I’ve probably tried about every grading scheme out there at one point or another, from the awarding of points to pass/fail, to contract grading, to portfolios and so on. To state the obvious, each has benefits and drawbacks. This article focuses on a new idea for grading in creative practice courses, courses in which students create, in an ongoing manner.
Before I get into it, I’m going to preface this entire article with a statement that contradicts what I’m proposing: The majority of a strong university education in creative practice courses should be built upon some form of inquiry-based learning. This article’s emphasis on assignment assessment denies some of the process and outcomes of IBL. More on my rationale at the end of the article.
My thoughts lately have mainly arisen in consideration of two observations.
The first is that in my domain of teaching work builds upon work. It is reflexive. A student creates A, reflects upon and receives input on the outcome, and the moves forward to create B. The creation of B is not discrete nor unsubstantiated — I have no desire to facilitate castlebuilders. Rather the student looks in two directions, back on lessons learned from A and forward to a proposed goal, not B but something greater that frames the student’s attempts. This is to a large degree a utilization of reflexive methodology.
The mindset and process required for a reflexive methodology, I’ve found, can neither be assumed, in that professors cannot assume a student knows what it is, nor taken for granted, meaning once a student knows it they may still not be able to apply it. Even upper level students need assistance in recognizing and reflecting upon their processes. I realized that current grading schemes do not particularly reinforce the reflexivity and it’s inherent ongoing-ness and growth and that something here should change.
I get very few grade grubbers and wheedlers but it seems to me we are in a widespread cycle in which such things are becoming fairly common. Whether this is age thing, or an era of K-12 learning where dabbling equates with success (a consumer viewpoint at it’s core more than it is any gen-Z thing), or a result of entitlement psychology, is beyond my scope here. It’s just seems that the pendulum has swung way over into wanting an undeserved grade for minimal effort. I felt that I wanted to sort of nip this in the bud before it even entered my classrooms.
It also struck me that grading in creative practice courses are hobbled mainly by our adoption of grading schemes common in STEM domains. By this I mean we think in terms of assignments worth certain points for which a student is awarded if they complete the assignment, or which a student loses if they fail to complete the assignment. We think in terms of graded tests and a final exam. For example, in many humanities programs there is a final test/review/panel exam of a semester’s work via live presentation or submitted portfolio, often with a viva voce defense, not at the graduate levels where an oral defense of a thesis or dissertation is appropriate, but at the undergraduate level where it’s often incorrectly used as a teaching moment or as a sort of final exam.
The main problem here is the finality of summative grades contradict the ongoing process of development. In a summative grading scheme an assignment is turned in. It’s done. It’s assigned a grade. Next. There are variations and I’ll leave it up to humanities professors to reflect on how the grading at their own institution fits this model that I suggest is mostly inappropriate for creative practice courses.
Once upon a time an A was 90% and above; 95% and above was maybe an A+. Now in a widespread way A’s begin at about 85%. A chart from one school I’m currently looking starts an A- at 80%. The rationale for this usually is that other schools are doing it so to not do so is penalizing students. As they say in the land of the blind the man with one eye is king. I understand the need to not penalize students regarding transfer credit. But that said, I view the entire scheme as pure grade inflation. If we follow the scale through the grades, we see that students can minimally pass by getting a 50%, in other words a student can do half the work, let me repeat, half the work, and still pass. Here I think of medicine and neurosurgeons. Half the work. I think of a phrase a friend said to me last night, that one of the main goals of higher education is to keep students paying tuition.
But this is where the adoption of grading schemes from STEM hurts the humanities. The main difference is that in a class like math, one can test out, meaning, if one is smart and doesn’t attend the classes, one can simply take the summative test or tests, ace them and pass. A grade is based upon test scores, and while course and program material is scaffolded, it is a matter of learning specific material before moving forward toward a determined destination, the mastery of calculus 1 and 2 sets one up to take differential equations, for example. If one gets it quickly one can skip courses and move ahead.
Rarely does such a clear route exist for a student in creative practice domains of inquiry. Only the most poorly regarded art courses teach students how to paint, the result being that all students end up with a similar looking still life done in the style of the instructor. Only the most poorly regarded creative writing courses be set up so all students write like Hemingway. In the many creative practice domains, outcomes are normally self-selected and ill-defined. Course learning objectives are supportive with phrases like, “students will develop a body of consistent work based on their interests” which allows about anything.
And unlike STEM courses where students are expected to get it, in our domains, students start at one point and they head toward a vague goal. In the majority of instances a student undertaking this process do not actually know what the final or best outcome will be. The final form emerges. To make this clearer with an example I may have the goal to write about a white whale and I might already have an idea for a title, “Moby Dick,” but this doesn’t tell me a thing about the structure, voice, pacing, exact, chapters to be included or excluded, sentence formation, and so forth. There is simply no way a student can test out of the skills because we (both them and us) don’t actually know in advance what the right set of skills will be. The student who does not attend and who does not create in an ongoing and consistent manner has no opportunity for the reflexivity demanded by the process.
So what began to really bother me is the observation that our grading scheme allowed a student in a creative practice course to basically opt out of much of this reflexive process. A student could skip half the work, and by definition still pass, even though the actual negative impact of skipping assignments so that reflexivity did not occur would be far greater than 50%. A set of unrelated assignments in no way allowed for the meeting of course requirements. I wanted to somehow fix this.
My solution: First I recognized I have two sorts of assignments: those that were must be completed to pass (MBCTP) assignments and those a student could opt out of and take a point deduction. MBCTP assignments are to be done over a series of weeks to the deadline are announced early. For the MBCTP assignments I decided upon the following grading:
I will structure this grading as Full pass, Fail, and Completion.
Work turned in on time will receive full marks, will receive my feedback and revision is possible possible if a student wants more feedback. The previously awarded full marks won’t change.
Work not meeting the minimum standard level of completion will be returned to the student for improvement. The minimum standard must be met and I’m happy to provide feedback in advance of the assignment deadline to help everyone reach this standard. Work returned for improvement will This MBCTP work returned and revised will be considered late and given a completion mark rather than a full mark.
Deadlines are strict. I allow late work for legitimate reasons and I have a policy where students must go to the Learning Assistance Office which then sends me note saying simply, “Student missed the class/deadline due to mitigating circumstances.” That office vets students’ reasons, not me. In this way I never hear excuses for missing classes or late work and students do not disclose personal or medical issues to me which I consider to be a violation of their privacy. This process in my view has been a true success. Keep this fair exception in mind when reading about point deductions below.
I also have weekly assignments. In the past I have noticed that these are the ones some students like to skip and they do so knowing they will still pass the course under our current grading scheme. However doing so really hurts their learning and I think that a grading scheme that allows them to skip so many assignments and still pass is flawed in that it contradicts the course learning objectives. These assignments are all or nothing, meaning they are done or not, think along the lines of free-writing in creative writing exercises or quick studies in painting.
To balance out the inflated grading and to stress the importance of an ongoing reflexive process, I will be trying out a new point system that is sort of mathematic in form. If they’re done, full marks. If not the deductions kick in.
The weekly assignments are worth 3 points each, and over a semester of 13 weeks these add up to 39 points. If the assignments are done each week the student receives 29 points. If an assignment is not done 3 points is deducted form the grade. However, the points deducted for the non completion of more than one assignment are not additive, rather I have chosen to use a sort of mathematic sequence as follows:
Missed 1 assignment: deduction of 3 points
Missed a second assignment: deduction of 8 points for this second assignment.
Missed 3 assignments: deduction of 13 points for this third assignment.
And so on.
Under this new grading scheme, missing three assignments adds up to a deduction of 24 points (-3 for the first; -8 for the second and -13 for the third) not simply 9 points (-3, -3, -3).
With ongoing and early feedback to students and the fact that these assignments are graded on done/not done rather than quality, combined with the quickly rising penalty points, I’m hoping for near complete compliance.
All that said, I’m pretty generous and because this is called learning, I consider the first couple of turn-ins of the weekly assignments to be almost freebies as students begin to understand what my expectations for them are.
In the larger picture, I spent some time and attempted to find any article on this idea of a progressive or almost pseudo exponential increase that I could refer to and found none. I also wondered if rather than penalize with deductions, I could reverse this idea and make it points that add up, a sort of positive reversal of the idea, but that wasn’t really becoming clear.
My decision to change up this course from inquiry based learning to this model is based on what I’ve already written about student attitudes with respect to the current university grading inflation and the inappropriate modeling of grading practices in creative practice courses upon the scheme used in STEM programs. It’s not that I don’t have faith in most of my students to learn within an IBL model, they can and do, as I prove in other courses. My decision is in part based on my awareness that students in this particular upper level class have had enough of their teachers, they’re thinking of graduating, so they often want to coast a bit, when in fact it’s time to ramp up their learning and to apply the three years of knowledge they’ve learned to their specific practice. I’m also aware that for at least half the class members, this course is a preparation for their applications to graduate schools. For this, the students need very specific items. The design and accountability supports them the creation of these items.
At any rate, I like testing out new assessment ideas and techniques and I look forward to obtaining feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of this idea.