A Better University Level Appropriate Model for First Year Grading in the Arts
In the humanities there are no answers to problems. We must begin with the premise that students are learners, not experts. We must give students the space and support for not knowing.
Grades are ridiculous in the arts for lots of reasons, but what’s perhaps even more ridiculous are professors who say to their students things like, “You know, I personally think we should be grading with a pass/fail system but since I’m obligated to use grades….” And so they set sail with obsolete methods of evaluating quality of created works with a range of letter grades. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk, to cite a cliched phrase, but since they’re using cliched methods of assessment, it seems appropriate to refer to their methods that way.
There is a better way to grade at the first year university level and I’m prompted to write this because I discovered some professors out there who speak my language.
The first person is Asau B. Inoue who wrote an piece titled A Grade-Less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing. Inoue suggests that assessment value labor completed, rather than quality of created works. This he says, “allows me to cultivate a more critical, democratic community. It shares responsibility and negotiates most of the work in the course with students, as well as the terms by which that work is done.” Difference is respected, both in terms of people and created things. Individual voices are promoted, and the often cutthroat competition of the classroom or course is democratized. Right on.
Now obviously Inoue goes into detail about what he means by labor, as opposed to effort and I highly recommend reading his essay, link at the end of this article.
His view is what I consider to be exactly the correct mindset we should have when considering evaluation and assessment at the first year university level humanities courses. We have to get away from thinking students know answers or that we grade creative projects on things like quality. It’s time we reconfigure the model of evaluation we call normal.
The idea to completely reconfigure evaluation at this level is bolstered by various criteria set forth by bodies that create standards for and evaluate programs in humanities in that generally do not speak to specific means of grading, instead asking for consistency in grading methods. In other words, we get to choose.
Thus, we can go ahead and soon we’ll notice the resistance comes from not from governmental bodies but from two factions in our own schools. School administrations love grades as the single metric (beyond student evaluations of teachers). They’ll argue that grades matter as students go forward, they need some metric to measure grade ranges, that student GPAs will be overinflated or assessment will be watered down, and on and on. None of their biases rest on solid pedagogical arguments. Further resistance will come from faculty members who confuse grades with feedback, facilitation, or student motivation or who simply presuppose that the purpose of grading consists of weeding out the best from the worst.
For quite a while now I’ve been grading introductory students based on their diligent work rather than on single works. I ask students for diligent university level work and I spend time at the beginning of the semester going over exactly what this means in terms of student work and evidence of that work.
I expect students to both “try and fulfill,” although I don’t particularly use this phrase. What I mean is that for any given project (in class activity or homework) I ask that students a) try their best by applying serious, diligence to the assignment, and b) to fulfill the stated assignment criteria. I expect them to meet the baseline of criteria and if they can, to figure out a way to take some risks in fulfilling that criteria.
In response, students bring in their completed works, or responses to the assignment, if you will. If the student evidence demonstrates they tried their best to fulfill the assignment, with university level diligence and they have met the baseline criteria, then they get A’s for the assignment. At times a student’s work bends more toward effort and at other times it bends more toward quality, or something else. Great. I want diversity in responses.
There are many ways to evidence their try and fulfill attitude, all of them mean work. Some students might attempt to try and fulfill the criteria in weaseling ways, say doing very little but saying they thought a lot about what they wanted to do. This is where clarity of expectations with both the assignment and the assignment’s criteria must be explicitly stated.
End of story.
But now, teeth are bared, the hair rises on the napes of administrators and faculty. Surely, they say, all the work cannot be at the A level. Obviously, if we think that way. Some works are what I personally might not agree with, some I might prefer, some seem shallower, some seem to have more depth, some embody more risk taking, some appear to have taken less time, some more time. Here’s what I say about all of that: So what. All these views presuppose judgements about just what constitutes validity, knowledge, and quality.
We must have conversations about the purpose of grades, the best manner in which to facilitate student progression toward stated learner outcomes within the humanities at a first year level. And to be blunt we need those at the top to have a bit of courage. We must get over the method of holding endless reimagining sessions when in fact nobody has the spine to implement any of the new ideas.
At introductory levels of humanities, we are best off to set ideas of differentiation of quality aside. Instead we should ask different questions. Did the student try the new idea out in a tangible form? Did the student fulfill the stated assignment criteria? If yes to both, here’s the A. Grading is now over. Great job everyone. Have we in fact facilitated intrinsic motivation and a passion for learning that students will carry forward, yes. Our next step is to continue doing the same, to reinforce.
I’ve met a lot of art professors who get pretty agitated over this sort of thinking. In my opinion they can’t agree to grading like this because of one or more of the following:
It’s impossible for them to think about grading in any other way except the old way. They are domain experts but they lack pedagogical training and as a result they never learned alternative ways to grade.
The believe that learning is a competition between students that grades make explicit. They think a formal education should mimic the worst of a capitalist real world.
They need to hold and demonstrate their power. Maybe they are insecure, or sociopathic.
Teaching the arts is about facilitating students as they engage in a process of growth through which they undergo belief change and develop clarity and focus in the means and ways of saying what they need to say about themselves in the world.
Let’s unpack this. First I mean that teaching is facilitation. It’s not only filling the empty vessel by conveying information, it’s not only assessing. Teaching means helping students get from here to somewhere. Learning becomes ongoing, constant, movement; it’s not an end result. We hope for lifelong learners. And this requires them to gain intrinsic motivation emphasized by the try and fulfill model.
As students learn, as they are challenged and as they bump against views that differ from their own, they engage in reflexivity and often, normally, they find they modify their beliefs from old ways of considering the world to new ways of considering the world. This is belief change. Students then engage in a process of creation and critical analysis, a creative process, in which they consider who they are, and then what they need to say about things. They consider if the way they said what they need to say is clear, they ask whether their audience receiving the intended message. This is an outline of the main ideas that over a course and program that would be pursued individually.
The model also demonstrates that in the humanities we do not expect students to have answers. They shouldn’t.
One advantage of this model, there are many, is that models based on diligent work, trying and fulfilling criteria almost implicitly embed differentiation of instruction. Individual students take on projects in tiered manners. Students with some prior knowledge will generally take on extra difficulty or risk, and they won’t be penalized if in doing so they don’t create a perfect response. Students without prior knowledge may take on less challenge and know that in trying, in learning, they won’t be penalized if their work is not at the same level as someone else’s.
Inoue, A. (2014). A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing. In Teague, D. & Lunsford, R. (Eds.), First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice (pp. 71–110). West Lafayette: Parlor Press. Retrieved from