Grading or not grading: that is the question!

There have been many critiques on the grade-based evaluations among the resources of this week. Alfie Kohn summarizes some negative side effects, and introduces few alternatives– such as replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments or qualitative summaries of student progress offered in writing or as part of a conversation. Although these scenarios seems like “utopian fantasy” at first glance, I will be explaining a case study which proved to me it is possible to get the most out of students’ potentials without threatening them by grades!

I had a graduate level course last year, with around sixty other graduate fellows from several departments at Virginia Tech including statistics, civil engineering, industrial engineering, physics and computer science. Apparently, this was extremely challenging for the instructor to evaluate the students with these broad background in a fair manner. What he did, was to define quite easy homework assignments to involve everyone in the class and guarantee a big chunk of total grade. The final project, though, was open-end and huge. In groups of five, we were required to have many meetings to brainstorm, design algorithms, code and analyze our results. The professor created groups of people from different majors, and organized many “lighthouse sessions” to answer our questions at high level. More interestingly, he collaborated with a sponsor company which provided free food (!) during a lighthouse session, and also considered monetary gifts for the top three groups. Last but not least, the professor invited Virginia Tech faculties and the experts form the sponsor company during the lighthouse sessions to answer our questions. After a while, what happened was that students were not just working on the project to get a good grade. We were competing to do our bests, as we observed how well the professor did to provide everything for us during the semester. We were all so excited and determined. I remember that the last week we barely slept, and worked extremely hard. Our group was not among the top three, but we all were happy at the end because we truly did our bests during a productive friendly teamwork.

In a nutshell, I highlight the role of teachers in deleting or diluting the grade-based system and replace it with more effective alternatives.

24 Replies to “Grading or not grading: that is the question!”

  1. Thanks for your post! That is exciting to hear an example of students being motivated by something other than simply a grade and investing more of themselves in the process as a result. What stands out to me is the investment level of the professor. It sounds like everyone in the class felt supported and that the professor’s enthusiasm was obvious. I wonder how much the investment of the professor in a particular class impacts the level of investment that students are willing to give.

    1. Hello! In our case, this investment was absolutely mutual. I personally observed how hard students worked on the final project not only in our group but also in couple of other groups.

  2. Negin,

    Wow, that course experience sounds awesome! Any chance of this professor offering something for the social sciences? Asking for a friend. In all seriousness, though, I have a question if you don’t mind, if you were put in charge of such a course and asked to modify it for undergraduates, what changes do you think would need to be made?

    1. Hey Jon,
      That course was “Data Analytics” taught by Dr. Scotland Leman. You can check his website to see if he teaches any courses in social sciences.
      Regarding the undergraduate courses, I think the best strategy is to design more than one project with similar motivations and lighthouse sessions.
      Undergraduate students, specially the new ones, might feel lost/confused if they are given a big final project.

  3. Great post, your great experience with teamwork and motivation through competition is a good example of how grading can be constructively encouraging instead of a stressor factor.

  4. Hey Negin, I really enjoyed reading about this interesting course. This example highlights the importance of instructor to make a course interesting, the assessment interesting and not worry about the grades. I think grading or not grading will always be the the question but even with grading, things can be made right and constructive.

  5. Thanks for the post, Negin. This is exactly what I recommended in my blog post. Diluting the importance of individual assignments and exams with group projects is a really good idea. It promotes the learning process. I think, even exams with real-life problems also help to make the course more interesting and creative.

    1. Agreed on both accounts. The real-world process of knowledge making is more often a collaborative process rather than an individual (although there are exceptions) and, it is often a multi-faceted truth with many good answers instead of one truly correct one.

    2. Take-home exams inspired by real-life problems sounds interesting! I have never truly experience it, though, as most of the teachers focus merely on the specific course objectives when they design exam questions.

  6. I like the professor’s idea. But you know, I think the presence of the invited VT faculty members and experts has a big impact on increasing the motivation. You feel like the project you are doing is considered seriously!

    1. That is exactly correct! Moreover, we had a chance to talk to experts with different backgrounds and examine our progress thoroughly.

  7. Negin, great post! really interesting to read. Just goes to show how much of a difference an invested and great instructor can make. He provided the class with many tools and opportunities to grow and learn, so naturally you guys reciprocated with effort and dedication. A great example.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, that was a unique experience which showed me when instructors feel responsible for their class beyond the normal standards, students respond back with great dedication.

  8. Negin, what an interesting sounding class! I like the idea of homework assignments that make sure you understand the basics and then a project. It sounds like all the students in the class were really interested and motivated by the project and learning the material. I’m with Jon, though – I would be interested to hear how we could transition this class into something for undergraduates — maybe where students aren’t as invested in the class or have other classes that they’re also taking at the same time so they may not have as much time to focus on a large project.

    1. That is a very good question. As I replied to Jon’s comment, I think the best strategy is to design more than one project with similar motivations and lighthouse sessions. Undergraduate students, specially the new ones, might feel lost/confused if they are given a big final project.

  9. Interesting experience! Sounds like a very enjoyable class. So you think such a class can have applications in all fields? I personally think a long-term project with evaluation would be more useful to critique student learning than traditional grading, especially if trying to groom students for graduate programs.

    1. Hey Michael! Yes, I think this approach is pretty applicable to other fields. It is definitely useful for senior/graduate students who seek for job. I remember we had a chance to hand in our CVs to those people from industry who visited us during the lighthouse sessions.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts Negin! In engineering based courses it’s often the standard to have more project based courses to develop a variety of skills. In fact, I noticed a trend (talking to many of my colleagues) that they are having similar courses experiences that you shared. What is hard though is if grades do continue to exist for project based courses, what standards begin to arise. Is this even a problem? How could this approach more into more humanity based courses?

    My personal experience on courses with this approach have been both positive and negative. Positive in that the experience gained is more applicable. Negative in that depending on your teammates you could be in a situation where you are doing most of the work. Of course these are not new problems, but ones that would need more work if we move from grading to portfolio focused work. It’s the tradeoffs that should be considered carefully.

    1. Hey Tim! What our instructor did to have a fair grading approach was to propose a comprehensive rubric at the beginning. I think, as far as such rubrics are clear and reasonable, students are fine with following them. Regarding the teamwork potential problems, I believe this is an essential skill we must learn during the higher education to be prepared for future teamwork in the workplace.

  11. Thanks for sharing the experience. I like that you have had a positive experience in a grade-diluted environment. I believe that your experience is special because students often lose interest if they are not being graded. And it is important to give credit to the teacher for creating an environment where students care even if they are graded in a conventional way. Unfortunately a good grade is the only reward that many students understand, and when that is removed they begin to look for a different reward which should inevitably lead them to the right answer which is, obviously, the education. It is a chore to stay up all night fighting for a letter grade. It is engrossing to stay up all night to accomplish something that you believe will be a true contribution. Again, thanks for the post. Keep them coming.

    1. Hello! I agree that there is a huge gap between the current grade-based education and the ideal no-grade system. To fill this gap, instructors can gradually dilute the importance of grades by adding more research projects and hands-on activities to curricula. As I mentioned in the post, we still had homework assignments which were graded, but the major part of our total score was based on the final project.

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