Conversations and grading strategies that reflect more equitable practices will evolve as stakeholders understand more about student needs.

What the F? Grading strategies for early career instructors

Conversations and grading policies that reflect more equitable practices will hopefully continue to evolve as stakeholders understand more about student needs

According to a recent study, grading is one of the least stressful activities early career teachers have to complete. Grading is time consuming, however, and more grading-related questions are popping up in the news these days. For instance, are teachers allowed to reduce grades for late work? Are students allowed to retake tests on which they did not do well? It is essential that teachers have a clear and supportive grading system in place to address the scrutiny of today’s students, parents, and other stakeholders.

Setting up a grading system requires more than a calculator. A philosophical foundation is important to how a teacher grades. Having a philosophical basis for grading helps instructors explain grades, their meaning, and their value to students, who may then see the grade as less arbitrary. Two common approaches to further mitigate this arbitrary nature include normative-based grading and criterion- or standards-based grading. To build a strong, meaningful grading policy, instructors must choose the approach that best fits the course design and student learning outcomes.

Instructors who choose a normative approach will grade based upon relative performance. A teacher’s fallback practice may be to grade on a curve; however, curved grading is philosophically flawed in most course level applications. Effective instructional design models and psychometrics generally anticipate that students can master an end-of-course exam with a 70 to 80 percent score. Exams that do not reflect that criteria may have been poorly designed. Otherwise, instructional challenges or lack of student engagement could be to blame. Some college courses simply provide a curved score for students to lower the failure rate or to stratify student performance. This, however, does not evidence how students understood the content. Curved grades only show how students performed in relation to other students instead of reflecting students’ mastery of the materials.

Issues with curved grading methods were especially problematic when remote teaching was enforced during the pandemic. In many cases, remote learning provided new opportunities for cheating, and students were able to buffer their grades at the expense of those who did not cheat. In traditional bell curve criteria, for each student who earns an A, another must fail. Therefore, normative grading practices effectively promote a winner and loser approach to grading. For instructors looking for a more equitable classroom, normative grading tends to miss the mark.

The other common approach is criterion-based grading. Students who meet an assignment’s criteria can earn a passing grade or even an A. This offers greater potential for equity in the grading system. Most letter grade systems are effectively criterion based.  A rubric that shows what criteria students must meet to earn an A-F grade communicates clear goals and standards. Students may choose to what degree they engage with an assignment to earn an A, B, or C, for example. One extreme of criterion-based grading is standards-based grading. Students are simply judged on whether they meet the standard. The grade may be Pass/Fail or a “B” in an A-F scale. Other factors eventually shape the final grade, such as whether the instructor accepts late work or the weight of an assignment toward a final course grade.

A mastery approach in criterion-based grading allows students to retake exams or resubmit assignments until they meet the standard. Two common modifications to this approach are: 1) students must turn in an assignment on time and demonstrate an effort meet the criteria; and 2) students who repeat an assignment cannot earn a higher score than the highest score among those who completed the assignment without resubmitting. Allowing students to turn in corrected tests is another way to encourage a review of materials towards mastery. Using the same point limitations, this will prevent students with a 98 percent from resubmitting while offering an opportunity toward mastery for students who earned below an A.

Determining how to handle late work is its own issue, yet one deeply connected to an effective grading system. Some would argue that late work should always be accepted without deductions. This could become a burden for instructors, however, and impede students’ progress toward mastery. Allowing unapproved late work without penalty limits an instructor’s ability to guide and intervene as necessary for student success. When students wait to turn in assignments until the end of a course, this can be just as destructive as deducting points for late work. What begins as a kind gesture may prove detrimental to student learning. To remedy this, instructors need to find a late work balance that meets the needs of the students, the course, and themselves.

Time and experience impart great wisdom in deciding what late work policy works best. One common approach to late assignments is to mark down a letter grade or percentage for each day an assignment is late. Potentially, instructors could offer one “free” missed assignment per unit or course. Another approach is to encourage students to communicate if they might be late. Though forgiveness may be easier to obtain than permission, encouraging students to communicate is a proactive approach. In most cases, students who ask for extra time can have it. Another day or two could be the difference between a B and an F for some students, and it means less negotiation between the student and instructor in the long run. Ideally, assignments should be building blocks for students to practice skills needed for the final assignments in the course. Grading routine daily homework may be more of an exercise in compliance than in grading for understanding. The same is true at some level with participation. Participation grades must be thoughtfully balanced to ensure they reward engagement in class activities and are not simply rewarded for showing up to class.

A no-zero policy is another grading approach that encompasses late, missing, or sub-par work. Many students spend time figuring out if they have a mathematical chance to pass even with an extremely high final exam score. If students determine they cannot pass, they may not even try.A “0” in a percentage system can destroy a student’s mathematical potential to pass, and most research shows repeating a course provides little incentive for students to improve. The no-zero policy can help students who take more time to understand concepts or who struggle with materials early in a course. The no-zero policy effectively eliminates zeroes from the grading scale. A simple solution, for example, is to move to grading on a 4-point scale with 4 = A in the grade book. It has the same effect as replacing a percentage-based GPA zero with a 50 percent. Like any well-intentioned policy, instructors must make sure it is not abused.

Ultimately, grading and student success are a partnership. In K-12, this includes parents, students, and instructors. Post-secondary educators may partner with students, advisors, and even counselors when discussing a student’s progress. Conversations and grading policies that reflect more equitable practices will hopefully continue to evolve as stakeholders understand more about student needs following the pandemic. In both K-12 and higher education, accountability, engagement, and communication among everyone involved in a student’s success are critical to progress, both for students and for the broader state of education. It is essential that we remember grading is simply a communications tool to assist students in being successful, it is not an end in itself.

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