What to do before you do alternative grading
Possibly the best place to start is with questions.
Some of you might be in the following situation: You've learned a lot about alternative grading. You've become convinced that moving toward grading practices that involve one or more of the Four Pillars is a good idea. And you're not just convinced that alternative grading is a good idea in theory, but that it's a doable idea in practice and is something that you can see yourself using. So you're ready for the next steps: To commit to changing how you grade, starting as soon as possible, perhaps even this Fall (which is getting closer every day); and planning the details of how you will do it.
If this is you, then congratulations: You're making a choice that will help your students, and also help you. But before you start planning your syllabus, you should also know that there are some preliminaries that need your attention.
If you're traveling to a new country, you won't get the most out of the experience unless you've first done some research on the culture, language, and geography of the place. Likewise, to have an experience with alternative grading (or any teaching innovation) that is as successful and satisfying as possible, it helps to start by learning the lay of the land, by asking some important questions about your situation, before diving into the details. In this post, we'll describe some of these questions and how they fit into your planning process. Think of this as "Step 0" in the process of implementing alternative grading. They may not be questions about grading, but they surface information that will affect your process and philosophy of evaluating student work.
The framework for these questions is called The Five W's, because they center on five questions that, well, start with the letter "W": who, what, when, where, and why. You'll use them to gather information about the entire context of your teaching as you think about how you will help students grow.
Teaching is predicated on human relationships, so it's appropriate to start with the humans involved, specifically:
Who are the students in the class? Even if you don't have a class roster yet, you can still learn about the students you will eventually have. Who typically takes this class? How new or experienced are they likely to be? What are their majors? What might their life experiences and situations be like at the moment? What other activities and commitments might they have, that you should know about? What prior knowledge might they have? What are their goals? Their perception of the subject and your discipline? Their past experiences in school that might shape their present perceptions? Their preferred modes for learning?
Who are the other stakeholders of your class? Don't be scared of the business-y sounding word "stakeholder"; it just means a person or group with an interest or concern in something. Who else besides you and your students would be a stakeholder in your course? For example, is your course a general education requirement? Is it a prerequisite for some other course in your department, or in some other department? Are there people or programs "downstream" from your course who might care about what goes on in your course, or about the outcomes? Don't limit yourself just to stakeholders within your institution; other stakeholders might include graduate programs at other institutions, the community in which you live or your students work; the families of your students; and more.
Who are YOU? Don't leave yourself out! You are one of the most important stakeholders in the course. And you are not a grading machine: You are a human being with a multifaceted life and a responsibility to make choices about how you set up your course that are compatible with your entire life. So: What's your work situation? Are you tenured, tenure-track but pre-tenure, contingent, or something else? What's your rank and status? What is your experience level with the course, with these students, with your professional surroundings? Do you have a professional support network or a group of trusted colleagues to whom you can go for help or commiseration? And what about life outside work? Do you have family or personal responsibilities that need your attention? Do you get enough rest and exercise? Are you energized? Are you in a space where you feel confident to try something new at work without it spilling over into your personal life? If (when) things go wrong, how confident are you in your ability to make it work out alright in the end?
We also want to know about the course itself, such as:
What is the course about? What are the main points the course tries to convey, or the main body of knowledge the course teaches? What, generally speaking, are students supposed to learn by taking the course? (Note: Later on, the answer to that question will morph into your Clearly Defined Standards.) Beyond that, what is the storyline of the course? Who/what are the main protagonists and antagonists? What is the plot? How do the “characters” develop over time?
What level of creative control do you have? Do you have complete creative control, or are you operating under structural or systemic constraints? For example, are the learning objectives given to you by the department or some other third party? Is there a common final exam that has to count for a certain amount of the course grade? Is your course part of a coordinated collection of sections? Or part of an un-coordinated group of sections with implicit expectations of consistency? In other words — How much freedom to you have to mess around with the grading system in this course, and to what extent do you need to meet external requirements or expectation in grading? (See "Who are the other stakeholders in your class?" above.)
Please note: A clear view of constraints often turns into a temptation to give up. When you want to do ungrading but realize, for example, that you have to have a common final exam that counts for 25% of the course grade, a part of your brain will say I can’t do this. The same is true for any constraint, such as large class sizes or a 4-4 teaching load. You have to listen to those concerns, but don’t give up hope! As the saying goes, creativity loves constraints. Constraints aren’t a “no” to your plans; they are just a call for creative thinking. Have a look at some of our case studies (for example here, here, here) and plug in to a supportive community of practice for inspiration.
The timing of a class is a huge factor in how you choose to evaluate student work. (For example, see my recent post about doing specifications grading in a six-week long summer class.) You’ll want to get some possibly uncomfortable clarity on questions such as:
What's the academic calendar? When are you thinking of implementing a new grading system? Answer that question first. Then ask: On what date does the next academic term begin? By what date will you need to have the course built and ready to launch if you plan to roll out a new grading system in that term? And if that's the date the course must be 100% ready, then by what date should the "alpha" and "beta" versions of your course be ready?
Let me expand on this item a little, in a way that will make some of you unhappy. Right now, it’s the middle of June. If I wanted to roll out a new grading system this Fall, the start of the semester is about 80 days, or about 11 weeks, away. That seems like the far future right now, but realize two things: First, this time will move by impossibly quickly, as it always does in the summer. Second, while classes may start in 80 days, you will need to have a prototype of the grading system a lot earlier than that — maybe 30 days earlier, to give you a month to test it, live with it, and make final changes. So now we’re down to 50 days, or about 7 weeks, which is a lot closer than we think. So you have to maintain awareness of the calendar, and plan accordingly.
If you’ve read my origin story, you’ll probably realize that this is not the advice that I myself followed when I first started with specifications grading. Back in 2014, I went from zero knowledge to a full implementation in less than four weeks. So why be so neurotic about planning? Well, if you recall the entire origin story, you’ll remember that my first attempt was, to put it mildly, not the greatest — primarily because I didn’t bother to test my system, run different scenarios, or get any kind of feedback on what I was planning. Everyone would have benefitted from me starting earlier and working in a more meticulous way. Look, I know that academics aren't well known for their outstanding time and project management skills. But this is one area where I insist that you have to go against the absent-minded professor trend. Start early and take your time. You and your students will thank you later.
Back to the questions:
What's the schedule for course meetings? Does your course have synchronous meetings? If so, then what days of the week are they, what time of the day are they, and how long does each one last? And given the times and frequencies of course meetings, when will you evaluate and grade student work? A class that meets Tuesday/Thursday has a different profile for when you sit down to evaluate student work than does a Monday/Wednesday/Friday class, or a class that only meets on Tuesday nights. And if your class is asynchronous, this also changes the answer of when you will schedule the time for grading and your pace of returning feedback to students.
I don’t think we talk enough about how the space that a class occupies — physical, virtual, or a combination — affects how student work takes place and is evaluated. But as I've written elsewhere, space is just as much a part of the student educational experience as technology and pedagogy:
What is the modality of the course? Is it in-person, synchronous online, asynchronous online, hybrid, hyflex? If there are significant online components to the course, this may change the kinds of assessments you choose to give (especially if you or your stakeholders have concerns about academic dishonesty in online settings) and therefore the kinds and amounts of grading you do, and how those assessments factor into the course grade. The same is true if some or all of the course is conducted in person.
Where will the class meet? If there are meetings at all (i.e. the course is not 100% asynchronous) then where do the meetings take place? In a room, online, or both? If there's a physical space involved, what sort of space is it: A giant lecture hall with fixed stadium-style seats, a traditional but smaller classroom, a dedicated active learning space, or something else? While the physical location may not impact the process of evaluating student work, it definitely impacts the kinds of activities during class that students can do, which has a subsequent effect on assessments.
Where do student activities take place? Related, where do students do the active learning that will prepare them for the assessments that you will use in your grading system? This matters; if student activities take place primarily in an online discussion board or a social annotation tool, then students will have a different experience, and be differently prepared for assessments, than if they primarily work in a small seminar room, or a big lecture hall.
We probably should have asked this group of questions first, because being clear on the underlying "Why" of doing anything significant, grading or otherwise, is essential to get the most out of the experience.
Why does the course exist? Why is it offered at all? What is its relationship to the rest of the curriculum in that discipline, and beyond the discipline? Why did some faculty committee in the past decide that this was a course that ought to occupy space in an already-overcrowded set of classes?
Why do students typically take the course? (This is related to the Who? question.) Is it required for everyone? For anyone? Is it a general education class, an introductory course in the major, an advanced course in the major, a completely free elective? Is it a course intended for pre-service teachers, for students heading to graduate school, or something else? Is it a course that people take because they like a challenge, or because they need an easy "A", or something else?
Why are you teaching the course? What are your goals for this course? What do you hope to accomplish by teaching it, and especially by using an alternative grading system in it? Did you choose to teach this course, or was it assigned to you by someone else? Is it a course that you enjoy teaching, one that you don't enjoy teaching but are teaching it anyway, or one that you don't mind teaching but aren't really enthusiastic about it? Have you taught it before, or not?If you have taught it before, what are your intentions: To evolve the course into something better (starting with the grading system), to pitch in and help because the department needed someone to teach it, or something else? If you haven't taught the course before, why are you doing it now: To expand your portfolio of courses taught, to reach a student population you haven't worked with before, to challenge yourself, or something else? And, importantly, are you absolutely sure you have the bandwidth to both learn a new course and implement a non-standard grading system in it? Again: What are your goals, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Suggestion: Take your answers to the Why questions and put them on a 3x5 index card that you keep with you and your teaching materials, then pull it out from time to time, especially when things aren't going well in the course, to remind yourself and reconnect with your ultimate goals.
If you can address even half of these questions, including most of the Why questions, then you are definitely on a solid footing to begin to think about how to grade differently in the course.
This takes some time and effort, obviously. You might consider taking an entire day in the next 2-3 weeks to clear your calendar, get away from your normal context, and spend at least a morning with a pen, a notebook, and a beverage of choice, in uninterrupted focus time just exploring and answering these questions. Keep your responses handy, because as you start to work on the technical details of your course and your adventure into alternative grading, those responses will keep you grounded and moving in the right direction.
What questions did I leave out? What questions do you have about the questions you read about? Let us know in the comments.
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David and I are of different minds on the question of whether you should try alternative grading with a course that you’ve never taught before. My belief is that as long as you are aware of what you’re getting into — for example by asking a lot of the questions in this post — and have a reasonable sense of how the course will work and a plan for collecting and acting upon regular student feedback, then fortune favors the bold, and you should totally dive into the deep end and iterate/figure it out as you go. David takes a more cautious (some would say, a more sane) approach and would say that under no circumstances should you debut an alternative grading system unless you have gone through the course at least once.