Who Ya Calling a Grader?

There’s a lot of twitter talk (don’t ask me to define “a lot”) of #Ungrading or as the Inside Higher Education article being batted around today calls it When Grading Less is More.

I’m not sure where the locus is here- there’s seems a bandwagon jumping on teaching gradeless, which is, as most will say, a big leap from how we have taught/learned before. Jesse Strommel has been ahead of the curve on this in championing but also in his practice. And people I respect like Maha Bali and Ken Bauer have been working it through too on their blogs.

It’s a bit easy to shrug off a change in approach to grading because the system requires one to be given; there is a lot of room to change how that process is done.

Someone I respect well who I don’t see quoted on this issue is Lisa Lane, who wrote eloquently on a somewhat contrarian view this past January on Doing Grades Well. Among many things I respect about Lisa are is her devotion to teaching and also how she is not just spouting theory; in pedagogy and technology she thoroughly tries out everything she talks about.

The point that Lisa brings (among many) is that she sees what we are grading is the work, not the student.

This is where the idea of grading students is the problem. I’ve seen it technologically embedded into systems: “student grade”, “assign the student a grade”, etc. We don’t grade students; we grade work. Judging other people, particularly people whom you know only through one small life window, is wrong. I have had students say to me, “I hope you don’t think less of me because I did a bad job on this paper.” Of course I don’t — what on earth gave them that idea? Well, years of school where the grade was used to represent them, when someone punished them for poor grades, when they were called a “D student”.


There are no D students. But there is D work. And there is a D that goes with compassion, that says, I’m sorry but this work wasn’t up to the standard, and here’s why. Please let me help you as we go through the course. Let me find you the services you need. I’ll sit in my office and listen to you cry even when I’m supposed to be at a meeting. What I don’t want to do is change your C to an A because you need it to make your family proud or because you really need it to get into another class. If I do this, I am not doing my job well. I’m doing it poorly. I know it and so do you. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.

http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/musings/doing-grades-well/

As a student I did not really mind grades at all. That’s because I learned early how the grade game is played, and because I remembered stuff and got good at taking tests, good grades were easy. It was the thing I did to move along in programs so I could focus more on what made me curious. It certainly was not exam cramming that made me hungry to learn. It was not some treadmill of direct instruction.

In teaching I have done little in traditional grading (yes my teaching has been predominantly in media and creativity, and a lot online, so maybe just dismiss me as teaching something not content driven, shrug).

So I don’t have much ungrading to do.

I don’t use textbooks, open or not. I don’t give quizzes or exams or assign traditional essays. The approach I have taken (yes grumpy man it’s a constructivist zombie one) is that I grade students on the way they document, reflect, explain, narrate on the web sites they own. It’s a “Show The Work!” approach.

For media creation assignments, I am not grading the quality or aesthetic of the media, but how students are able to explain, in their own words (a) their thinking and approach to coming up with an idea for the assignment (b) their own documentation of how they made it, and attributing of resources; and (c) how they relate what they produces to the specifications of the assignment and/or what it means to them. My students are free to do an assignment differently than what I wrote if they can write a rationale for it. And show it.

So they grade is not what I do to them, it is a reflection on how they provide a body of work of this evidence of their own work, growth, including other links that support the documentation of their work. In NetNarr, I have them use the link that shows where they are and their activity in the Twitter space, a link to their Hypothes.is annotation tracks (see how the syndication setup makes these evident). They can also use a link from the Daily Digital Alchemies which clearly shows their work (e.g. found on the leaderboard).

But I don’t use this as a data-driven approach; these are all the materials students can use on their last reflection to demonstrate and narrate their work.

We do Grade Contracts as well; I have them submit their choices in a form on the site powered by Gravity Forms. They get an email confirmation of their choice. At the mid semester point, I trigger a resending of that, and ask them to email us back with a statement of how they think they are doing. And we ask them at the end of the class to self-evaluate according to the contract.

This kind of holistic approach was something we did in teaching DS106 back in 2012 at University of Mary Washington. I borrowed the approach of Jim Groom in having brief (5-10 minute) end of semester conversations with the students, where they were asked to describe their arc of progress in the class and assign themselves a grade.

The memory I also lean on from this experience was a kid named Danny, who always sat in the back of the room with a hoodie on and face half hidden by a laptop. I might have assumed he was tuned out. But when he explained in that interview, his coming to understanding of remix culture and weaving an arc into a story, I realized he was more tuned in to me than I was to him. In fact, in the last 2 weeks of class he filmed a bit of me to use in his final project (I think I played the role of the boring professor).

The thing I do acknowledge is that students look for some gauge of their progress in the course, typically gauged on that letter grade scale. But students also know if they are doing the work, if they are present or daydreaming, do we need points and letters to confirm? I am all for having means of showing, and if need be, grading the work. They get continual feedback via email, blog comments, private messages.

So yeah, I enter letter grades into some administrative database. But I am not always the driver of a grading machine, we drive together.

I don’t want to sound like I am critical of the grade system, there ought to be some level of indication of how well the work is done. Like Lisa Lane wrote, I want to be doing it well, and doing it well. I am not saying there is one single approach for all learning, and would hardly think anyone apply my approaches to all teaching.


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