Traditional grading systems provide incentives for students to focus on maximizing their grades, rather than their learning. In this episode, David Clark and Robert Talbert join us to discuss alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that learning from mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.
Robert is a Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University and the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. David is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, also at Grand Valley State University. Robert and David are co-authors of Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, which will be published this summer by Stylus Publishing.
- Talbert, R. (2017). Flipped learning: A guide for higher education faculty. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Talbert, Robert and David Clark (2023, forthcoming). Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, Stylus Publishing.
- Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Grading for Growth blog
- Robert Talbert’s other blog
John: Traditional grading systems provide incentives for students to focus on maximizing their grades, rather than their learning. In this episode, we discuss alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that learning from mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Robert Talbert and David Clark. Robert is a Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University and the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. David is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, also at Grand Valley State University. Robert and David are co-authors of Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, which will be published later this year by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Robert. And David.
David: Good to be here.
Robert: Thanks for having us.
John: Today’s teas are:… are either of you drinking tea?
David: I am.
Robert: I am drinking tea. I’m more of a coffee guy normally, but I figured for the occasion I would bust the tea out.
John: What type of tea are you drinking?
David: I have, because its afternoon, a really lovely almost white jasmine right here.
David: …really delicate and anybody who cares about tea is going to be horrified that I sweetened it with honey,
Rebecca: But it is in a really nice polka dotted mug. It is a lovely mug. Thanks.
Robert: And I have cheap stuff from the grocery store, because that’s my brand. This is a Bengal Spice by Celestial Seasoning, and my wife and I are addicted to this tea. We drink probably four or five cups a day of it, though to be honest when it’s cold out, but it usually is [LAUGHTER] here in Michigan.
Rebecca: And I have Jasmine dragon pearls today.
David: Oh, nice choice. Both Jasmine.
John: And I have spring cherry green tea. It’s a very cold wintry day here as we approach spring in upstate New York. We’re recording this a bit before it’ll be released, so by the time you hear this, we should be having the beginning of spring both here and Michigan, I’m hoping.
David: We hope, yeah..
Rebecca: Your tea choice is definitely a big wish for spring. [LAUGHTER] So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Grading for Growth. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be?
David: I don’t remember, Robert, if we were in person, or on a Zoom call or something, but I remember you saying at some point, I got a phrase for you: academic book about alternative grading. And I said, “You know, I need a project for my sabbatical.” And then I think it just happened from there [LAUGHTER], and so…
Robert: Yeah, we were in person, David. David and I, we’re not on the same hallway, we’re kind of on opposite arms of a T-shaped hallway. And so we run into each other, sometimes literally, at the intersection of these two hallways, and that happened one day. It was pre-pandemic, I guess. And it was just like, “Hey, Dave, I have this idea, Somebody should write a book about alternative grading. Because David and I have been using various forms of alternative grading in our classes for a while. And he was like, “Yeah,” and that was it. [LAUGHTER] But I think we were also tapping into some stuff that we have been hearing and around our Math Department and elsewhere, our colleagues outside of Grand Valley that started growing even three years ago, just a growing interest or dissatisfaction with the way grading is working. And we’ve been trying some stuff and thought, don’t you know, the best way to make change is to just get your ideas out there. And so this seems like the right place, right time for us.
John: So what types of alternative grading systems do you discuss in this book?
David: A pretty wide variety. And actually, something I’ll say, I think, both Robert and I tend to try to avoid labels too much for these, like there’s useful names to describe different approaches. But we do things like standards-based grading, specifications grading, ungrading, standards-based assessment. standards-based testing, but we look at a really wide variety of alternative grading approaches. And we’ve actually tried to come up with a framework that sort of describes what their common elements are, so that we don’t have to worry as much about names as what the useful features of them are. We found that people can really get locked into an idea of what, for example, upgrading means, and it’s not always a super useful thing to argue about with them.
Robert: Yeah, I would echo that too. Being mathematicians, Dave and I are both really into abstraction and so we look at these specific things that we see, but we’re more interested in the big, general overarching unification principles like what are all these models that are all good, and all applicable, in different places, to different levels of success, and what do they all have in common? And we do discuss ungrading, we do discuss specifications grading, standards-based grading, and a whole lot of approaches that are kind of in the in-between interstitial space, mostly through other people’s stories. I think the heart of this book and David’s real amazing contribution, what you really spend your sabbatical doing, Dave, was interviewing dozens and dozens and dozens of actual real life frontline professors, nobody is in one camp exclusively, everybody’s using some kind of combination, some kind of mix of all these different ideas. And so I think, to me, what the real contribution that our book makes is showing how different things can look, you can start from these basic building blocks, but real people with all kinds of different classes and life situations and professional situations are making this work by listening to their students and adapting appropriately.
David: I can’t emphasize enough how much variety there is in the people we’ve interviewed and the disciplines that they’re in, the types of classes they’re teaching, like it was an amazing thing to talk with all these people and see, okay, they’re able to use different types of alternative grading but absolutely across the board: in labs, in huge classes and tiny classes, and upper-level classes, and absolute freshman-level intro classes. And so it’s been just fantastic to hear how everyone’s doing this and try to put it together into something that could work for anyone, that everyone will find something useful.
Robert: Yeah, no two of them are alike either. And what’s even more amazing to me is that we had to cut a lot of those case studies. And we almost have enough material for a second book just for the case studies. We’re going to keep it on the blog, I think, unless Stylus wants us to do it. But, I mean, there was a lot out there that we don’t talk about in the book. So there’s more where that stuff comes from.
Rebecca: You mentioned that these alternative methods have some common themes or common threads. And maybe it would be helpful to talk about those common threads in relationship to the problems with traditional grading that lead people to these other alternative methods. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Robert: Well, I think one of the places that you begin to see some of the shortcomings of traditional grading is just looking at the history of where traditional grading came from. And it’s sort of a weird and checkered, and very short, history. Many of your listeners might be surprised to know that the current system of points based A-B-C-D-E-F, 4.0 GPA type of grading system is only about 100 years old. It’s a relatively recent innovation in higher education. Higher education, formally, is about 1000 years old. 1088 was the first university and the first readily identifiable grading system that we know of now is like 1890s. So it showed up very, very late to the party. And immediately it was co-opted by Industrial Revolution era approaches to teaching and learning which treated students more or less as subjects. The word “grading” really comes from agriculture, when it comes to like grading Grade A beef and grading grain and flour and that kind of thing. And pretty soon it became entrenched. And we have a situation now where when you look at where grading has led us, it’s highly questionable whether grades really do what we want them to do. And it seems almost certain that they do some things that we don’t want them to do. They lead to issues with ranking and sorting students, pitting students against each other. It’s not clear to me that the statistical validity of points-based grading is even well established. I mean, we put points on things, but they’re not really numerical data in any sense. Computing an average of points across a system of exams does not necessarily tell you how much a student knows. And that, to me, in my view, is the fundamental issue that I have with traditional grading, why I moved away from it. I just didn’t feel like the data was telling me anything.
David: I’d like to jump in on that one, in particular. A thought experiment that I think is really helpful for anybody to do is, let’s say you give a big exam, and a student takes it and they get 60%. So, most systems, that’s basically failing. What does that 60% tell you? What did they know? What don’t they know? Why did they do that poorly? Did they actually do poorly? Do they know 60% of the things that you’ve covered on that exam really well, and the other 40% not at all? Do they have a mediocre level of understanding of everything? Maybe they understand absolutely everything great, and they had a terrible day, and they had to get the kids to Grandma’s house or their work had to keep them late. Maybe they’re sick. All those things are wrapped up together, in that 60% and you just don’t know what it means. And then to add to that, if that student learns, and they really show great effort, and they can tell you later on, “Hey, I’ve got all this stuff, and let me show you how, maybe on like a cumulative final, that 60% is still averaged in and it’s going to permanently weigh them down and their final grade won’t represent what they actually came to know.
Robert: Right. And so grading really cuts against the very process that humans engage in when they learn anything. When I’m learning how to play a song on my bass guitar, and I play it once and I do terribly at it, if I eventually learn how to play it, people should not be looking back at the first time I tried it, [LAUGHTER] they should be looking at the last time I tried or the maybe the best time I tried it. That’s not how recording artists record. It’s not how athletes are ranked, and so forth. And it’s all because of this sort of Industrial Revolution era routes where we have everything measured and sorted out and put together and it inhibits growth. It sort of poisons our relationship with students, it leads to all these extrinsic goals that students now have. Rather than focusing on learning and growth, students get the idea that it’s wrong to fail at things the first time, whereas it’s actually normal to fail at things the first time and then grow from it. And I guess that’s where the name of our book came from, I forget where that phrase “Grading for Growth” popped up. It was way before we were asked for a title for our book. But it’s like that’s what we really want. We want to have a system, even if we must call it grading, we want it to be a system evaluating student work that focuses on and encourages growth as you are learning because that’s one of the great things about being human is that we do grow and we do learn from our mistakes. So where is it in our assessment systems? That’s kind of the fundamental question we’re asking.
David: So it might be helpful if we talk a little bit about this four pillars framework that we have in terms of where we go with that. We kind of spent a while trashing traditional grading here, and I could do that all day. So what did you do instead? What are the things you want to do instead of these things you don’t? And so from my point of view, the most important thing I want to know out of a grade is what does the student actually know? What do they learn? And so, as I said, we have this four pillars model, we talked about four pillars that any good rating system should have and one of those is really a clearly defined description of what it is you’re assessing. So we call it clearly defined standards. I don’t want to catch on to the name standards too much there, but a description of what it is you’re assessing and what it is that matters in that assessment. So how do you know that the student has achieved it? And what is it that the student has achieved? So in that way, that takes care of this issue of what does that 60% mean? 60% of what? And if you’re grading based on a specific thing that you’re testing a student about, then you can say, okay, maybe they’re achieved that or they have not achieved that specific goal. And then we try to incorporate in our other pillars, this idea of feedback loops. So humans work on feedback, they work on trying things multiple times, they work on trying and failing, and having to come back again, and that it should be the ultimate level of what they know, that really matters. So focusing on feedback, rather than focusing on numerical rates. So focusing heavily on feedback, on what’s happened, and how that relates to the standards or the specifications, or whatever the description is that they were trying to reach, and then making that feedback actionable so the student has a chance to actually act on that, and either through a new attempt show that they’ve got that idea, or through revising previous work, show that they come to understand it in a way that counts fully, so that they’re not penalized for needing multiple attempts, just like Robert was talking about with his bass, we’re not going to look at well, the first time you tried, it didn’t work out, too bad. We want to know, ultimately, where were they, so we shouldn’t penalize multiple attempts at understanding something. And finally, it feels like a technical thing, but it’s actually a really big move, moving away from points or percentages and instead, if you’re gonna put a grade on work at all, to make that grade something that’s sort of a descriptor of the feedback, something that basically says, you’ve met this standard or you’ve met these requirements or you haven’t and gives the students an idea of where to go next: you need to revise this, you should try this again, you’ve made it, something like that.
John: I know you’ve experimented with a variety of alternative grading systems. Could you talk a little bit about how you view some alternative grading systems in your own classes?
Robert: Sure, I’ll jump in on that. So around 2017, I described this in the book in my origin story where I came from with this. I had just taught a calculus class and I had just a terrible experience with grades. One student in particular, a fantastic student, she was the epitome of what we’re discussing here. She was on a 10 day delay from the rest of the class and after those 10 days were up, she’d be at the top of the class, but the exam is today, and so her exam scores just went down, down, down, down, down. It was just an awful way for a student to experience my subject. And so I started casting about and I read this book that had just come out by Linda Nilson, who is a legend in the area of professional development, and my former boss at Vanderbilt University. And it’s called specifications grading, and I said “What is specifications grading?” So I read this book, and I was converted on the spot. And I’ve been using specifications grading in almost all of my classes, except for one instance of ungrading last year, ever since. And so, I’m in various forms, and always tweaking, always experimenting, and trying to change things up. But, specifications grading is exactly along the lines of these four pillars that David is mentioning. There are clear content standards that we call specifications. The idea is not to give like points, but marks, to use a sort of a non-American term for those, marks that indicate progress, like you’ve met the standard, that’s what you get instead of a 10. Or you’re progressing, that’s what you get instead of a five, and giving lots of helpful feedback and especially letting students retry things without penalizing them for retry. To me, that’s like the thing that drives the loops. That’s been my main sort of area ever since for the last several years,
David: I’ve used a pretty wide variety of different alternatives. It’s come to the point for me where I think about all these different types of alternative grading systems that have names like standards-based grading, or specifications, or ungrading as elements to put in and they may be appropriate in some classes and not in others, depending on a whole bunch of factors. For example, I’ve taught intro level classes where I use a lot of standards-based grading where that means I’ve sort of divided up the topics into fairly fine-grained standards describing what a specific skill is, and what it would look like for a student to achieve it. And then the grade is essentially based on have they shown me that they thoroughly understand that, they can do the thing described in each of these standards and grades are based on meeting or not meeting those standards. And that can look like pretty traditional assessments, quizzes or exams or homework or such things. But instead of getting an overall grade, they get a mark, like Robert was talking about, for each standard. Yup, you’ve achieved this. Nope, you haven’t yet. Maybe they need to do it a few times. But that’s one element. It’s really useful for sort of discrete skills, intro level things. I’ve used specifications in a similar way that Robert is talking about. One of the strengths of specifications is that you sort of look at a student’s work holistically and say, “Have they overall shown me they can put these ideas together, understand the concepts, use all the different things that I think matter within this assignment,” and that works really well on written work… We’re mathematicians where students write proofs, it’s a detailed explanations of why something’s true, or in a project or in a portfolio or something longer than that. It’s really useful, maybe in upper-level classes or in places where I want students to show synthesis. And I’ve gotten pretty deeply into ungrading, or at least as I use the word ungrading, meaning removing grades entirely, even marks, in the way we’ve been talking about as another element that can be useful either in an entire class or just as individual things to do within some assignment. So I’ve covered a lot of this, I continue to push on what’s most appropriate in different classroom situations and different student situations.
John: I’ve tried some of the same things too. But one concern from a lot of faculty who have tried mastery grading systems or mastery quizzing and those types of things, is that it can put a lot more work on the instructor to do the grading on multiple attempts. In Linda Nilsen book, she suggests giving students a certain number of attempts, but limiting those. How do you keep the work manageable so that you’re not spending all of your time grading additional attempts, as students are working towards mastery.
David: Yeah, the thing you mentioned from Linda Nilson’s book, attempts without penalty doesn’t mean attempts without limits, and that is really important. And yeah, limits like that are one way to do it. There can be limits on number of attempts, or on frequency of re-attempting something or revising something once per week, once total, something like that. Those sorts of limits can just be really useful. And I know, I always encourage new instructors or people just starting to use these systems to start out limited, and then add flexibility because that way, they will be able to do it if they need to, and not do it if they don’t want to.
Robert: Yeah, you know, another thing too is, not just in the reassessments, but in your overall design of your course, including the grading system, you got to keep things as simple as humanly possible. This is something David and I just hammer home constantly, like every other paragraph ends with keep it simple, because people who want to mess around with grading systems are people who like tinkering with systems, and I am one of those people, and I know that when you start tinkering, it’s very hard to stop. And you end up with this massive Rube Goldberg like device that is your class and to you, it looks beautiful, but when you face it towards students… I mean, the first time I did specs breeding, I had 68 learning objectives that students had to meet throughout the semester and it was a nightmare. At the first of the semester, I thought, I’m a genius. I mean, look at this beautiful grading system I’ve devised. It’s going to revolutionize everything. And the only thing it did was give me a grading jail for four months. Just keep it as simple as humanly possible, and you’ve got to cut the work off at the source, I think. David and I wrote a book about grading, but we don’t like grading. I mean, nobody really likes the process of it. But it can be made at least a fulfilling undertaking if you are orienting it towards growth. But you still don’t want to be doing it 8-10 hours a day. So keep things as simple as humanly possible and put some limits on that. It’s okay to create a little bit of scarcity when it comes to the reattempt side of things. The feedback needs to be helpful that you give to students, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly lengthy. It might just be a couple of sentences, it might just be: “You did this really well, and this needs work.” …to kind of keep it right to the point, and then that helps the students who are on the other end of this too also experiencing a workflow possibly overload. And I worry more about them than I worry about myself. And so this makes it more likely they’re going to read your feedback if it’s shorter, more concise, and it makes it shorter to give.
David: Yeah, I want to emphasize that it can be a lot of work for students as well. Something that I suggest a lot is, if you want to use a system that emphasizes these pillars, especially reattempts without penalty, you’ve got to then think about those re-attempts as part of the regular workload of your class. Really what it means is you’ve got to think about the process of learning, that whole process, is part of the time that students are going to have to invest into it, and that you need to value that in your timeline for the class. So I like to think of maybe if you expect a student to work, however many hours per week on your class, account for whatever time each assessment takes, add another half for how much they might need to do revising or reassessing or reworking on things. And that can lead to really difficult decisions. You’ve got to cut stuff out if that’s going to happen. I don’t know, basically, anybody who looks at a classroom teaching and says, you know, there’s not enough in here. And so you got to make those difficult decisions, but it is worth it. Because what comes out of it is a student knowing things that are still in there way better than they would have otherwise.
Rebecca: I think one other barrier that faculty sometimes face is learning management systems, and how they guide you towards particular kinds of grading systems and evaluation systems. I wonder if you can share some tips that you have from your own experience of dealing with a learning management system to help you and your process rather than getting in the way of implementing some of these techniques.
Robert: We’re a Blackboard campus, and we’re making a transition right now and I’m honestly not sure how the new system handles those. But in at least the next to most recent version of Blackboard there was a thing called a schema, which is basically a way of going into your gradebook and defining a way to map number inputs to text outputs. And so I can set an assignment up to be graded on zero or one point. And then I can only enter in zero or one. But I could tell Blackboard if I enter in a one put “meets expectations” in the gradebook, and if I’ve put a zero put “does not meet expectations” or a happy face emoji and a frowny face emoji or whatever I feel like doing. And I have zero experience with any other learning management systems over the last 15 years, so I can’t really speak to that. But I know that many memory management systems allow you to customize the way that your numerical inputs present themselves in the students’ gradebook. And if you can find out how to do that, that’s the way to go, as far as I’m concerned.
David: And even if you can’t, the thing Robert mentioned, that essentially everything is a zero or a one, these systems all want to use points. So just refusing to play that game by making everything a zero or one. Even if students are seeing the zero or the one, it’s a lot easier to interpret the zero or one as success or not, than it is if you have points showing up somewhere else, and you’re trying to convince students No, no, no, when I put in a five, that meant something that doesn’t mean five points, that’s not going to fly. So limiting it to just a zero or one, a complete or incomplete, something like that works pretty well. That’s also true for spreadsheets. So if you just want to keep your info in a spreadsheet, they still want to work with numbers for the most part, but you can think of everything as a zero or a one. And then you start to change your mind from averaging or totaling things to counting. So I’m counting how many standards a student has completed, I’m counting how many assignments they’ve met the specifications on. And that’s really the same as saying, how many ones do I see here? One last thing is, everybody seems to have a different LMS. Even those of us who use the same one don’t quite use the same version of it [LAUGHTER]. So the best thing to do is to find someone who knows it really well and talk with them and say, “How do I make this type of thing display?” …and they probably know a way,
Rebecca: I’m gonna have this conversation with John about our LMS.
John: We’re using Brightspace from Desire to Learn, and it does have those capabilities.
Robert: And one thing I would say is that these days, as the ideas about alternative grading get more and more airplay, I think the tech companies are starting to listen to these things. I mean, you’re actually starting to build these things in as a competitive device like “Ah, you should adopt our LMS, because we can let you do ungrading and you don’t have to deal with all the hassle of hacking your own LMS. So I feel like ed tech companies should be paying attention to all this great interest that’s swelling up, it’s like this is a way to earn customers, honestly.
David: Something I’lll say most LMS’s do seem to do pretty well is to allow you to get feedback in a variety of ways. And so if you can de-emphasize that grade portion, just 0-1 or hide it or something, especially like I accept all assignments through Blackboard nowadays, giving feedback’s pretty easy on that. So that, in my mind, is a benefit.
Robert: Yeah, Blackboard does a really well, actually, that if you submit a PDF into Blackboard as an assignment, it’s easy to leave comments on it, and it keeps all the versions of it. So you can go back and easily see the students trajectory from the very first draft that they do all the way to the present day. And I think that’s really powerful, actually.
Rebecca: I’ve used rubrics to set up essentially specifications as well, like it’s met or not met.
David: Absolutely, yeah. If you know what you’re doing setting up rubrics, I don’t, that’s the problem for me. But if you know what you’re doing, that’s fantastic and it can also save you time.
John: Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion of interest in ungrading. Does this approach work as well in all contexts, and for all students?
Robert: People are starting to use ungrading to mean anything other than traditional grading. And I think that’s leading to a lot of confusion, honestly. I was working with some teachers recently who were saying that, “Oh, I’m using ungrading but don’t have time, I’m being overwhelmed by all these quests for reattempts.” And it turns out, they weren’t using ungrading at all, they were totally grading thing. When we say ungrading, we mean like a specific approach to evaluating student work where nothing gets a mark, literally ungrading. You get a letter grade at the end of the semester, because most places require that, but it’s all based on a term that’s come up recently, that I really prefer, is collaborative grading. You’re working together with the students throughout the semester to talk about the quality of work, but nothing is getting a mark on it. I have a comment for you and you can either choose to iterate on that comment with a feedback loop or leave it alone. At the end of the semester, you’re going to sit down together and collaboratively determine what your course grade is based on the body of work that you’ve accumulated in some sort of portfolio situation with some clear standards for what an A would look like, a B would look like, and so forth. So that’s what we mean by ungrading. The explosion of interest in “ungrading” may or may not be all about ungrading the way we’re referring to it. So I just want to be clear about the terms before we answer this question.
David: And just add even another thing, it’s both that sort of umbrella term and what Robert just said and the general philosophy and a buzzword that people attempt to apply to random things they use. It’s unclear what someone means when they say ungrading.
John: When we’ve been talking about it, we’ve been talking about it exactly as you described as an extreme form of alternative grading where there are no grades other than one that is decided in consultation with the student at the end of the semester. And sometimes at midterm if that’s required in the institution. From what we’ve seen, this is used quite a bit in humanities fields, but it tends not to be used very much in the STEM fields. What are some of the barriers or some of the concerns that might be raised for ungrading in terms of in what contexts it may not work as well.
Robert: I have tried to fully ungrade a course once, and I might use it again. But the issue that I was coming up with with my students, is what I say is that ungradiing works precisely as well as students’ ability to self assess. If you have students who are struggling with the ability to self assess, or they’ve never tried it, or they’re new students, or younger students who maybe are still emerging with that idea… the whole thing about ungraded is that it’s predicated on students looking at their own work and self evaluating. And if that’s an issue, then I’m not totally sure that ungrading, as we’re defining it, best serves that population. I know I struggled with it. And this can be more me than anything else. Maybe I just don’t know how to draw students out and I need to work on that. It’s an area of growth for me, certainly. But if you have a population of students, for whatever reason, whose ability to self regulate or self evaluate is questionable, or kind of low, we’re not going to say bad students, because we’re all growing… it’s the whole point of our book… if you deploy ungrading with that population, you might be sort of targeting the weakest point in your class. And so maybe, in that case, some marks wouldn’t be such a bad thing, like use a specifications grading approach where the marks are just like: you’re progressing or you’ve met the standard. Just some kind of simple mile marker that shows students where they are. When I used this, once, it was an upper-level class, it did have a lot of writing in it, a math class. I would leave comments on their paper and I would just get questions like, so does it meet the standard or not. And I didn’t like to sort of be telling students this, but I felt like this is the way I helped them. I said like, “hasn’t met our standard yet, here is what you need to do.” So I thought, if I’m going to do that, why don’t I just put a mark on it? It seems like I’m just beating around the bush and trying to be cool by not giving marks and it’s like I’m thinking more about myself than I am about the students at that point.
David: I think that a general thing that everybody needs to think about when using any kind of alternative grading is, this is something new for students… almost guaranteed. And like any other new thing, it needs time to learn, you need to encounter it a few ways, you need to try to make sense of and probably fail initially, and then come back and you’ve got to work to understand it. Ungrading is sort of an extreme form of that. There’s more that needs to be understood about how it works, there’s more skills that need to be built. And I think, as instructors, we need to think about that and think about teaching how our evaluation systems are working and how the grading is going to work. And think about what skills we need students to build up in order to successfully engage with those. And ungrading asks a large amount of that. And I say this, as I very much enjoy using ungrading also in some upper-level math classes and I think it’s worked pretty successfully for me. But this sounds funny to say about something called ungrading, it requires scaffolding, it requires helping students build up that ability to self evaluate, advocate for themselves, to be able to understand what it is that matters in that particular system. But what I just said is also equally true for standards-based grading or for specifications grading, but with different skills that they’re building up. It’s also true for traditional grading, although it feels more familiar to students, but it still requires some scaffolding for them to understand what exactly is going on in the evaluation in this class.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of your own experiences with ungrading and how you have done some of that scaffolding, what some of those early stages of scaffolding might look like, to understand the system.
David: So initially, I was having I think it was three check in meetings per semester, where I would meet with every single student in my class, like a 10- or 15-minute discussion, and we would talk about where they’re at. And that inevitably brings out students’ questions, and they don’t understand this part of they don’t know what that is about. And so that was one thing that I did, right? Those were the collaborative aspects of ungrading, and it was overwhelming, it was too much to meet with every single student that often. I still love being able to meet with students. And I use that as one of the tools in the toolbox. But nowadays, to sort of help build that up, I have a system where… this is actually done through homeworks for me… it’s like periodic homeworks and there’s some mathematical content. And there’s also some little additional thing where I ask a question, and early on, it might be something like, “Okay, what is a specific goal related to… and then I might have some of the math related content in the class or as a specific goal you’d like to work on related to this.” And that’s a fairly small thing. I ask students to say something along the lines of “I really want to work on improving my understanding of this one thing” and I can either respond to that as “Okay, great. Here’s the way I can suggest that you work on that,” or I can respond to it as… well, I don’t say it this way, but… “I can see that you’re having trouble elucidating the goal and so let’s talk about that” instead. And then another week or two down the line, there’s another maybe slightly higher-level task having to do with assessing themselves or thinking about their progress in the class. And so they’re scaffolded and I can, at each stage, see if a student is succeeding, in sort of the way that I’m looking for them to be thinking about their progress. And if not, then I can pull in a, “Hey, let’s actually meet and talk about this. And then I’m gonna give you a task to practice with that.” It’s really individualized, which can be a tough thing. But for me, it’s really fun to actually see students grow in that particular way, in addition to growing in the mathematical content.
Rebecca: So faculty that want to move to less traditional methods, what are some small steps a faculty could take to get started?
Robert: Well, I really appreciate that question. Because we don’t ever want to give the impression that you have to go all in on one particular grading system in order to like, be cool, or be a good professor or whatever, because everybody’s in a different position. Some people may not be in a position to ungrade, and we are never going to come out and say, “If you really care about students, you will do ungrading or you’ll do standards-based grading or whatever.” It’s like people care about students all over the place and just can’t or have mitigating circumstances. So I would say we laid out these four pillars: clear content standards, helpful feedback, marks that indicate progress, and reattempts without penalty. If a professor takes one of those pillars, and kind of drills into it on just a handful of assignments, that’s definitely progress in the right direction. So for example, you could take your next test you’re gonna give, experiment with letting students reattempt it, or reattempt different versions of it. So go one test, one class, allow reattempts without penalty, or give feedback that really gets to the point, not gives points, but gets to the point of what’s being done well and what isn’t being done well. Just pick one of these four pillars and just go with it. There are some small scale methods you might think about, let’s say, instead of grading your final exam, how about ungrading your final exam. Just say you need to lay out some standards for what constitutes successful work on your final exam and maybe that’s like 70% on the content. And then you got to write some reflective essays, and say, if you don’t meet expectations on the final exam, that’s a minus on your course grade, or something like that. So you can roll in aspects of alternative grading systems, whatever seems to resonate with you on small-scale individual assignments. And that’s really good progress. It’s really good data for you as the instructor too. You run these experiments, you ask students how it went, and then you just make notes and you iterate on that. It’s exactly the same thing that we asked students to do in these grading systems. You try something, you get feedback on it from a trusted third party, you iterate on it and try again.
David: I want to add one thing, because this is something that I always see happen when people first start using some kinds of alternative grading. Just for yourself, write a really quick list of what you think the major topics are in your class, aim for 10 to 20 things that are the important things to get out of the class, and then go pick some of your exams or quizzes, or whatever, and match them up. “Oh, on this one I was addressing these things and on this one, I was addressing those things.” And that can help you actually think about, “Oh, you know, I’m not really addressing this thing in my assessments at all, that I said was really important.” Or “Holy Moly, I have hit this one thing over and over and over all the assessments at the cost of not covering a bunch of others.” The first time you do this, even if you’re not showing students what the standards are, it can be amazing. “Wow, I’m not assessing what I say matters.” And that can adjust just how your assessments are focused.
John: Sounds like you’re advocating a backwards-design process where you start out with clearly defined objectives, and then you make sure that there’s alignment. And also, I think it might be important to make sure that students see the connection between those things, and that it’s a transparent process, which I know is something you’ve advocated in terms of your work on assessment.
David: Absolutely. And sharing your reasoning with students I think is very valuable, bringing something in from above and saying we shall now do it this way, because I said so, doesn’t work and you’re gonna get a lot of pushback, but talking with students about why you’re doing things and how it’s good for them, that makes a huge difference.
Robert: And don’t call it an experiment, okay. [LAUGHTER]
Robert: I’ve read some syllabi lately. It says, I’m going to be experimenting with this experimental new experimental grading system. And of course, you know what that is going to sound like to students… that I’m the subject of an experiment. What am I doing here? And so you’ve instantly killed your buy-in.
David: I’ll actually say, I don’t even give names to what I’m doing. So I am ungrading a class this semester, I have never used the word ungrading or any other name for it. I find that giving a name to things like that can help people sort of reduce it down to like a one dimensional idea, rather than engaging with what it actually is. I’m just “Oh, this is what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it this way.”
Robert: Yeah, I have to share this story. When I started doing specs grading I did actually put we are using a thing called specifications grading on my syllabus. So, I got a call from our research office on our campus, they had gotten a call from the parent of one of my students complaining to them that I was experimenting on their child without informed consent, that I needed to give an informed consent form to my students before this happened. And I thought, well, that’s a weird flex from a parent and they call up the Office of Research Compliance [LAUGHTER] and complain about the Professor, but as you can just see even just the barest mention… Just tell students what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. If I have to name it, nobody cares what the name is, it may not even have a name. And all this we mentioned before, that most of the people we interviewed for the book are not using any sort of canonical form of anything. It’s just like a little bit of this, a little bit of that, like cooking in your kitchen, you don’t use just one spice, you combine them, that’s where you get your unique flavor of what you’re doing.
John: Would it be fair to say that, given the title of your book and focusing on grading for growth, that one of the things you’re addressing is how to shift students from focusing on trying to maximize their grades to maximizing their learning?
Robert: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. I think a lot of frustration that I know I feel and I hear from other faculty is students tend to spend an order of magnitude more time talking about what they have to get on exam X to get grade Y than they talk about the actual content in the course. And we teach math, and I think some of the students who struggle the most with our math are doing like these amazing statistical calculations to try to figure out what the average has to work out to be. It’s like, “where was this in my actual math lesson?” I remember riding the bus home one day, from our downtown campus back to where we live, and I overheard this conversation and I said “Oh, this is this has got to come to an end.” [LAUGHTER] And absolutely, we want students to focus on their growth and I think students want to focus on their growth, too. I mean, students really, in the end, don’t want to think about all this stuff. They want to think about, “How am I growing as a human being? Is when I’m doing really meaningful? Where am I as a learner? Do I have any value in this vast educational system that I’m entering into?” And so if we can even just orient one small thing, like our grading system, towards convincing students that they have value, and are human beings in a stage of development, I think that’s worth it.
David: And that means we need to believe it, too. So I like to tell people who are thinking of using an alternative grading system, think about why you’re doing it, and what your students are going to get out of it. But definitely approach it as like, “Okay, I care about my students, and I want them to succeed.” And we’ll sometimes talk about incentives… grading systems set incentives in a class, and that can feel sort of like you’re trying to mess around with people and then incentivize you to do things a certain way. Traditional grading systems set incentives that are really kind of perverse towards learning. And if we can change those incentives, or just remove some of the ones that aren’t as good, that’s really a lot of what we’re aiming for here. And yeah, just respecting how people naturally want to learn anyway, that just allows them to do what they are as human beings going to do anyhow, or what they would naturally do.
Rebecca: So everyone wants to know, when can we have your book in our hands?
Robert: Well, it looks like on the Stylus website, it says July. So that’s what we’re going with for now. [LAUGHTER] I guess it’s sort of out of our hands at this point. We have one more round of copy edits to do. But it says July, you can preorder it now through the Stylus website and should be in your hands this summer.
John: My preorder has already been sent in. [LAUGHTER] So I’m waiting for a copy.
Robert: Awesome. Thank you.
Rebecca: And you mentioned earlier something about a blog. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
David: Yeah, if you’re interested in some of our ideas, go check out our blog, it’s gratingforgrowth.com …all spelled out. So, Robert and I started this sort of as a way to workshop some of our ideas for the book. So you can see proto-ideas. And we’ve also posted some examples of some of the case studies of some of these interviews that I have done with people using a lot of different alternative grading systems there. Every week, we post something new, or we have guest posters. There’s a really huge variety of ideas that show up on there.
Robert: And if any listener wants to contribute a guest post, we are accepting applications at this time… not really applications, just reach out. And we’re looking to hear. Now that the book is kind of close to coming out, we’ve had this discussion, you and I, David about where does the blog go from here once the book is out, and I feel like a great use of our time is to elevate the voices of other people. I mean, there are so many people out there doing great work, who are not education rockstars, they’re not on the lecture circuit or whatever. They’re just rank and file heads down people doing great work in the classroom. I love those people getting their ideas out there and seeing what they’re doing. So to me, that’s been a really rewarding experience.
David: So gradingforgrowth.com.
Robert: Right. It’s actually a substack. You can subscribe to it. It is free. It’s never going to cost anything and it comes every Monday. Except for taking planned breaks for holidays, we haven’t missed a Monday in two years.
David: Well, now you’ve cursed us, Robert. [LAUGHTER]
Robert: No, I put the pressure on me because then I got to step up. I think I’m next, actually. No, you’re next.
David: Oh, crap. [LAUGHTER]
Robert: Sorry, Dave.
John: We will put a link to that in our show notes.
John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to emphasize?
Robert: Well, I think I would just re emphasize simplicity. I mean, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I think Leonardo da Vinci said that. And so, when you’re designing a class simplify as much as humanly possible, and no more. But I think your students are going to be well served by less, honestly. I think we tried to do way too much in our classes, and we will be well served by this too. I mean, I have another blog that deals with productivity and time management in academia. And that’s the key thing. I mean, a lot of faculty struggle with overwork and burnout or just doing too much and there’s a lot of stuff you can say no to and I think keep things very, very simple and that can be a whole lot. podcast about how to simplify your life in higher education, especially applyied to course design and grading systems. You don’t want to make choices in July when you’re planning your fall courses that you end up regretting by October.
David: I will say that something that did come up earlier, briefly, but there’s not one right way to do it. You should not feel like you must go all out ungrading, you shouldn’t feel like you have to do specifications grading exactly the right way. Find something that works for you, look for models, pick and choose the things. If you look at something and say, “How could that possibly work?” then don’t do that. And yeah, we’re not judging you. Find something that works well and it’s going to be good beer students.
Robert: Yeah, and especially the last thing you just said, David is so important. All this stuff is predicated on actually communicating with your students. Don’t just sort of wait for the course evaluations. You have to really get in and talk, actually talk with your students on a regular basis and get feedback and see how things are going. And that’s one of the great strengths of all these four pillars sort of oriented approaches is that it really does get students talking with each other and with their faculty members. And I think that’s, maybe in the end, the best thing about all this.
Rebecca: Well, we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Robert: Well, for me, I know I’ve been spending the last two years not only as a faculty member, but working in our president’s office under what’s called a presidential fellowship. And I’ve been coordinating large-scale institutional cross-institutional teaching and learning initiatives, mostly focused on active learning spaces. And so that’s been a particular focus of mine for a few years. That is wrapping up now. But we’re looking at maybe some interesting and exciting extensions of that idea where we’re going to try to surface and looking for what our faculty are already doing in terms of instructional innovation. There’s a lot of stuff out there, like we said earlier, but even in our own institution, a lot of faculty are doing really innovative and creative things and effective things but are kind of working under the radar. So the President and I, and those around us, are kind of thinking how can we look and find these faculty, get them together, elevate what they’re doing, and sort of make Instructional Innovation a normative practice at our university. So that’s that’s kind of what’s next for me is figuring out how to make that work on a practical level.
John: Sounds like a wonderful plan. I know, we’ve been talking about some ways of doing the same thing at SUNY-Oswego. And it’s a challenge.
Rebecca: It’s no small task. [LAUGHTER]
Robert: It is, it is.
David: Something that I am getting more and more interested in is what helps instructors be successful in any kind of educational innovation, not just alternative grading and changes in their pedagogy, anything like that. But especially when it comes to grading, there’s so many variations. And in so many different situations where instructors are working, what are the things that help them best succeed? And what are the things they do that help their students buy in and succeed most? And so looking at those sort of things from a more fine grain perspective, I think it’s going to be somewhere that I’m going next.
Rebecca: That sounds exciting.
John: It does. And I hope you’re both come back and talk about the success of these initiatives in future podcasts.
Robert: We’d very much like to.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your stories. And I know that many people are looking forward to your book.
Robert: Thanks a lot for having us.
David: Yeah, it was great to be here. Thank you
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.