Friday, May 7, 2010

A World Without Teacher-Assigned Grades

I'm going to be taking on a heavier course load this Fall and I've been brainstorming possible changes I might make to my course as a result. Up to this point, I've been able to give my students a lot of individual feedback by meeting with them individually to discuss their rough drafts for every major paper. However, I'm not sure whether I will be able to keep up with this intense schedule in the Fall when I take on an extra class.

Another thing that continues to haunt me is Katherine Cowley's idea that the classroom should ideally function as a "proto-public space" in which students become each other's audience (see my earlier blog entry about this subject for more details). This is especially apropos in a writing class. I see a tremendous amount of value in getting students to actively read, respond and engage with the ideas written by the other students. In the real world, writing is motivated by the need to express an idea and the merits of an essay is entirely judged by your peers---not by some arbitrary rubric created by a supervisor.

That's why I was kind of turned on by an article entitled No Grading, More Learning in which a professor at Duke University tested out a system she calls "crowdsourcing" in which all grades were determined purely by the fellow students in the class. The way it worked is the students were required to complete weekly writing assignments and post it to a class blog. The fellow students then "graded" the assignment by determining whether they thought it was satisfactory or not. Basically they gave it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If the student received a thumbs-down they had an opportunity to rewrite the essay in order to get a thumbs-up from their fellow students. Meanwhile, as the instructor, she made a point to comment on every students' essay and monitor the blog.

Here's what I like about the system:
  • Getting students to honestly evaluate each other's work and respond to each other's ideas.

  • By having to write for a "jury of their peers," they might be more likely to work harder. I like that it kind of gives the peer-review process some teeth, if you will.

Here's some reservations I have about the system:
  • The logistics are difficult. With a larger class of 24 students, they probably aren't going to have time to read every single essay written by their fellow students. Plus, if we're doing longer essays such as the Exploratory Essay, that would also make them take a lot of time reading.

  • I wouldn't be able to do it for every single assignment, but maybe for a small group of assignments.

  • Part of me worries that students would be either too easy or too hard on each other. I also feel like it needs to be anonymous somehow, so that students don't make it a popularity contest. Plus, I'm not a big fan of thumbs-up/thumbs-down critiques since they have the effect of flattening out the worth of an essay.

So, we'll see. I'll let you know if I decide to use this system in my class. If so, I'll report to you about how it goes!