Beginning with the grade in mind

Beginning with the grade in mind

Happy New Year everybody. This post is the first one I've made since November 2015, but I am making an effort to get back on the wagon and write here more often (like a lot of guilty bloggers are possibly doing). So here we go.

Tomorrow (January 11) our new semester kicks off. Confession: I am not good with first-day activities. I don't enjoy icebreakers -- didn't like them as a student, don't like them as a professor. At the same time I don't like launching right into the course material on the first day because enrollments tend to remain in flux for a week or so, and I don't like putting new people behind at the outset. My solution for the last year or so is to use a variation on Dana Ernst's "Setting the Stage" presentation, which gets students thinking big-picture on the first day really effectively, and to gather some personal information about students that helps me get to know them better.

This time around I am doing the latter via a Google Form survey that I want students to do before day 2. I've done this before in the past, but this time somehow it turned out differently, because I've been using and thinking about specifications grading for a full year now. I want students to think about their grades on the first day -- to begin with the end in mind, as they say.

Actually I would rather students not think about grades at all. But until we get rid of grades entirely, their mind-altering influence will persist among students and faculty alike, and so insofar as students think about grades I would like for them to think of grades as goals. I don't want them to think of grades in terms of "hope" -- as in, I really hope I get at least a B in the class -- but rather as the outcomes. Not the outcome of random processes, in which students are like ancient pagans sacrificing time and energy to the Grade Gods (i.e. professors) in hopes of a good harvest. Instead, these should be the outcomes of reasonable goal-setting, careful planning and personal management, and of concrete evidence of learning. There should be no need for "hope" to be involved.

Among other things on this survey, students respond to the following three items. First, this:

At the beginning of each semester I like to ask each student to set a goal for the grade they would like to earn. Please don't say "A" just because that's what you think you're supposed to say. Many students drive themselves crazy because they think they are supposed to earn A's in everything when actually a "B" is perfectly suited for their goals and far more reasonable. Think carefully about how far you want to go in the course: Think about your personal interests, your academic goals, your intervening work and life responsibilities, and your skill set and set a goal for a grade that is realistic and attainable, whether that's an "A" or a "C". Take 5 minutes to think it through. Once you are done: Check  the grade that represents what you think is the most realistic, reasonable, and attainable grade for you given all the factors you considered. Whatever you choose (as long as it's passing!) I will support.

There's a pulldown menu below this item with the grades A through C- on it. Next, they answer:

Now explain your reasoning behind the grade you chose.

There's a paragraph to enter text below it. Finally there's this:

Now go to the syllabus and take a 3x5" notecard, and write down all the coursework you need to complete in order to earn the grade you chose. I may ask to see this in class. This card is important -- you can use it at any point in the course to check against your grade records to see how much further you need to go. Go and do that now.

Students are supposed to click "OK" once they read this. And yes, I do intend on spot-checking people's cards -- whenever a student later in the semester wants to come and talk about his or her grade in the course, I will tell them to make sure to bring their card along.

I've had students do this in the past but only informally. This time I really want every student to start with the grade and then work towards it, rather than work like crazy to ace everything and then "hope for the best". My experience has been that most students still select "A" and most of the time this is just a reflexive action in my opinion. But there are some students who have never been given permission to aim for less than an A in a course, even though their life situation and skill set make earning an A an uphill battle that they are likely to lose. And it's very freeing for those students to have the prof say: If a B is the best you can do in the course for whatever reason, that's OK, and I will have your back the whole way as you earn it.

It seems to me that we have a problem in higher education with not setting our own goals. We are constantly trying to attain goals that we didn't set. Students deal with this because professors or parents or programs often insist on only the highest levels of attainment even when this doesn't necessarily make sense. And we faculty often have to deal with it as well through tenure and promotion goals that, in some places, are wildly optimistic and totally opposed to the natural skill sets and interests that faculty have. Very rarely have I seen universities where faculty are allowed to set their own goals for teaching, scholarship, and service within a reasonable and broad framework. It's so much like our ingrained system of grading that you realize that the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

What's hopeful for me is that standards-based and specification grading sets up a natural structure for students to participate in their grades in a healthy and proactive way, where they are in control and they get to decide what they want from the course. To some extend traditional grading might be amenable to this, but that seems to be the exception.

Also it's always interesting to see what students say for their rationale -- and a good point of reference for how to work with those students in the course.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.