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My (Latest) New Grading System

Updated on October 2, 2014

The Rationale for How I Grade

For many reasons, I am not a huge fan of grades. They cause a great deal of stress, particularly with students who struggle with a subject. They also play a major role in turning a teacher into an adversary, making it difficult to create a healthy and cooperative teacher-student relationship. In addition, they promote a system in which the primary focus is getting the grade, rewarding skills that are not necessarily applicable in the real world. Students are unlikely, after all, to go into a career of taking multiple choice tests and writing timed in-class essays. In short, grades can be a hindrance to learning.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where few people are interested in learning for learning’s sake, so grading systems evolved in order to compel people to invest time and energy into classwork. And when a class is completed, grades provide the measuring stick necessary to determine if a student has actually learned anything. We cannot, after all, just ask them if they feel that they have learned. For some reason, we educators do not think it is good enough simply to trust them. Grades, therefore, are a necessary evil, and whether I like them or not, I doubt that they will be going away any time soon. So I need to come up with a grading system that makes sense, not just one that fulfills my administrative duty.

Over the course of the last fourteen years, the various grading systems that I have used have gradually drifted closer to my actual teaching philosophy. When I first started teaching community college, my grading system was a reflection of two simple realities. First, I was swamped with prep work as I was reviewing and organizing the basic curriculum. This did not leave me with a great deal of time to grade piles of papers, particularly when teaching six or seven classes at a time. Second, I was under the (often false) impression that I was working with responsible adults who did not need a steady stream of graded assignments to get them to study the material. Having spent the previous seven years or so working with junior high and high school students who needed to be kept busy with assignments and compelled to do them by the points that they would immediately receive, I was relieved to be free from the paperwork treadmill. I could just give these college students some reading assignments and grade two or three tests per semester. Knowing that they would eventually be tested was enough motivation to make them keep up with the material.

After a few years of basing final grades on students’ performances on three tests, I began to tweak the system in a few ways. First, I started giving them short quizzes based on a book of primary sources. For some reason, just asking them to read the assignments on time was not enough. Eventually, I also began to give them in-class, written assignments to force them to think, give us all a break from listening to me talk, and to give those who consistently showed up a bit of a grade boost. But the bulk of their grade was still based on three big tests, and because of my heavy course load, a significant part of these tests consisted of multiple choice questions. In spite of the improvements I had made, along with the extra work these improvements created for me, the grading system was still based somewhat on factors other than my teaching philosophy. So this semester, now that I have “cut” my workload down to six classes per semester, I decided that it was time for an overhaul. Now, instead of having three big tests that are a mix of multiple choice and essay questions, I will be giving six smaller, short answer quizzes. Also, I will be having two large tests instead of three, and this midterm and final will consist of open notes essay questions. With these changes in place, I now have a system that is more closely aligned with the some of the key principles that make up my teaching philosophy:

1) Heavy memorization is of limited value (and can scare people away): Particularly in this new Information Age, there is not much value to pure memorization. When you have a mobile computer in your pocket, you can find any piece of historical trivia in a matter of seconds. But in my mind, memorization of a mass of information has never had much value. The key is to achieve basic literacy, learning the fundamental facts, and then drawing meaning from the material. A certain amount of memorization, therefore, is inevitable, but the less you ask people to memorize at a time, the more chance there is that they will actually learn something. Too often, people get intimidated by history, fighting off painful memories of massive tests filled with trivial details and covering decades (or even centuries) of history at a time. With short quizzes covering smaller amounts of material, the subject becomes less intimidating, and students may be able to relax enough to learn something.

2) Many students need a “wake up call”: I have learned over the years to not make too much of the first couple of tests or quizzes in a class. As a general rule, at least half of community college students will not put much time into preparing for these. Apparently, there is a community college code of student ethics which says, “Thou shalt not study until convinced that thou must.” The problem, therefore, with a final grade based on only two or three tests is that people will be too deep in the whole to recover if they bomb that first one. Now, with my system of six smaller quizzes, along with a provision that I drop the worst score, there is time to recover once they receive the wakeup call. And with the quizzes coming up early, the people who have no intention of doing any work will go away sooner.

3) Students must be forced to do things: community college students are not skilled in “delayed gratification.” If they are not going to receive an immediate, tangible reward for doing something, they will often blow it off. So instead of giving them an ungraded activity and assuring them that it has learning value that will eventually pay off on a future test, I collect and carefully grade these in-class assignments. Also, it has been demonstrated again and again that students learn more when they are actively engaged in performing tasks rather than passively listening to a teacher teach. In college survey courses that cover an enormous amount of material in a very limited amount of class time, a significant amount of lecturing is inevitable. But I try to intersperse the lecturing with these graded, in-class assignments. They also give a chance for people who are not great test takers to boost their grade with assignments that simply ask them to think.

4) Classes must have variety: People have different skills, and they learn in different ways. It is therefore imperative to present material in a variety of ways, mixing in a steady stream of visual images, videos, and in-class activities. But there must also be a variety of methods of assessment, with no one method or individual activity carrying too much weight. So now, instead of having the bulk of the grade determined by three large traditional tests, I base final grades on a combination of short quizzes, open notes tests, in-class assignments, and class participation.

5) Critical thinking: It can be trickier to determine a student’s ability to think critically than a student’s ability to memorize a bunch of stuff. This can be particularly true with a subject like history. Still, it is a worthwhile task, which is why I now give the open notes mid-term and final exams. These consist of broad, general questions that require them to derive meaning from the historical material: tracing patterns, describing cause and effect, explaining how and why things change over time, etc. With the basic facts on some pages in front of them, they can now focus on doing something meaningful with the facts rather than simply trying to remember them.

6) A major part of success in life is showing up: I have this old-fashioned idea that students should come to class. But as anyone who has ever taught or attended community college knows, many students (and teachers) do not share this belief. Ultimately, attendance - like everything else involved in taking a class - is optional, and students should theoretically be allowed to find out on their own that there is a direct correlation between level of attendance and success. But as I said earlier, community college students are generally not good with “delayed gratification.” So if attendance (or lack thereof) does not lead to an immediate reward (or penalty), some students will tend to flake out. Attendance, therefore, is incorporated into their class participation grades. In-class assignments occur frequently, and there are no make-ups. I also do not allow them to take make-up quizzes. The only make-ups I will give are for the mid-term and final, and this is only if they have an excuse that can be verified in writing.

7) The only way to know that a student has actually done something is to have them do it in class: In a perfect world, grades would be based primarily on projects performed outside of class, particularly if critical thinking is to be emphasized over memorization. The problem is that it can be very difficult to determine if the take-home test or term paper was actually completed by the person whose name is written on it. So in spite of the shortcomings of in-class assignments and tests, I only give one “term paper” type of assignment that is completed entirely out of class: an extra credit paper in which they historically evaluate a Hollywood type of movie.

8) Both depth and breadth are needed: Much of the class time in my history survey courses is focused on breadth, trying to help students answer the basic historical questions about the major topics. Occasionally, I can take the time to look at a few topics more in depth, often by showing some sort of a movie or looking at a set of visual Power Point slides. Most of the in-depth learning, however, happens outside of class, mainly through a collection of primary source documents that I require them to read. When students get the chance to read history in the words of people who actually lived through it, the stories are brought more to life. Also, these documents give us a chance to discuss the degree to which the stories can vary depending on point of view.

9) A certain amount of learning must be independent: The tests that I give are based primarily on the material covered in class. This always seemed like common sense to me. I should be covering the most important topics in class, and tests should focus on these same important topics. It does not take long, therefore, for my students to realize that they can get by in the class without necessarily reading the textbook. The one book that they have to read on their own, however, is the collection of primary sources mentioned in #8 above. Because there are questions taken directly from this book on the quizzes and major tests, roughly one-quarter of their final grade is based on these readings that they must complete on their own. This is college, and if they don’t start learning how to learn independently, they are not going to survive for long. And it will be even harder when they have to go out into that “real world.”

And so this semester, my students get to be the “guinea pigs” for this new system. Maybe I’ll write an update in a few months describing how things seemed to go. But whatever happens, this teaching thing is always a work in progress.


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