The Argument for Collaborative Grading

Instructors and students often have different ideas about what grades are supposed to measure. Should they be about how much students have learned? How much work they have completed? How well they have mastered the subject? Arguably, they measure none of these well. Grades can perpetuate bias, inequalities, and injustice; reduce student motivation and willingness to challenge themselves; and add enormous administrative burdens. No wonder many students and faculty dislike grades. Collaborative grading could be the solution.

Grades are not going away as a tool for evaluation, sorting, and gatekeeping by institutions and employers, and as a measure of success by students. But there is literature on how to adapt the grading process to avoid the drawbacks above, and improve student motivation and engagement, as well as instructor satisfaction. They go by names such as self-grading and specifications grading.

Specifications Grading

In order to grade as objectively and as fairly as possible, the course grade with specifications grading should be based on a measure of productivity. Students earn points for quizzes and assignments they complete to minimum specifications. Minimum specifications can motivate overwhelmed students by increasing expectancy—giving students the confidence that they can complete the task. Students may revise and resubmit an assignment that does not meet minimum specifications for full credit. The ability to revise an assignment supports a growth mindset because it suggests that effort produces learning and supports student risk-taking.

The specification reduces the administrative burden of calculating (misleadingly) precise scores and partial credit for each assignment. This leaves more time to provide meaningful feedback, which can be more motivating and meaningful than a numerical value. Implicit bias may lead instructors to interpret requirements differently for different students systematically and non-consciously, however. Noise can also be a factor. A teacher’s grading rigor can also vary randomly due to unrelated factors such as mood, weather, and distractions–they are human, after all.

Student Self-Grading

Student self-grading helps address some of the above issues. Students have insight into the effort they have invested, the learning they have achieved, the hurdles they have cleared, and the personal goals they have attained. Further, they have experienced how other instructors grade; a student’s self-grades should be a proxy for the average level of grading rigor at the school. Self-grading proceeds in three steps over the term.

At the beginning of the semester, students complete a form in which they set goals in six categories.

  • Skills and knowledge gained
  • Work completed (points earned)
  • Quiz scores (average, trend)
  • Obstacles to overcome
  • Support you’ve offered classmates
  • Participation in office hours, live classes, and events

These criteria identify and motivate focus on many dimensions of learning that grades are supposed to measure but are hard to assess using traditional tools. They support motivators such as growth mindset and a sense of belonging. In the middle of the semester, students grade themselves on each criterion, providing evidence for each. They also provide an overall grade. The teacher provides feedback on points of agreement and divergence. At the end of the semester, students repeat this process as the third step.

Both of these types of grading combined make collaborative grading, and self-assessment plays a big part. Because some students may not complete the self-assessment, and their own measures are subject to bias and noise, the teacher may then decide to calculate a best-fit grade between productivity and self-grade. The final grade would be the average of the productivity grade and the predicted self-grade, adjusted to ensure that high performers were not penalized.

Collaborative grading can create a course that is easier to pass without sacrificing rigor for highly productive students. Collaborative grading incorporates students’s information about their own learning, creating a more robust, valid, and fair measure. Goal-setting and self-assessment appear to motivate students to engage, work harder, and build metacognitive skills.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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