Last semester a student came up to me after class upset over receiving an 85 on an assignment. She was a senior and didn’t want to end up with an A- or B for the course after three years of a stellar GPA. She was nearly distraught. I wanted to tell her 100 things about how one (still good) grade for one course in undergrad means very little in the grand trajectory of her life. But it wasn’t the time to belittle or minimize her emotions. I told her to rewrite the essay, an offer I extended to the entire class, and she pulled her grade up to an A. But her rewrite wasn’t at all like I’d hoped. I could tell she went through the motions of adding in my suggestions with little growth or depth of thought.
In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn offers an example of how to give feedback and determine a final grade (as require by the institution) without actually assessing and offering letter/number grades on individual assignments. During the semester one professor offers students feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on, making notes in his grade book. At the end of the term, Kohn said this professor meets with each students and asks them what they learned and how they learned. He then asks them what grade they believe reflects their work, and they arrive at that value collectively.
I love this idea, in part because I love working on larger projects with students — longer papers with several peer reviews and revisions or projects with video editing — but students hate having their grade rest on one single assignment, even if I grade multiple drafts or aspects of the assignment throughout the semester. This kind of arrangement would (hopefully) allow students to feel less pressure about meeting the marks and focus on their project by focusing on what they learned/gained through their work on the project.
I want to find out more about this system, like how open the professor was in explaining how the grades would be assigned at the beginning of the course and if any students bucked at the system.
This is absolutely the kind of system I would love to try, BUT what are the implications for a doctoral student or a new professor? How might my department feel about this, especially if a student (after the fact) challenges their final grade? Would I be left defending (instead of the grades I’ve assigned on concrete assignments) an entire teaching philosophy? Is this the kind of grading system that only tenured professors secure in their positions feel comfortable trying? Has this grading system ever been implemented at Virginia Tech?
I’m interested. I want to do it. But there takes a certain nerve to pull off something like this, and I’m not sure I have it yet.