What are we rewarding?

Grading is a tough subject for FYS.

In our FYS course design the writing assignments are designed to reinforce the learning. They’re meant to have students reflect on what they’ve done, and why.  They also ask students to predict how their work might be useful in the near and long term.

A student who sees these assignments as production work toward scoring an A may look good at first, but contain little thought. There are also students who struggle with papers, miss a few classes, give you all sorts of grief about everything, and learn a great deal for the long term.

Do the struggling students deserve an A, or a C?  Before we can answer this 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.

It’s a great guiding question! How do we assess/grade without destroying intrinsic motivation?  

Many FYS faculty 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 the learning objectives.  If they exhibit the habits of mind that demanded of them in week 15, should we hold week one against them?  Should we penalize them for taking risks and learning?

As a reminder, we’re asking students to achieve by week 15:

  • This class allowed me to better understand the goals of a Quinnipiac Educational Experience.
  • This class encouraged me to identify milestones and begin developing a roadmap for my education.
  • This class improved my understanding of how the process of inquiry is practiced in different disciplines.
  • The class improved my ability to Identify and grasp the nature of complex problems.
  • This class helped me develop critical thinking strategies.
  • This class encouraged me to actively seek divergent points of view, value cognitive diversity and value different perspectives.
  • This class improved my ability to collaborate and co-create knowledge.
  • The course helped me develop my Guiding Question.

Please note:  none of these say “follow rules, participate to my liking, or produce papers.”

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.

Other questions to ask include:

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 must reward it.

No one is saying, “abandon rigor and award high marks to all who breath, but sometimes rebellion is a sign that you have an exceptional student.

What I am saying is that a student who finds herself on the path to authentic learning in week 14 can meet the learning objectives (meaning high marks), despite their prior poor performance.

Rebellion against our rules can be frustrating, but if I get rebellion tied to an honest desire to think, learn, and grow, I see it as a good thing.

What am I asking?  Please don’t penalize students for the messy stuff. If we want risk taking and curiosity (and now playing it safe to secure the right grade), that’s what we have to reward.




This essay is a revised version of a post from last year.



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