Does How You Grade Really Matter?

In a previous blog post, I’d started the conversation about College Bridge’s movement toward Learning-Based Grading initiatives. In it, I discussed the use of the term Learning-Based vs Mastery, as well as the growing need for understanding equity in grading in the COVID-19 and recovery era. Doing this, I make some fundamental assumptions, which since that blog was released, have brought to light a need for a longer conversation.

So, in this post, I want to pose the question to any reader, does how you grade really matter? When I was an instructional designer at my previous institution, grading consultations were one of my favorite and most dreaded consultations to have. They were my favorite, because if the consult went well, I knew I could help the instructor with an issue which likely ate up time and caused them stress. Making any instructor’s teaching life and practice easier was always my goal, so those wins were the best I could get. But I still dreaded them because grading, even in the mechanics of using a Learning Management System’s gradebook, are very layered conversations. What you grade, how you grade, calculating it, sharing it, and distributing it are all very personal reflections of someone’s teaching philosophy. And, in my experience, in higher education, there isn’t a lot of practice given to new instructors on their teaching philosophy or the mechanics of grading could or should be. Yes, that is changing, and I really want to shout out to all the folks in higher education making the dent towards new grading frontiers. But at the largely minority-serving public institution I worked at, with nearly 1,200 teaching faculty, it was still more often than not, that I met with faculty who hadn’t spent a lot of time reflecting on their grading.

What did I do then? Well, fortunately, my center had a workshop on using the LMS’ gradebook, which often served as an initial contact point for myself and faculty about this topic. In that workshop, we had a slated set of tools to demonstrate gradebook setups we liked, even some “grading hacks” that cut down on workload, but essentially, we propagated two main types of grading systems, points based and weighted averages. In an example of form informing function and being the agent for keeping things the same, we emphasized those two styles because they were what the LMS’ system was really good at doing. Any assignment or course artifact which students were expected to do could earn points. Those points could either be counted and totaled in raw expressions of points earned out of points possible, or averaged and weighted by groups. Nearly every faculty member in that workshop or in an individual consultation used one of those systems. Often, they’d done it either because the course syllabus had already described it, or it’s what they had recently experienced. Thinking back to my training and credential program, I remember essentially being taught or shown the same practices, so I’d assumed it the norm. But is it? Or even, does it make a lot of sense?

Let’s go back a moment to a phrase I used, course artifact. What’s that? As a term, I mean a course artifact to be any handout, paper, quiz, project, or presentation to which students interact with and, in theory, use to demonstrate their learning from a course. In a high-level view, I’ve always considered courses to be combinations of course artifacts, learning materials (books, videos, content, lectures), and instructional activities. The interplay of these things creates the learning experience which instructors must use to approximate whether learning happens. A lot of times however, those high-level things I saw simply existed together, without deep consideration to their interplay toward the learning experience. Now, I don’t mean that to be a judgmental statement, but without formal training in teaching, all of us will simply imitate how we were taught. It’s natural, and in the theories of education, basically the foundation of socio-cultural learning theory. We see and then we do as we see done. Habit informs practice, and slowly, it becomes the way things are done.

When jolted out of that system though, we often start to see that what makes our course is essentially things existing with varied level of interconnectedness. It’s no wonder then, why instructors were frustrated when being forced to grade and share progress immediately, as happened as consequence of the pandemic, that conversations about grading started to pick up.

So, I want to do that here, in whichever medium you see this blog appearing, can you share or reply with how you think the way you grade really matters?

We’ll be soliciting responses for this question for about a week before replying, so please share what you think. Please share your story in the comments below, or if you’d rather share a response more privately, you can use this form for sharing why you think how you grade really matters.

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So, What Is Learning-Based Grading?

To start, you’d have to take a very long perspective on the history of grading in the United States. Doing that, I’d much rather refer you to the works of Matt Townsley, Thomas Guskey, or Joe Feldman, whose expositions on this topic I’ve found the most interesting. You can catch a lot of that mixed into their various publications and blogs. But in all honesty, anyone’s perspective and history on the subject is fine. Instead, we can work with public opinion, or common definitions and notions of what grading is about. For the sake of this blog post, let’s take the notion that grading in this country is about the learning and ranking of our students in a given discipline. It’s a shorthand report on progress from teacher, to parent, administrator, and student. But is that what it really means these days? In light of the pandemic, many, many questions and concerns about equity, bias, and grading have expanded, and not all with consistent answers to them. Arguably, I’d say that grading, as most people consider it, is much more about ranking and accountability than learning.

In many sectors, that’s alright. In fact, that’s downright useful for most of us. Take for example in Los Angeles County’s Public Health rankings for restaurants. The letter grades, A to F, are designed to quickly tell patrons a rough level of ranked quality. As a business standard each letter, A being highest F being lowest, tells you how closely a particular restaurant is meeting health code. That’s very useful information when deciding on a place to eat. Most of us would hope that following that health code would mean that it’s a good place to eat. And, in all honesty yes, that correlation is true. But a Public Health score of A for a restaurant doesn’t mean the food’s taste, ambiance, or necessarily service will be any good. Sometimes, we might use that information to stand in for those other categories, but more often than not, we quickly turn to another rating system. Maybe we go with number of stars on Yelp or Zagat Surveys. Either way, we know that those letter grades are only one dimension of understanding how well a place performs at it’s given task.

So, let’s apply that back to the notion of grading in education. Ideally, learning is the task we care about in our grades. But learning is a kind of complicated and not always a direct process from student to student. Many folks would accept the idea that people all learn at different rates, but does that mean we should rank the rates at which they learn? Probably not. Natural ability and the multifaceted components of what it takes to go from novice to expert in any area are complex and deeply personal. In fact, we’ve all likely experienced this process whereby we wanted to get better at something and had those hopes dashed by being measured to how fast someone else learned it. Not so helpful there for learning. Instead, to focus on learning, for the learner, we’d want to consider how that interaction between expert and novice is developed. Namely, how feedback about what we are doing better lets us do that very thing.

Enter Learning-Based Grading, our catch-all term for the types of grading which emphasize these feedback loops. Taking from broad, non-traditional approaches to grading, Learning-Based Grading does exactly as its name implies, it bases grades off learning. Now, with this comes some serious philosophical as well as psychometric changes to how we work in the current educational paradigm. But for now, it’s sufficient to say it puts the focus back on the real job of education, caring about and demonstrating what students learn. For our part, we’ve decided to ramp up our message for this belief in a learning and the approach to systemic change for education. Learning-Based Grading won’t be a silver bullet, fixing everything that’s wrong, but it’s one step of many in the right direction.

Please share your experiences with grading in the comments below, or if you prefer to share anonymously, use our form on stories about grades. You can also check out more about our learning-based grading professional development on our website. Or read more about our stances on all kinds of topics and trends in education in our blog.

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Did Your Grades Reflect What You Learned?

As an organization, we strongly believe in the notion that grades should reflect learning. It’s a matter of best practice and equity. If schools are about learning, then the measurements we use should fit that. In experience however, we know that that isn’t always the case. One moment that sticks with me is one which, ironically, came from one of my classes about equity in schools during my Master of Teaching. The course was an introduction into the various contexts of high-needs schools and the systemic polices which often misrepresent students’ achievement and learning. We’d spent a fair amount of time reading and analyzing arguments against several rigid policies and notions of zero tolerance which can unjustly skew grades from late work and absences. Without going into too much detail, the main points were meant to remind us, as future teachers, to be kind and flexible with our students. We won’t always know if a disruptive life event happens, but when they do, inflexible policies often mean that students’ grades suffer for an event outside of their control, rather than reflect what they learned. It was after that lecture and rousing class discussion that I got to experience all of what we talked about firsthand when my son was born nearly a month early.

According to the course plan I had worked out, I would be at a natural slow point in the term around my son’s anticipated due date. That meant I’d have a short break when he was born and no large assignments due. That plan, however, didn’t exactly keep. Of the three classes I was taking that term, everyone had something due the week my son was born. That class about equity in schools, of course, had a larger paper due. I couldn’t do it, not then anyway, as my son was just born and borderline premature. So, I had to delay turning it in. I had to delay all my course work and miss classes. For two weeks I was out. I did, of course, message my professors about this and they were all congratulatory and dismissive of the disruption, but not in practice.

When I eventually returned to classes and submitted all my missing work, my grade wasn’t updated in that course on equity. At first I was worried, but all of my classmates had a similar issue. Eventually, our professor announced in class that he’d gotten behind on grading, but not to worry, we were all doing great. With bigger things in my life to distract me, I took the statement at face value, like all my classmates, and soldiered on the rest of the term. On the final day of class, our professor opted to meet with students individually to review our grades and let us know some other personal feedback. When we met, he told me how much he’d liked my input during class discussions and the thoroughness of my writing, but he was going to have to dock me points for so many late assignments. I reminded him that my many assignments (one paper and two online discussions) were from when my son was born, and I’d emailed about them being late. He acknowledged that, but then said he had a strict policy on late work and that I should have taken more steps to keep up with my studies.

In hindsight, I know I should have appealed the grade and reported the professor, but we can’t always deal with confrontations when we’re so stressed and tired, so I didn’t. But the lessons stuck with me. That grade, my only B in an otherwise all A’s MA program, were from my son being born early. Not from my learning about equity in schools, and especially not from learning what the impact of strict grade policies can be.

I know I’m not the only person to have a story like this. All of us at College Bridge remember, at least one time, we had a class where we earned a grade that had less to do with what we learned and a lot to do with other things. So, we realized, we really should know, with our ongoing work in grading and learning, what you think?

To that end, did your grades reflect what you learned?

In whatever medium you’re viewing this blog, we do want to know. Please share your story in the comments below, or if you prefer to share anonymously, use our form on stories about grades. We’ll actively monitor the responses for the next week or so and continue to reply.

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Learning-Based Grading, Stepping Towards a More Equitable Gradebook

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and “Great Pivot” to online/remote learning, the question of equity in grading was already a historic debate for instructors, administrators, counselors, parents, researchers, and students alike. Our A-F grading system is an essential part of our entire educational system’s enterprise, but it is wholly and woefully antiquated. One noted expert and researcher on this topic, Dr. Thomas Guskey, often lamented that from theory to practice, no gap is wider than that of the one for grading. In the post-pandemic classroom, the need to update our grading system couldn’t be more apparent. A reconsideration of our grading system is especially important now, in California, as we consider the impacts of AB 104. For those who may not know, AB 104 gives students the choice to change their grades from ABCDF to Pass/Not Pass during the remote instruction years from Spring 2020 to Spring 2021.

Well, what does this change to pass/no pass do? It helps the students remove grades that may hurt their reporting GPAs for their admissions to colleges and universities. As solutions go, it’s broad, sweeping and will have some seriously interesting impacts over the coming decade (more on that in another blog). It’s also a well-meaning solution, but one that doesn’t entirely approach the issue of inequity in grading.

So, what does it mean for grading? Directly, very little. This is essentially a one-off solution to the longer problem in our grading system, which is that traditional letter grades do not accurately represent learning.

Now there are plenty of folks and organizations out there all discussing this issue and providing their solutions. For College Bridge, we have something to say about this, too. We feel that the time has come to make grading be about learning, hence, Learning-Based Grading.

Learning-Based Grading is our answer to a broad topic and umbrella of terms which have also been called “Mastery Grading.” Our friends in the Higher Ed world have been championing this approach to Mastery Grading for a few years now and have put on some pretty awesome conferences about the topic. But, without mincing words about it, the term Mastery Grading isn’t particularly popular or overwhelmingly insightful as to what makes it different from any other grading system.

To understand our jump to learning-based from mastery grading, we want to consider the issues with the term Mastery. The word Mastery is problematic. Mastery implies a finality or perfection to a task. Masters are treated in superiority to their disciples in the Mastery, Journeyman, Apprentice system, and it plays into a power dynamic that should not be in learning.

Learning is iterative, it takes time, practice, and repetition. Perfection of a task isn’t perfect but increases the number of times we can get the same outcome. The role of experience with instructors and teachers should be that of a facilitator or coach, providing learners with specific feedback about what they are learning. Not points or comments that push a competition to superiority, but one which thrives toward ongoing excellence.

Additionally, and connected to the problems of superiority, Mastery, as a term, is steeped in racism and ideologies of slavery. On that reason alone, it should be dropped. But, like most complex associations of words and their meanings it’s not that simple. We should take an approach to removing these terms from our lexicon, but they are pervasive. Because the phrase is simple and conveys a relatable thought, it continues to be used. Replacement phrases or idioms must pack in as much agreement in their meaning as in their context to the web of ideas it’s connected to. So, coining term replacements can be tricky. But we are making that commitment now.

We don’t suggest changing the grading system wholly right now but rather recommend a process of purposeful change. With that, we offer opportunities to join us in the exploration of learning-based grading to bring a new, systemic change to your site.

Click here to see more about our Learning-Based Grading PDs.

It’s Time to Set the Precedent, Remote Instruction Wasn’t All Bad

Remote Instruction Wasn't Bad

In the world of education, one of those words that no one wants to hear anymore is “unprecedented”. As a year, 2020 was completely unprecedented, and 2021 is easily following suit. But as we in education live between the times of calendar years and academic years, the influence, impacts, and perception of time from Pandemic Caused Remote Instruction,will likely be felt and measured for decades to come. Not wanting to take a bleak view of this, the College Bridge team has tried to take the most pragmatic stance we can by looking at what good things and bad things have come about from this change. But in doing that, we found it was hard to take the next steps necessary to shape recovery, being positive. So, we’ve decided to go a step past pragmatism and venture into the world of optimism and say, there were some good things, and we really need to celebrate and focus on those. So, let’s make good, the precedent we set from this time forward.

Supporting this, we’ve created a series of online events to bring together practitioners in the field of K-16 STEM education to share how things have gone and what we want to use to set precedent. The topics and nature of these events were framed by our large-scale research project on the impacts on STEM education during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while we know this is not a wholly new or unique idea at the moment, our series is focused on the practitioner; that teacher, instructor, or professor still working within the classroom or its support, for sharing their stories and celebrating successes.

Paramount to findings we’ve had and the perspectives of our partners, we know it is essential to start changing the narrative around Pandemic Caused Remote Instruction. Yes, before all else, we want to acknowledge, affirm, understand, and completely empathize with the fact that this past year in education has been hard, draining, exhaustive, impossible, or even “unprecedented”. There’s a pandemic, systemic inequalities, and lingering political upheavals that are being felt and dealt with in all our lives. But, we can’t only dwell on that, nor can we make it the foundation on what we rebuild and strive to make better. There have been some important and good things which have shaken the core of education in the U.S. Even more than that, there’s an important frame which our founder and CEO has summed into an easy question.

Do you really want to go back to how it was?

The answer, of course not! We can’t go back to the old school. We need to go forward into tomorrow. But how; which ways do we go and which practices do we keep? To start, I thought I’d share a glimpse of some findings from our coming report “An analysis from Remotely Taught Math Students: Distance Learning Isn’t as Bad as People Think.”

Students who described a positive experience nearly always talk about learning more or engaging more with their class, content, or teacher than they had previously. Negative responses on the other hand, emphasize disruptive environments or many so-called “non-cognitive” or affective barriers; stress, distraction, trouble focusing issues, family stressors, etc. While neutral comments, again, behave in this nearly transitory place shifting from being about affective barriers to what they are learning, broadly appearing in the chart below.


Student Comments about Distance Learning (N=1,710)

Selected student responses with minor edits for clarity:

Positive: “I prefer distance learning in terms of math because it seems more personalized, it feels like I’m being taught directly instead of a group because there’s no tangible peer or social pressure. Also, the teachers were forced to cater to the students’ needs because we are distanced. I feel like this was the most explicit care and attention I have had as a student, compared to in-person school.”

Negative: “It’s very hard to focus because I’m in one room most of the day so it feels like I’m trapped.”

Neutral: “My experience in distance learning is quite interesting since I am not getting the full experience when I’m actually at the school.  I am used to be being in school, but distance learning gave me a new perspective of learning things. It might take forever to go to each topic, but understanding is the key part.”

Student responses to this question helped us understand that there are those benefiting from distance learning and a direction as to why. That “why” and comparative discussion is forthcoming. But the easiest takeaway, students were still learning and probably better than many folks thought.

For now, we wanted to end with a teaser of our coming forum and call to action, that this is the time for all practitioners to start thinking about the kind of 21st century education they want to see. The kind of educational system that can reduce inequity, grow our students, and meet the needs of every learner.

Nearly everyone has something positive to say about a learning management system or LMS. Be it a simple structure to online classes with Google Classroom to something more robust, like Canvas. LMSs provide a wonderful way to keep track of your class. They give assignments place and longevity, which allows students as well as instructors to more honestly see where they’ve been, where they’re going, and importantly, what I missed when I was absent.

Each instructor has a cool new tool they’ve used, but what kinds of activities have we gotten to do because of Desmos or heck, even Zoom?!

How much easier is it to test or even grade homework??

Come find out some of the incredible stories and experiences of our experts. Visit our K-16 Academic Programs for more information.