Ed.: Day 3 of the “blog every weekday for a month” challenge. Feeling strong so far.

Back in the summer I was teaching Calculus online – the first time I’d ever taught an online course, and the first time my department had ever offered one. I was using specifications grading for the course because I’m sold on specs grading, and because I think it’s an excellent fit for online courses. But not everyone shares my outlook.

At one point I got a call from the chair of our IRB who had received a call from a parent. The parent was calling to complain about specs grading, specifically that I was “experimenting” on her child, and she wanted to know whether I had gotten the proper IRB approval for experimenting on people.

I have a lot of thoughts about that situation, but one question that stuck out in my mind from it was, Is specs grading really all that experimental? It’s certainly different from the norm, but why is “the norm” what it is? Is there demonstrable evidence that the standard A/B/C/D/F system using points is anything more than just a convention that we keep around because we can’t imagine anything else?

So I did some research, starting with the first chapter of Linda Nilson’s book on specs grading which has a historical overview, and somehow I happened upon this short but mind-blowing paper [PDF], more like a literature review, about the history of grading in higher education. It sounds dry but the facts in it are fascinating:

No. 1. (Names listed) The first in their respective classes; No. 2. Orderly, correct, and attentive; No. 3. They have made very little improvement; No. 4. They have learnt little or nothing.

Here’s what I learned from this paper.

  1. The system of grading we have right now – A/B/C/D/F using points – is not sacred. It is rather the result of about 200 years of unscientific trial and error, with no particular evidence of systematic improvement over the years. Universities simply threw stuff at the wall to see what would stick, and some things hit better parts of the wall than others. There is no particular reason we ended up with the system we have, other than dumb luck and the influence of some universities over all the others.
  2. The A/B/C/D/F with points system is only a little over 100 years old – it is a relative newcomer to higher education, seeing as how the first university was established in 1088. Not only is it neither sacred nor particularly scientific, it’s not really even that much of a tradition, even in the US.
  3. Specifications grading is not only not experimental, it is more grounded in the history and practice of higher ed than “traditional” grading. If you were to look for a grading system that looks like what the great American universities used 200 years ago, then you’d have to look at the systems used by Yale and Harvard in the 1800s. Those systems involved classifying student work as Passing, Good, or Not Passing based on broad non-numerical measures. Sound familiar?
  4. Therefore if a professor – or an entire profession! – wanted to change the way we grade, we have every right to do so. Especially if there is some evidence that doing so will promote student learning and make faculty’s lives easier.