Weighing Student Work

Gold colored scales of justice sitting on a wooden table

Scales of Justice by Michelle Grewe on Flickr, used under public domain

I’m definitely doing too much thinking about contracts and how to set up the expectations fairly. So much so that I’ve realized that I’m stuck on the very essence of grading. I’m no where near ungrading. I’ve lost all track of where I should be.

Fooling Myself

To start, what are my beliefs about assessment? I would be easier to point to the people whose pedagogy I try to work within: Jesse Stommel, Alfie Kohn, and Susan Blum.

Grades don’t work. They cause students to focus on the wrong things. In my contract, students may still be focused on the wrong thing. They are counting (and obsessing) over writing tasks. I’m fooling myself to think that the counting of Completes is immune from the curse of focusing on the elusive grade.

My great confusion on how to count (or not) the group work should have tipped me off sooner. Trying to figure out what would count as effort in a group is the wrong thing. I’m trying to invent a system where I decide how the quality and quantity of work determines the ultimate grade.

I’m still acting as the arbiter of course knowledge and assessment since I am the judge of Complete or Incomplete. I decide whether the effort that students put in counts. If I were truly faithful to the ideals of ungrading, I would be powerless. Students would determine what and when they have learned.

So what if I scrapped it all? What if I counted only submissions? Did the student turn the task in? Yes? Then it counts toward the expectations.

A Model Contract

So what if I go back to Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contracts system? I don’t like it for reasons I’ll get into, but it is a starting place. Here are his contract expectations (p. 127):

Grade Level # of Non-Participation Days # of Late Assignments # of Missed Assignments # of Ignored Assignments
A (4.0) 3 3 1 0
B (3.1) 3 3 1 0
C (2.1) 4 4 2 0
D (1.1) 5 5 3 1
E (0.0) 6 6 4 2

First, let me get my problems with these guidelines out of the way. I don’t like counting attendance, which is what the # of Non-Participation Days essentially does. I believe it’s not only ableist, but also inhumane to students stretched thin with other obligations. The system does have exceptions for excused absences, which could reduce some of the ableism. Still in a time when COVID still exists, I do not want to encourage any system that would ask a potentially sick student to come to class to avoid slipping down the expectations chart. Since my courses are all asynchronous online classes, it’s also irrelevant. There is not such thing as an attendance day to count at all.

I’m not a big fan of punishing students for late assignments either, so that column of the chart is problematic for me too. I believe in a more humane system that trusts students to put in their best effort. If they need an extra day, they should have it. I do recognize that Inoue’s course is highly interactive, and if students do not bring their work to class, they miss getting feedback from others. Peer review is a tough problem to negotiate in a due date system. I may not like this portion of the chart, but I understand why it’s there and critical to the way his classes work.

What counts in this contract model bugs me the most though. This is a deficit model. It counts failures and devalues the idea of failing as a critical part of learning. I’ve read enough of Failing Sideways to know that it’s more valuable (to me anyway) for students to be allowed to fail, to try again, to take risks without being punished.

Toward My Own Contract Model

I need to articulate my own model, and this time, I want something that is more in line with the spirit of ungrading. I haven’t worked out the details yet. Honestly, I haven’t even begun the work of determining what I expect students to do to demonstrate their learning. I do know that I have these goals in mind:

  • I want a positive model that counts things students do rather than things that they don’t. Such a thing should be more Canvas-friendly anyway. As far as I know, Canvas cannot use a system that counts failures.
  • I’m going to have to work in more self-reflection and group reflection. The challenge will be to add that reflection work without over-burdening students. They already have a lot of writing to do in this course.
  • I need that reflection to be authentic, which can be a challenge. In my experience, students are so over reflection. They have been writing reflections on their work their entire academic career. As a result, reflections can look more like an exercise in busywork instead of showing any deep recognition of who and when their writing has changed.
  • I still have to find a way to check student work to ensure that students are on track. I know that I should just trust students to do the work, and not feel compelled to check that they are not turning in blank files (yes, that has happened in the past). I’m just not there though, and I’m relatively sure that anything else would be frowned upon.
  • I‘m going to need a good explanation of the difference between feedback and completing/submitting work. A document can count as a submission and still have extensive feedback on how to improve it.
  • I’m going to have to figure out how to manage the extra work that moves students from a B to an A. I left that part out of Inoue’s system above. He offers several possibilities, including revising projects and creating more in-depth work (p. 132&endash;133). I will surely include revisions, but I need to think that system through.
  • I need to invent a TARDIS because I need to squeeze a lot more time out of this next week. Classes start Monday the 21st.