Grading for what we want

Grading is a tough subject for FYS.

In the ideal seminar, students read and discuss essays, write and revise papers, and develop issue maps because these assignments are useful toward learning and intellectual growth.  In doing so they can earn an A.

A student who sees these assignments as production work toward scoring an A may look good for the short term, but learn little.

There are also students who struggle with papers, miss a few classes, give you all sorts of grief about the issue map, and learn a great deal for the long term.

Do they deserve an A, or a C?

We need to ask, “what are we trying to achieve, and are we rewarding these behaviors?”

We could form an issue map around this “wicked” problem:  the social expectations, economic consequences (financial aid), political/power (the institutional requirement to grade), and the need for learning all connect in an open system where no one node is independent of the others.

As a teacher my question has always been, “how do we assess/grade without destroying intrinsic motivation?”

Many FYS approach grading as somewhat of a pass/fail model.  All students start out with the presumption that they’ll exhibit the habits of mind of a critical thinker and earn an A.

Yes, it is possible for everyone to earn an A.  They are not competing against each other, but measuring themselves against a rubric.  If they exhibit the habits of mind that the rubric says are “A-level” work, then they’ve earned the grade.

For the student who got to QU on the strength of the traditional system (work hard, pass tests, get higher grades than everyone else) this system is disconcerting.  They seek the same rewards (and expect the same punishments) that put them on top.

As a reminder, these are the things we’re trying to foster:

  1. Critical thinking skills for identifying and working with complex problems
  2. The ability to seek, find, and benefit from diversity of thought, experience, and opinion.
  3. Reading, writing, and oral communication skills to create knowledge cooperatively, and to share knowledge with others

None of these say “follow rules (strict attendance), participate in class, or produce papers.”

Are the introverts paying for our extravert-oriented standards?

Are we rewarding compliance and wondering why we don’t have students eager to learn?  If we want students taking risks for the sake of learning, we had to reward it.

Some advisors (and an Associate Dean) have confronted me with stories of their students who otherwise have straight As in their major but have a D in FYS.

They want to know how a student can earn an A in anatomy, and history, and a D in FYS.

There could be many reasons.  Poor attitudes lead to poor attendance, lack of attentiveness, and missing work.   Some cases are clear – and we have retention alerts, mid-term grades, and withdrawal procedures to handle these.

In other cases we have misaligned grading expectations to the learning objectives.

No one is saying, “abandon rigor and award high marks to all who breath!”   We are saying that a student who finds herself on the path to authentic learning in week 14 is now meeting the learning objectives, despite prior poor performance.  What should we reward?

You can tell the difference between an honest transition to a growth mindset, and a new strategy in the game.  It can be like making sausage.  It’s not pretty, but in the end they’re a delight.  Please don’t penalize students for the early messy stuff.

If we want risk taking, that’s what we have to reward.


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