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Grading the Grade: a #digped Discussion

On Friday, December 6 from 12:00 – 1:00pm Eastern (9:00 – 10:00am Pacific), Hybrid Pedagogy hosted a Twitter discussion under the hashtag #digped to discuss the process, practice, and theories of grading. The Twitter chat is Storified here, but we invite you to continue the discussion in the comments below.

In one of the first articles published in this journal, “The Tangle of Assessment,” Pete and Jesse write, “Grading and assessment are curious beasts, activities many instructors love to hate but ones that nonetheless undergird the institutions where we work.” This early article barely flirts with the topic, and now we find ourselves coming full circle, putting the question of what, how, and why we grade back out to the community.

It’s the end of the year, and for many, the end of the semester or quarter. Projects are submitted, presentations given, papers written, and exams taken. And then… we grade. And we grade. And we grade some more, until the stacks and the folders and the queues are depleted and scores have been reported. Sometimes, our better pedagogical judgment falls by the wayside, and we find ourselves caught in a system of ranking that feeds only itself.

We do this every term. But why? To what end? Whom does it serve? What are the dangers of assessment that serves to sort students into neat and tidy groups (as in grading systems tuned to the standard bell curve)? How does this kind of evaluation serve non-traditional or minority student populations? In his post, “Outsourcing Grading,” Chris suggests that grades serve “two goals: to indicate achievement (granting credentials) or to sort/rank students.” He concludes by asking whether we could “benefit students even more by training them to do the credentialing and ranking on their own?”

In “Grading Student Writing: Making It Simpler, Fairer, Clearer,” Peter Elbow writes, “When students struggle for excellence only for the sake of a grade, what we see is not motivation but the atrophy of motivation.” Students are often driven to perform in or for a course merely because of the grade they wish to get in that course. But can (or do) grades serve an additional purpose? When students see grades (or some form of alternative assessment) on formative or draft work, can (or do) they use those grades as a type of feedback? Do we expect them to?

Cathy Davidson argues in her 2009 post, “How to Crowdsource Grading,” that the competitive nature of standardized grading is directly at odds with “learning and curiosity,” which are fundamental to education. In America, the obsession with standardization means that multiple-choice tests are the most common means of assessing performance, to the point where grade school teachers work to teach students how to complete machine-scored answer sheets and how to perform on those tests — a task with no relevance to real-world activities. These tests are often viewed as “objective,” yet cultural bias remains a chronic problem.

The goal of this #digped chat was to explore the what, how, and why of grading, while allowing us to rethink the ways that the digital is changing (or should change) assessment practices. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Why do we grade? How does it feel to be graded? What do we want grading to do (or not do) in our classes (whether as students or teachers)?
  • What do letter grades mean? Do they have any intrinsic meaning, or is the value purely extrinsic? Does assessment mean differently when it is formative rather than summative?
  • How do written comments function as (or in relation to) grades? To what extent should teachers be readers of student work (as opposed to evaluators)?
  • What is the role of self-assessment and peer-assessment?
  • What would happen if we didn’t grade? What would be the benefits? What issues would this raise for students and/or teachers? Would we be forced to rethink our systems for evaluation?

Join us on Friday, December 6 at 12:00pm ET. Check out to see when to join us in your time zone. If you have suggestions for future topics, tweet them to @slamteacher or @hybridped. And continue the discussion in the comments.

[Photo by Sharon Drummond]

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