The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Experiments in Grading

Another thing we can do to improve our pedagogy, along with reflecting on our failures, is to experiment. So, for this installment of the Teaching Workshop, I, Jennifer Morton, will share a pedagogical experiment I conducted in my philosophy of education class this past term.  Have a teaching experiment of your own to share, or questions to be answered? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Few of us give much thought to our grading philosophy—the principle that underlies how we assign grades and our justification for employing one principle as opposed to an alternative—or discuss this topic with the students in our classes. Last term, in my Philosophy of Education class, I decided to upend this aspect of my teaching. I started the term by discussing grading with my students and by giving them a chance to vote on which grading principle we would use in the course. 

I offered them three grading options. The first was ‘grading relative to peers’ and, as the name suggests, I would assign grades to students based on their performance relative to the other students in the course. The second was ‘grading relative to an absolute standard’ in which I would grade students based on their performance relative to an appropriate standard of philosophical excellence. The third was ‘grading relative to effort.’ According to this scheme, students would receive at least a B+ if they turned in every assignment and showed that they had made a good faith effort in the exam and final paper. This was by no means ‘easy’ as I required students to turn in weekly reading responses along with an outline and draft of the final paper. Students whose final paper or exam was exceptional could get a grade higher than B+. The idea was to give the students who put in all the required work a comfortable safety net. Students who did not turn in all the assignments would receive a lower grade at my discretion.

When I announced the plan to the 30 or so students in the class, many of them were shocked. A couple asked me after class whether I was serious. No professor had ever asked them to vote on a grading policy that would affect them! Most of them were excited to reflect on and discuss grading—a topic that few of them had thought could be the object of philosophical analysis.

I asked students to read Christopher Knapp’s “Assessing Grading” and Alfie Kohn’s “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation.” We then discussed the pros and cons of each grading scheme and they debated the different options with each other.  I learned a lot from these discussions. Many students described feeling frustrated and impotent in the face of grades. From their perspective, what grading principle they are subject to in a class is arbitrary and highly dependent on the professor’s personality.  Most of them felt that grading was unfair, inconsistent, and that it made their learning experience worse. Very few of them thought that their grades reflected their abilities or knowledge. Unsurprisingly, 85% of the students voted in favor of a policy that rewarded effort.

I have to admit that I was worried that an effort policy would be too ‘easy.’ After all, how hard could it be to turn in every assignment. It turns out that my fears were ill-founded. It’s true that a policy that rewards effort rewards different students than one that solely rewards philosophical acuity or excellence in writing (though, unsurprisingly, there are many cases of overlap), but it doesn’t reward substantially more students. The students who lose out are those who think that they can disengage for most of the term and then make-up for it with a good final paper. I had no compunction about giving those students a worse grade than they might have gotten under a different grading policy.  The students who win out are those for whom philosophy doesn’t come naturally but who are diligent about trying. I also had no problem giving these students a B+ for their dedication. The policy certainly rewards consistency over sporadic intense effort. I also found it resulted in more students regularly reading and engaging in class. One welcome side-effect is that it made those students who are prone to feel anxious about their grade throughout the term more relaxed and, I think, better able to learn. Interestingly, I had very few complaints about grades.

Of course, such a policy is controversial and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that all undergraduate philosophy professors adopt it. I can think of many good reasons to reject. Some will think that a philosophy class should only or mostly reward philosophical skill. Others might argue that a B+ for simply trying is too high of a grade. Finally, I might be accused of contributing to grade inflation. All of these are good concerns to raise. But what I would recommend without hesitation is that you reflect on your grading policy if you haven’t in awhile and, if possible, discuss it with your students. I learned a lot by doing so.

Additional Resources:

What teaching experiments have you tried? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.