AGS implementation, and I’ll try to say something about how I think these complaints can be addressed as I discuss each theme.
The first theme I identified in negative feedback, which actually was reflected in virtually every negative comment (it occurred 10 times in the 14 negative comments), was that the grading system was unclear or confusing. For instance, this comment from my introductory statistics class in Fall 2018:
“Also, the grading system is extremely frustrating. It is not clear how to compute it, and I do not believe it provides a better way of learning.”
Similarly, here’s a comment from a group of students in a fundamentals of algebra course in Fall 2022, responding to a prompt about what they thought I should improve:
“More clear grading system (we liked the star/success/not yet system, but more clarity of what our letter grade would add up to be based on that system would be helpful)”
I wonder if “unclear” or “confusing” really means “unfamiliar” to these students; the sentiments they’re expressing remind me of the transparency discussion that we run into now and again. I think a reasonable way to address such concerns is to admit that they are correct, and to take some time near the beginning of the semester to acknowledge the unfamiliarity of AGSs. I also noted a common sub-theme of “computing” or “adding up” in many of these responses; students are used to adding up points, and I’m trying to refocus their attention on developing understanding.
A second theme of negative comments centered around grade tracking. Students are used to checking their overall percentage-based score on Canvas (or whatever other LMS), and it feels “disorienting” (said a student in my Calculus II class in Spring 2022) when that indicator either does not directly correspond with their letter grade or goes away entirely. Six of the 14 negative comments reflected this theme. One student in my precalculus class in Spring 2020 wrote:
“We were never able to see what our grades were during the course of the semester. This leads students to guess what their grade is in that class which I personally found annoying. I wish I could've seen what my grade was as a number.”
Here’s a comment from Calculus I in Fall 2019:
“One other thing I would change is I never knew how exactly I was doing in the course because there is no grade on canvas.”
Until and unless we can abolish grading entirely and uproot its fixed position in students’ minds (which, good luck to us all), it’s important to build grade tracking tools for students. For instance, I often make an interactive checklist like this one for a fundamentals of algebra course. This helps lower students’ stress about how they are doing -- and, if you build the tools correctly, helps refocus students on their understanding of course concepts. This is the bargain we’re making: we’re taking away the familiar numbers, and in return we’re providing better, more nuanced information about understanding.
Now, something I’ll add here is that I did, in fact, provide grade tracking tools of some sort to students in each of these semesters. (Another student in the same Calculus I class wrote, “I just wish I had found the interactive gradebook earlier, although that's totally on me as a student.”) Over the last few years, I’ve done more to require students to engage with the grade trackers; for instance, I’ve begun requiring them to fill out and turn in a grade tracker about midway through the course.
The last negative theme that emerged was about workload. Students feel a certain kind of way about no partial credit, and a system based on revisions can cause students to do more work than they feel is just. This theme only occurred in three of the 14 negative comments, but I think it’s nonetheless useful to examine carefully. I’d like to dig into one comment in depth here, because I think it’s perhaps the most interesting of all the comments in my corpus. This is from a student in an introductory statistics class in Fall 2018; for context, the student is talking about weekly written assignments that I graded on an EMPX scale with revisions completed out of class.
“The grading scale used is very confusing. Although you have the chance to revise anything below a P, work stacks up. I work 16-24 hours a week outside of school, and have two other writing intensive classes. I just couldn’t keep up with redoing assignments. So I might fail because I did poorly on writing assignments, even though I did them. I put in the work, and I’d expect that shouldn’t disqualify me from the possibility to pass the class.”
It’s certainly true of AGSs that students who don’t immediately grasp course ideas have to put in more time to earn the grade they want than students who do better with the material the first time around. Furthermore, it’s very true that students tend to have extracurricular demands on their time, though we wish we could pretend otherwise (and I think we should spend some time thinking about the equity implications here, and thus account for reassessment workload when we are planning classes).
Where I start to disagree with this student is that I don’t think work alone should equate to a passing grade. I suspect this student, like many others, has come to expect this because of the availability of partial credit in points-based systems: if you hand in all the work and do an okay job on most of it, then you will probably accrue enough points to eke out a C. But this is precisely the thing I’m fighting against; I want a passing grade in a course to be tied to the quality of a student’s demonstrated understanding, rather than the quantity of their work.
How, then, to address this critique with students? I think this is a particularly hard one, but ultimately I want to rely on a shared understanding of the purpose of education. I hope we can convince students that the purpose of taking a course is to gain understanding — which may take more time and more effort than you expect! — rather than to earn a grade.
I left this analysis feeling pretty hopeful about student perceptions of AGSs. In some sense, my results were unsurprising: if you had asked me to predict what students would say before I looked at these comments, I think I would have pretty much come up with this list. It seems like students generally saw the benefits that I hoped they would see, and the negatives they identified were both reasonably grounded in reality and mostly fixable by making improvements to the system.
I’d like to conclude with a few takeaways inspired by the themes I identified in this analysis. First, it’s worth discussing with students the benefits of AGSs. It seems like these messages really do land with students, especially after they experience the system through an entire semester. Personally, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on this on day 1 — I find that the system and its benefits are more legible to students after they’ve been through a full submission-feedback-revision cycle — but it is a valuable use of class time.
Second, it’s important to build some kind of grade tracking tools to replace the ones that students have come to expect by default (e.g., the totals columns on Canvas). This is true whether you’re using, say, a standards-based system where a checklist of some kind is appropriate, or a collaborative grading system, where a grade tracking tool is perhaps more abstract and reflective.
Third, as Thoreau wrote, “simplify, simplify, simplify!” Robert and David say that a lot around here, and that’s because it’s vital. An AGS is always going to be different from what students are used to; so much the worse if it is also complicated. Find ways to reduce the amount of calculating students are tempted to do; make your grade tracking tools easy to use; scaffold revisions as much as possible. Your AGS should be transparent, in the sense that you can look clean through it to see the content on the other side.
Finally, think about the workload your reassessment or revision system will impose on students (and on yourself!). Especially if you are building a system that relies on revisions completed during homework time, consider scaling back on the number or length of homework sets you’ve given previously.
If you’ve been on the fence about implementing an AGS because you were worried about how students might respond, I hope this work helps you feel better about taking the leap!
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I don’t personally use this term because students are, definitionally, not qualified evaluators of pedagogy. Instead, I use the term “student course feedback” to emphasize the reasonable role that students can take in reflecting on their experience participating in the course.
This is an important way in which my results are not necessarily representative. If you are the only alt grader in your department, I suspect you may receive a different balance of feedback than I did.
I know there’s interesting stuff from students at my previous institution, but I couldn’t put my hands on that data so readily. File this under “future work,” lol.