Grading for Growth

When meeting with a student who did not do well on a test or project, I often face the daunting challenge of encouraging them to persevere in the course.  I might point out how they are showing signs of improvement, I could recount how the material generally solidifies for students eventually, and I might offer to consider putting more weight on their later work in the course.  The dilemma here is trying to promote a growth mindset in a discouraged student while working within a traditional assessment structure that might appear fairly limited in its flexibility. 

Since there will always be students who do not initially fulfill their potential, I have been thinking more about alternative assessment structures – and who hasn’t during this pandemic?  Anne Duffee’s presentation in the CfT on her experiences with “Grading for Growth” offered an excellent opportunity to consider other options! (You can watch the video and access her presentation slides here.)  The fundamental idea is this: Learning doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time and involves mistakes, feedback, reflection, and revision.  

While there are variations (e.g, specifications grading, standards grading), these assessment schemes prompt thought on the most basic of questions: why do we grade?  Of course we have to assign grades at the end of the course – that is a given.  But during the term, are grades effectively supporting the learning process?  Can we transform grades from the “sticks” they so often are into the “carrots” that motivate students to engage and improve?  Anne’s experience suggested that this is indeed possible!

There are different grading schemes for different types of course content. Anne offered examples of both standards grading (in a lower-level calculus course where three was an identifiable list of skills to be mastered) and specifications grading (in an upper level mathematics course where the work was primarily proof writing).  Both approaches set an expectation of success for students and provide students with more agency in the assessment process.  

What’s not to love about this?  Anne covered the drawbacks, starting with student buy-in.  Explaining how the assessment scheme works takes some time, but she reported that students generally get on board.  The leg work in implementing “grading for growth” can also be a challenge – thinking very carefully about the learning goals for the course takes time, but that feels like the right kind of priority to have.  We should be focused on what we want students to understand or to demonstrate.  

The biggest question mark for me was how does the grading load compare with a more standard assessment scheme?  My reading on standards grading suggests that the assessment is more efficient since time is not spent on partial credit (a very tedious endeavor).  Also the feedback is more substantive and promotes more effective interactions with students.  However when credit is only given for eventual fluency with the material, student work is being assessed repeatedly, and in larger intro level courses, that could be a daunting undertaking.  Anne assured her audience that there are strategies for keeping this potential avalanche under control.

This prompted me to start looking more deeply for specifics on these grading schemes within my discipline.  If this piques your interest, you might try to do the same.  I have found workshop materials on standards grading, conference proceedings on alternative assessments, and blogs devoted solely to the nitty gritty of specifications grading.  Perhaps others in your department might be interested as well and the CfT could support your engagement in reimagining how your courses might promote learning.

My thanks to Anne for sharing her experiences with these alternative assessment schemes and prompting some reassessment on my own assessment!

Emily Puckette 

CfT Co-Director 

Department of Mathematics

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