Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Grading: top down or bottom up?

At various points in my teaching career, I've heard of classes in which students were told something like this the first day: "Everyone has an A in this class unless you don't do the work" or "An A in this class is yours to lose" or "If you complete these 5 assignments under our contract, you will get an A." The idea is that this would dispel the students' anxiety about the class and make them work harder for the sheer joy of learning.

I could see the traces of this kind of grading when students would get to my class, look at an essay exam or a paper that I'd handed back, and say, "Why didn't this get an A? Where did I lose the points?"

My practice, as I would always explain to the students when the first exam was handed back, has always been the opposite: a paper starts from zero points/grades and rises up the grading scale based on its quality. A B paper isn't an A paper gone bad in some point-driven way but a paper that began as a 0 and worked its way up to a B ( or"good," as students often forget) level. Better papers worked their way up to an A. Some papers worked their way up to a C.

It seemed to me that the "A is yours to lose" theory of grading would create more anxiety than it would solve, since the only way you could go in such a system was down. Every evaluation opportunity becomes a chance only to fail or to maintain the status quo rather than improve. The best you can do is break even and not lose, but you never really win.

I was thinking of this recently because of something a student wrote about this summer. Her assumption was that all teachers graded on the "points down from an A" model, and her suggestion was that teachers instead start from the bottom and grade upwards since that is more motivating and since that is what students are used to in every game they ever play on their iPhones. I hadn't thought of grading and motivation in terms of games, but it's a great metaphor.

What's your practice?


Anonymous said...

behaviorally, losses hurt more than gains...

My first semester teaching, all but two students got As (those two got Bs). It was a highly motivated class and there was one student who organized the class to make sure everybody had a deep understanding of the material. Morale was high.

The next year, I mentioned on the first day that everyone had gotten As and Bs the last time I taught the class (then talked about how hard the class worked)... some of the bad students only heard, "Easy A/B" and shut off listening after that. They even said as much on the evaluations. They failed.

So now I say, "If everyone works hard, you can all get As and Bs, and that has happened. If you don't work hard, you can *fail* the class. *That* has happened too. You have to put in the effort."

Clarissa said...

I never thought of how and why I organize my grading, so thanks for bringing it up. I just discovered that in literature courses, I grade upwards. There is a check-list of things that need to make it onto the essay that I have in my head and I add points for them.

But in language classes, I grade down from an A. Each mistake costs a certain number of points. For some reason it's easier for me this way.

My grades are pretty low in both kinds of course, though. :-)

J. Otto Pohl said...

I am basically with nicoleandmaggie on this matter. If you work hard you can get an A if you do not you can fail. I had 9 As and 9 Fails out of class of 75 fourth year students. But, the average of all the grades was a B. I assigned a lot more reading than I think their lecturers have in the past. On the other hand my B average is higher than a lot of other classes here. In part I lucked out by self selection of good students. But, I think the idea of stressing if you work hard you should be able to do well helped.

dance said...

I grade from the top on participation, subtracting for missed classes, etc.

I was going to say I grade from the bottom on assignments, adding points as things are accomplished (starting with 50/100 for turning it in), but really it's more like a zone---I assess the item as falling into an A/B/C zone and then I adjust the points within that zone more specifically.

-k- said...

Slightly OT- obviously grading at the grad level is a different beast, but with the one professor who actually took grades off the table (barring any miserable failures, everyone would get an A-, you could 'work up' to an A) I found that it went a long way in allowing me to concentrate on my work for its own sake. I also paid more attention to feedback in that class than in most any other, in part because the professor was very intentional about the role it was to take; as far as I know my own experience was in line with research findings in this area.

I've also taught P/F undergrad courses and found that the majority of students still put in a lot of effort. This could have been due to the nature of the work (involving the undergrads being responsible for working with young children), but I suspect that the student population had already been so thoroughly trained to go for the A that they kept doing so even when the A didn't exist. Similar to the comment upthread by nicoleandmaggie- I think the bulk of student performance and motivation operates independently of the grading system, and students will more or less default to their set point (above and beyond/good enough/bare minimum) either way.

CK said...

We start with zero and earn points for everything. I like the idea of everyone striving for something instead of losing points from something, if that make sense.

word ver = "tweed" (!)

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie: Some students will always hear the "easy A/B" and not the "hard work" part. They want to be the diamond shining among the coal of the rest of the class, but they don't want the work/pressure to get there.

Clarissa, that sounds like a useful way to do language courses. In that instance, either something is right or it isn't (verb endings, etc.), so perfection is possible.

J. Otto Pohl--I agree. The "hard work" idea should motivate the good students and will probably at least serve notice to the rest.

Dance, I do something more like what you do. They get at least 50 points just for turning it in, unless it's plagiarized. I translate the grades into points later.

undine said...

k- I can see how the A- to begin with scenario would take the pressure off graduate students, who ideally would be like you and work their hardest regardless of the grade. I was at a school once where p/f was used for comp classes, and students did seem to try very hard even if the A wasn't there.

CK--thanks! It had always made instinctive sense to me, and, typically, I had never thought about doing it the other way (points off from the perfect A) until I started hearing people promoting this as a "best practice."

Jonathan said...

Isn't it exactly the same? The student starts the course with a perfect zero (100% of nothing?). After every assignment or exam s/he has that many more points toward 100% of the total, but has also lost points for any assignment that didn't receive 100%. At the end of the course the student has gained points for everything done, and lost points for whatever was done imperfectly. Conceptually, there is no difference at all between grading up and grading down, and I have never thought of thinking about it in either way.

Anonymous said...

The places I've worked in the UK have a completely different paradigm, with work placed in a class by various criteria (some of my current ones here, in PDF) and then fiddled up and down in the class by whatever factors the marker feels relevant. So I start in the middle, usually, and move up or down according to mistakes, flashes of brilliance, and so on. But the range is fairly tightly defined just by what the work does.

undine said...

Jonathan, you're right: they're the same in one way, but in another way, I think they have different psychological ends. It's the experience of earning versus the experience of loss, I guess.