No Grading, More Learning – I’m totally going to do this. Will it work in Korea?

No Grading, More Learning

May 3, 2010

When Duke University’s Cathy Davidson announced her grading plan for a seminar she would be offering this semester, she attracted attention nationwide. Some professors cheered, others tut-tutted, and others asked “Can she do that?”

Her plan? Turn over grading to the students in the course, and get out of the grading business herself.

Now that the course is finished, Davidson is giving an A+ to the concept. “It was spectacular, far exceeding my expectations,” she said. “It would take a lot to get me back to a conventional form of grading ever again.”

Davidson is becoming a scholar of grading. She’s been observing grading systems at other colleges and in elementary and secondary schools, and she’s immersed herself in the history of grading. (If you want to know who invented the multiple choice test, she’ll brief you on how Frederick J. Kelly did so at Emporia State University and how he later renounced his technique.)

But it was her own course this semester — called “Your Brain on the Internet” — that Davidson used to test her ideas. And she found that it inspired students to do more work, and more creative work than she sees in courses with traditional grading.

Her approach — first announced on her blog — works based on contracts and “crowdsourcing.” First she announced the standards — students had to do all of the work and attend class to earn an A. If they didn’t complete all the assignments, they could get a B or C or worse, based on how many they finished. Students signed a contract to agree to the terms. But students also determined if the assignments (in this case blog posts that were mini-essays on the week’s work) were in fact meeting standards. Each week, two students led a discussion in class on the week’s readings and ideas — and those students determined whether or not their fellow students had met the standards.

I heard about this when they first posted about Davidson’s plans and I thought they were a good idea. Nothing revolutionary (though this author seems to think it is), but I like the approach that she took.

First, she establishes a general learning contract stating that students who fulfill all of the assignments get an A. Not submitting an assignment or not meeting the criteria, results in a lower grade (not set in stone).

Next, she assigned students into expert groups. Their groups are responsible for a topic, which is about a week long. The other students are then given assignments related to the content from that week (in this case, a blog posting). The expert group reads the blog posts and determines whether the student fulfilled the requirements or not.

I’ve done group grading before in which members assigned a percentage grade to their peers (I then averaged the grades and that’s what they got) as part of the total grade for the assignment. It was terrible. The biggest problem was the differences in groups. Some groups has much higher expectations than other groups. Even when performance was high, the grades were low. This was a serious point of contention among the students (as seen on end-of-course evaluations) and something I will never repeat.

Davidson’s approach does 2 things that make it much better: (1) they only judge whether the criteria were met or not (not giving a grade). A good rubric would make this a relatively easy task. (2) It focuses on frequent, smaller assignments rather than bigger projects.

I’m going to give this a try next semester, but I have to find the right class to do it with. I will teach a pedagogical English class that this might be perfect for (same class peer grading failed in last time). Smaller, bit-sized, weekly assignments graded by weekly “expert” groups.

A hole that I see in this is the way this compartmentalizes learning, though. Weekly topic groups don’t necessarily do well at synthesizing information from previous topics. These higher order assessments might be best implemented as midterm and final projects, larger assignments that require demonstration of knowledge gained throughout the semester.

In this case, there would be two parts, student-graded work and teacher-graded work. The percentage of these two would be around 80% and could be split in half (maybe), with attendance/participation rounding out the last 20%.

This is going to require a little more thought, but I like where it’s going. I want students to take more responsibility for their learning AND the learning experience their classmates have. I feel that being engaged as both producers and critics will motivate them to go beyond the simple requirements of the course and will provide the course with more diverse perspectives on teaching and learning language in Korea.

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