Counting – Grading… #rhizo15

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things lately – sometimes so many different things that it becomes difficult to begin writing. Call it writer’s block or stage fright if you will, however, I have found that after I read a couple of the #rhizo15 posts on Facebook or Twitter, I will then spend an inordinate amount of time researching these new ideas and going down the Madagascar penguin hole to learn more.

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The rhizome is getting inside my head. It is the question “WHY” that I asked every few minutes as a child trying to make sense of this world, that I find myself asking now. Why do we grade student’s work and is that a real indicator of learning? Does it measure what they know and why do we need to measure that anyway?

I’ve struggled with this question before and had numerous discussions with @alicekeeler @catspyjamasnz @robinwb and @bdean1000 on the topic over the last couple of years. And then this hit my inbox:  Be theoretical. Be practical… but GRADE ME! – Dave Cormier 

I am not a fan of GRADES. I have found grades to be motivating and demotivating at different times in my life. When I found them motivating, I was a child and it was to earn my parents attention because the attention that I received when I brought home less than an A was not the type of attention that I wanted.  However, when I consider what that taught me about life and how that quantified my knowledge or learning, I think there has got to be a better way!

Let me ask the hard question… what is the difference between a student who earns a B and a C? What factors contributed to them earning that grade? How much of that was due to learning that “didn’t occur” and how much of that was because they were juggling 800 other things? Or because when they received a low grade on one assignment it brought down their whole grade and they didn’t feel like they should argue about the grade with the teacher?  So, what value do we put on those grades in life? In parenting? In society? How does this impact the world we live in?

I would ask the community, is there a better way to demonstrate knowledge? Can we support the notion of scaffolding competence? When we value knowledge in this new collective knowledge economy I expect that we need to find ways to lift each other up and support the development of new ideas, models, methods and rather than giving someone a D or C for their efforts, we might consider providing the necessary learner support and feedback to get them where they want to go…

What if we just simply said “Competent” or “Not Yet”…

8 comments for “Counting – Grading… #rhizo15

  1. May 7, 2015 at 7:21 am

    And what if competent wasn’t enough…what if we didn’t let students stop at competent? I’ve seen a lot of students who are competent but they haven’t really made the concepts their own yet – they haven’t really found “their” use for the concepts that they’ve mastered and the way they fit into their own bigger picture. Seems like even if we are competent we ought to be able to keep working on something if that is our passion and desire…

    Is it really enough in today’s world for a student to mimic a concept or a skill just to prove that you can if you need to in a pinch – and for us as teachers to say “okay that’s it – you’re done”. As a learner I think to myself – what a waste of time that is…

    A great post Whitney. These are concepts I grapple with too! Those numbers have far too much power…and so do those letter grades.


    • wkilgore
      May 7, 2015 at 11:48 am

      Lee –
      Thank you for challenging my thinking. As you know there are a number of competency based models and a couple of distinctive ways in which universities can tie competencies back to credit. One is through direct assessment where the student essentially tests out of courses or parts of courses. This is not too dissimilar that what we have always done with CLEP exams or awarding credit for AP courses. However, the other prevalent model for awarding credit is through demonstration of competency and this is being done with project based learning. The projects are complex sometimes combining a series of competencies into one large task that students complete and upon completion, it is evaluated.

      One such project that I’ve seen is a comprehensive business plan. Where learners typically have the assignment returned to them as many as 3 times marked “Not YET” before they earn their mark of “Competent”. This feedback and “no failure – KEEP TRYING” approach seems to scaffold understanding and reward achievement.

      My question back to you Lee, is if students can move through a degree program earning C’s and D’s and their employer never sees their transcript, what does that demonstrate? Is that student competent? I wonder about the arbitrary use of grades as a measure. I have seen many things in my time as a student that cause me to question the system and leaves me wondering What the Heck are we measuring anyway?

  2. May 7, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Ah, yes grades. I’m not a fan either. I think much of the problem is that they are looked at as more of a competition. But who is to say that a student that got a “B” doesn’t know something that the student that got an “A” doesn’t know (as Laurel Mayo pointed out earlier this week)? Why do we look at a 50 as failing instead of looking at what it really means – you got 50% correct and that is a lot better than 0%! We randomly place a “failure” cut off of 70, but a lot of random luck and guessing for some students can get them over the line from 65 to 70, and that’s not learning.

    If we would look at grades without stratification into “A, B, C, etc”, and view them as indications of how close individuals are to competency and mastery (without things like “class averages”), I would probably feel better about that. That way, a 65 or 80 would feel more like feedback on how far you have progressed, rather than a decree or ruling on how far you have fallen short. But there would also have to be a culture change in order to view grades in that manner, which probably won’t happen.

  3. May 7, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Your post brought back memories of my unreasonable English teacher in Grade 11 … He expected us to read a novel over spring break, only I was at camp over the entire break and reading wasn’t really an option. Had I skipped the class when the test was written, I could have written it a week later and gotten a much better grade cause I would have finished reading the book by then … I am still rather bitter about the whole experience.
    At Kevin Kelly’s workshop, he talked about summative grading and gamification as ways to address universal design requirements. I really like the idea of summative grading as it really allows learners to choose how deeply they want to delve into a course. Next time I get the chance to “own” a course, I will try some of those concepts out. Unfortunately, as an adjunct you don’t often have the power to not grade on a curve …

    • May 7, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      I am going to shamefacedly admit to two Cs on my grad transcript !n one case it was about stats – doing the math rather than making the decisions as to which statistical measure to use, why and how to apply results. We weren’t allowed to use SPSS in that class. Stats I – A. Stats II – C.

      In the second case, it was a faculty member who just was mean – there’s no other word for it. My entire time in my program, people took her class, went to the Dept Chair and got their grades changed from C or D to B as a matter of course. Everyone got their grades changed, but I didn’t because I just didn’t want to deal with her anymore.

      When I teach my teachers about assessment, I am stubborn about being sure they are transparent about whatever they are grading. So if they are grading making inferences – they shouldn’t be grading writing mechanics and expression too.

      I had a wonderful professor, who didn’t really grade (my best thinking professors didn’t) and he used to give two pieces of advice when it came to succeeding in grad school:

      <Always remember who holds the red pen
      Find out what the old goat wants, and give it to him.

      Best advice I ever got, really. We can get mad over it, but we are people not machines, and grading comes down to the impression your work leaves on the person assessing it. You can “prove” you learned throughout a paper, but if someone doesn’t see it, “get it” or accept your premise, then you’re tanked.

      I don’t know what the difference between a C and a D or a B and an A really is. I know how I define it – but that could be different from person to person. We use words like “criticality” and “analysis” and use these concepts to stratify student work. But your question “what are we measuring anyway”…is a good one! Are we measuring compliance? Or at the other end of the spectrum, lack there of (the most “creative” thinkers?).

      For me, I have to prove competency with rubrics aligned with NETS-C standards for our accreditation. The reality (for me) is that any of these standards can be met through effective design of the course. The difference in a score comes down to the time a student had, their will or motivation, the degree to which life decides to interfere in their plans, or the kind of moment they were having. Ironically, I don’t believe a score ever really reflects aptitude beyond that moment.

      But the reality that I really am struggling with – now that we are trying these new models of course design so that people can get either the skills or the credential they need to gain a new job (or both) in new ways (like the mastery model)- is: Is THAT really education? Getting the skill and moving on? Is that really all there is? For some people it’s all they want – but is it all they NEED?

      (BTW that is generally the way that I teach too 🙂 – but there’s a lot of interaction with other paper inbetween starting and finishing the paper & getting that grade.)

      Let’s loop back to “Content is people”… and I am going to revert back to where I was 2 days ago taking all of this very literally and trying to formulate some sort of theory in my head of #rhizo that I can apply to my classes. (I haven’t totally given up on that – I even cited #Rhizo in my portfoliothis year 🙂 If Content is people, and students are in a class to master the “Content” then they should absolutely try out the active content THEY create as a result of the stagnant content they might start with (stagnant=created by people who are dead and can’t evolve any further or by people who aren’t accessible to “massage” ideas with) on the people in the class.

      It isn’t enough that they can regurgitate and apply the stagnant content they read. For me – to feel like students in my class have gained something worthwhile – they need to try out their new knowledge on people – get feedback from a diverse group who all see things differently – adjust according to what they learn – then remake that content again – create something to demonstrate their adjusted thinking. Lather rinse repeat throughout the semester. When we leave class, even though they have demonstrated, according to my rubrics “mastery” through these multiple ways of knowing, I feel like we aren’t done. I love when we can pick up an experience with the next class.

      I know lots of other people teach like this too – but just wanted to articulate it. The “mastery” experience, where we pick a module, demonstrate competency, and move on in isolation seems really incomplete to me.

      So to me – taking a set in stone model of where the learning is at an arbitrary date, and then assigining some sort of number to it is the worst kind of inauthentic.

      I am rambling and rambling and rambling but I love that you are making me think about this!

      There are so many tales of people who weren’t successful in school and went on to be successful in real life. My high school teachers probably thought the best I’d do would be to marry some rich guy – it was probably the only hope they thought I had. My daughter, who barely got through high school – just graduated from college with Honors. There are so many of these stories – I can’t think these are all outliers. I think it’s more likely that somebody got those numbers wrong in high school, or they applied the wrong criteria to the numbers , or, they just did what they did and if we didn’t regurgitate or apply the “right” content they were trying to doom us to a life of poverty and failure. Didn’t work :-).

      Thought provoking, Whitney – and no answers here! Just more questions 🙂


  4. Sarah Honeychurch
    May 7, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    Competence is a bit of a bad word over here. It is used pejoratively, as in “they are barely competent”.

    • Wendy taleo
      May 8, 2015 at 10:32 am

      Unless you work in the Vocational Education and Training sector (VET). Competency and not yet is all there is in the grading schema in the LMS.

  5. May 8, 2015 at 6:46 am

    How interesting, from a non-teaching vantage point, to watch you wrestle with all of this. In my work we need to know whether the staff we have (who I am responsible for training) are competent in some hard and soft ways…. values and skills. We recently had a meeting with the managers of those staff and realized that they have absolutely no sense of whether their staff are competent – they only knew whether they’d been trained or not…

    Thanks for sharing all this and I enjoyed the dialogue in the comments too 🙂

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