Are grades failing us?

Welcome to the Points Marketplace

TaskValueTimeConclusion
Complete the Assessment Worksheet+ 10 pts– 3 hours
Read Grading for Equity + 20 pts– 2 days
Late work– 10% /day+ X days
Find a sample rubric+ 5 pts EC– 5 min

At the end of the semester, each student receives a single letter grade that summarizes how well they learned the content of our course.  But, how much of that grade is really a measure of what they learned? How much of a student’s final grade is based on:

How complicated is their life? 

Students with many responsibilities (such as unpredictable work schedules or family members who face emergencies) may lose points on late work because they need to choose between helping their child and helping themselves.

One of the concerns faculty have with removing late penalties is that students will abuse this allowance. This was not my experience when I went from very harsh late penalties to none at all. Most students still completed the assignments on time. The main difference I saw was that students who would likely have dropped due to missing early assignments stayed in the class and learned the content.  

How much extra time do they have?  

When we give students extra points for activities that are time intensive (such as watching a movie and connecting it to course content), we may be grading students on how much free time they have. Faculty often use extra credit as a “slush fund” to make up for points deducted due to things like late work. If we remove those penalties, students can focus on the learning rather than “making up points”.

Do they know the “hidden curriculum” of academia? 

When we make assumptions about what a “good” essay looks like or the test-taking skills students bring, we may be measuring which high school students attended rather than their knowledge of our content. 

red "Top Secret" stamp

When we have harsh late policies but bend them for students who request an extension, we are actually measuring a student’s willingness to tell us about their challenges, their feelings of being worthy of special treatment, and their cultural background.  It’s much more fair to let all students know up front that late work is acceptable. That is a move towards a more equitable learning environment.

A concern I often hear about removing late penalties is that this makes the class less fair to students who complete the work on time. Treating all students equally can seem like the fairest approach but, in actuality, we are creating a playing field that benefits students who come to our class from backgrounds most similar to our own. Clearly outlining the flexibility in our course policies helps us build a course that responds to individual student needs.  This lets us and the students focus on the course content rather than navigating course logistics. 

Let’s revisit the points marketplace

In the table above, a student may choose to lose points for a late assignment over losing hours at work.  After all, they can make up these points with extra credit but can’t make up the lost wages.  And, a student with limited time may skip the reading. This reading takes the most time and results in the fewest points/hour.  Unfortunately, this is also the single most useful item on the list. I highly encourage you to read Grading for Equity (for zero points)! It brings a fascinating perspective that completely changed the way I look at grading.

Disinvestment from the points marketplace

Instead, what if we focus our grading directly on what we want students to learn and remove all the confounding variables that add inaccuracies to our measures. 

For example: I want to measure a student’s understanding of the respiratory system. I could ask students to write an essay – but this measures writing skill AND their understanding of the respiratory system. The writing skills are a confounding variable because they mask the true measure of a student’s understanding of the respiratory system. Similarly, using a timed multiple choice test adds the confounding variables of how fast students recall information and their ability to parse multiple choice test questions. 

An alternative approach to this assignment is to tell students exactly what you intend to measure and let them choose how best to demonstrate this knowledge.  For example:

Trace the movement of a molecule of oxygen from outside the body until it reaches a red blood cell.  This may be easiest to answer using a numbered list, but you are welcomed to approach this however works best for you.

  • Include the following structures: alveoli, bronchus, bronchioles, epiglottis, larynx, pharynx, trachea. Briefly describe each of these structures.
  • Also include the terms: diffusion, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

The assignments in my biology class give students options in how they demonstrate their knowledge.  Students choose to describe this process using a wide variety of strategies: an essay, labeled diagram, flowchart, video, and many more. I’ve been amazed at all the creative and engaging strategies students find for explaining concepts.  Grading becomes fun!  (yes, really…) The key to giving students options in how they demonstrate their knowledge is to be clear about what I am assessing and grading.  Good rubrics (like the one below) are essential.

CriterionExemplaryAccomplishedDeveloping
Structures are described correctly321
Flow of oxygen molecule is accurate described using the listed structures321
Diffusion, oxygen, and carbon dioxide are accurately identified321

Compare this rubric with the table at the very beginning of this article.  What are students asked to focus on? Which gives us more accurate information about what a student is learning? I invite you to share your thoughts and equitable grading approaches in a comment below!

Posted in assessment, Equity, Online Teaching, Rubric Section C.

Suzanne is Coordinator for Distance Education and Student Learning Outcomes at Butte Community College. She is also a biology instructor who has designed and developed over a dozen courses in multiple modalities for multiple institutions. She is a Course Facilitator for @ONE and for Creative Commons as well as a Project Facilitator for the ASCCC OER Initiative. She has created online educational resources for Carnegie Mellon, OpenStax, Nature, Discovery Education, and co-authored the most adopted Biology textbook in LibreTexts. She conducts nationwide trainings on topics including Universal Design for Learning, Adaptable Course and Assessment Design, Open Pedagogy, and Online Course Design.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Suzanne, for a great article! I appreciate your leadership in this area and your encouragement towards rethinking what grades mean.

  2. All of the points raised are true and valid–I see them in my classes routinely. Allowing students flexibility in how to demonstrate knowledge and use assessments that are equitable should be part of our courses and grading structure–but we must make sure that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far. It seems that we must not employ these approached to the exclusion of helping students develop useful skills that will facilitate their success in future course or the workplace (because the pace of educational and social change is slow).

    To use an example from one of Susan Wakim’s workshops; the use of an analogy style question (e.g., Monosaccharides are to carbohydrates as _____ are to proteins) IS inequitable if it is just dropped on an exam with no previous exposure to students because it penalizes them for a lack of exposure to college prep experiences. But if we (instructors) teach students about “analogy thinking”, incorporate it into our lessons, use them in practice questions and activities, and only then use analogy questions on exams then it seems they are no longer inequitable. We have helped students gain a new and potentially useful skill. One they can incorporate into future learning and demonstration of knowledge while also keeping things equitable and covering course material.

    In a similar manner shouldn’t we be striving to reduce the presence of the hidden curriculum in our classes while simultaneously helping students learn how to navigate it? Shouldn’t we both minimize confounding grading variables and provide flexibility in demonstration of knowledge while also helping student develop strategies to successfully deal with the narrow, traditional-style forms they are likely to encounter in future classes or even the workplace?

    To be clear, I am NOT disregarding any of the truths described above in “Are grades failing us”, I’m thinking that there is a value balancing these perspectives and approaches. What do others think?

    • Great points, Matt! I completely agree. Teaching students how to succeed in future classes (and how to navigate the hidden curriculum) is important.

      I think we can incorporate this learning into our content learning. In the example you use (thank you for the shout-out 😁), we can give students the complex test questions as an assignment. The task could be to answer the question and explain HOW you got to the answer. This gives students an entry point into important meta-cognitive and test-taking skills. We could also have students work together (or with us in office hours) to help demystify how to approach these questions. And, we could also have students create similar test questions (with an answer key) to help them deconstruct how they are written.

      This approach also has the benefit of giving students more different ways to interact with the material, which will help them learn it. They key is to be careful in how we assess knowledge. One of the ideas presented in the book (Grading for Equity) is to give students the test we usually do. Then, let them earn back all the points they missed by writing an explanation of how to arrive at the right answer. This lets them practice the new skill of test-taking without penalty. And, it removes the confounding variable from the content knowledge assessment.

      Thank you for the great points and the great discussion! I’d love to have additional thoughts shared on this. What strategies do folks use to balance these two important aspects of our teaching?

  3. Suzanne, thank you. I just made a late-semester change to my grace period/late penalty policy that was precipitated by this wonderful post. While I typically provided a 24 hour grace period, after which a late penalty is added, I’ve now removed this late penalty. Thank you for showing how we can make small changes that benefit all students, especially those that are facing the greatest number of challenges.

    • Hi Holly, that’s fabulous! I’d love to hear about the outcome. Faculty often worry that this will result in more late work, and I’m always curious to hear from those that have tried it. Also, a shout out to Holly’s article about authentic assessment which is a great example of the benefits of moving to authentic assessments. It’s a truly great read!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.