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!


Anonymous said...

I do something similar: some of the first assignments in the semester are Pass / Fail (it is fairly complex P/F so I won't get into details). When students turn them in during class I immediately redistribute the papers randomly and anonymously and tell then to assign a grade. I am explicit about the fact that such grades are not literal, but meant to give feedback from peers. This also give me some feedback as to how some students grade.

I also do what I loosely call "game theory" grading mostly for peer review: if everyone shows up and participates then the points allotted to that day are low... if few people show up then the points allotted are high.

Overall, the grades students give each other are not considered seriously by me for various reasons. I tell them to be critical of those grades whether high or low: "Who is this peer that they are qualified to grade me?" is the question I present them with. I find it forces self-evaluation also.

I have implemented this general strategy with a large course load and I find that it can ease the reliance on my comments and helps cut down the notion that me and the student are having some private dialogue. Grading each others papers before I see them mitigates peer-review time and provides multiple kinds of feedback for both me and other students.

Heather Tolen said...

Alyssa, I am also taking on a larger course load this fall, and thus am looking for ways to simplify the grading process. I'm quite interested in finding out what things you try, and how they work. Linguisticlogic's redistribution and scoring method also intrigues me--I assume he (she?) ask students to only put their student ID numbers on their papers, and not their names, in order to preserve anonymity? Interesting, and a great way to emphasize the more public nature of writing, vs. the private dialogue theory that he/she mentioned.

I was considering doing a couple of low-stakes group papers, and perhaps even a high stakes group paper, in order to both cut down on the number of papers I must grade, and also to facilitate a stronger sense of community within the classroom. I haven't worked out the logistics of those projects yet, but like you, I won't have as much time for individual conferences and extensive individual feedback as I am accustomed to providing, and I need to find some other equally effective techniques.

One comment about Linguisticlogic's statement, "Who is this peer that they are qualified to grade me?" I react to that a little simply because I emphasize during peer review that each student is very much qualified to give feedback to his or her peers, since typically the peers represent the intended audience for the paper. Who better to give feedback than the audience for whom the paper was written? If the intended audience thinks a particular paper is difficult to navigate, or confusing, or jumbled, then they would be qualified to offer a grade. Perhaps not the only grade, but a preliminary grade all the same. Just a thought...

Heather Tolen