Part of my motivation to embrace standards-based grading is a result of my frustration with the disconnect between letter grade and student understanding in my classroom. As a self-reflection, I’m examining some of my own grading practices that are not only unhelpful to students, but also allow students to earn grades that are not representative of their learning.
1. Dropping lowest ______ grade
This post is certainly prompted by Shawn Cornally’s post “To Drop or Not to Drop?” As someone who took the “shortcut” into the teaching profession, I tended to follow the grading practices associated with my most successful courses as a student. Dropping the lowest ___ grade is one of those. Many of the courses I took as a student from high school on had a similar policy. Even a quick Google search shows that many courses at prestigious colleges offer to drop the lowest (homework/quiz/test/lab/paper) grade.
- Why I did it: Students have bad days. As I teach at a school where it isn’t a matter of whether you go to college, but whether you get into an Ivy, it prevents one bad grade that may not be representative of a student’s understanding from affecting the overall grade.
- Why I’m dumping it: Standards-based grading addresses this concern. Since my focus is now explicitly on mastery of learning goals, rather than accumulation of points, students will always have an opportunity to demonstrate mastery at a later date.
2. Retake penalty (known alias: “Learn it fast” bonus)
Generally, I’ve always allowed test corrections or (formal) lab report rewrites. Particularly with lab reports, I give extensive feedback, and want the students to be able to communicate their work effectively. Generally, any retake or rewrite had penalty (could only earn half of missed points back).
- Why I did it: From an over-stressed, or procrastinating student’s perspective, no penalty would lead to “abuse;” (students would turn in crappy work, knowing they could effectively get an extension by redoing it for full credit later)
- Why I’m dumping it: So what? The point penalty was purely punitive. My test correction system is flawed to begin with; most often, students who did poorly simply consulted students who did well to get the correct answers. The way it was set up did not encourage improved learning, but improved correct answers. In-person “corrections” would allow me to better judge whether a student has improved their understanding of the material. As for lab rewrites, I am incorporating more self-assessment and evaluation before a report is submitted, so that the need for rewrites will be minimal.
3. Grading homework
As a student, homework took several roles. In high school, it was in many cases either busy work or work to cover what the teacher hadn’t in class (and wouldn’t cover the next day). In college, it was necessary to be prepared for the next day’s class discussions. In grad school, it was to force you to seek out help from your professor. In my own classes, we did problems extensively in class, and homework served as extra practice or an opportunity to apply skills to an unfamiliar problem.
I’ve taught biology, AP biology, forensics, environmental science, chemistry and AP chemistry, and my homework grading policy has varied from course to course. In all, homework was graded, and was 2-15% of the course grade.
- Why I did it: If students don’t get points for it, homework would certainly fall down their priority list. I obviously place some value in the act of doing homework, otherwise I wouldn’t bother assigning it. Points give it legitimacy.
- Why I’m dumping it: As I encourage (or don’t discourage) working together on homework, assigning a point value to it muddies how representative of a student’s understanding it truly is. If it makes up a large-ish part of the course grade, students have no reason (aside from academic honesty) to not simply copy someone else’s work (or pay a tutor to do it). Going forward, homework should be practice, and improved feedback would be far more useful to the student’s learning than points.