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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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