Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Calculating grades: the eyeball test

I've been thinking about the grading process--not the grading itself, but calculating grades. Like Profgrrrl, I'm a big fan of Excel . Because of my death-match struggles with WebCT/Blackboard, I don't trust it to upload and download grades into Excel accurately, but keeping a separate gradebook in Excel isn't any extra work.

I used to figure everything by hand, using a calculator and more than a few pages of yellow paper. Somehow, though, the process was agonizing, and not because of the calculations. The internal dialogue went something like this: "SmartGirl is so close to an A. Isn't her class participation worth more? So what if she bombed a couple of quizzes? But if her class participation grade gets bumped, shouldn't I also bump Dull but Diligent up and downgrade SleeperGuy, who says little but says it brilliantly?" Out would come the calculator again as I refigured everyone's grade and agonized some more.

I tried a few grading programs, including one that promised that it could drop grades but did not, as I found when checking the results by hand. Once I learned to figure grades out in Excel, though, and to drop grades using the spreadsheet, the prolonged agonizing was done. Because you can plug in different numbers for a more or less subjective category like participation, it became clear that a point or so did not make a substantial difference in most grades, and it also made applying standards of fairness easier.

One unexpected result was that using Excel helped me to see more clearly whether the percentages I'd assigned to various tasks worked well. Since the syllabus contains a combination of "effort" grades (that reward diligence) and, for lack of a better word, "performance" grades (that reward excellence, brilliance, or what have you), I can see immediately if I've weighted one over the other too heavily. For example, if Brilliant Student can flame out too easily by missing a couple of the "effort" grades, maybe those are weighted too heavily.

This is where the eyeball test comes into play. Because the grades are all in Excel in a straight line (as they aren't in the multiple pages of the paper gradebook), I can get a better sense of the whole picture. I look at the paper grades, the quiz grades, and the rest, and it's clear when things are out of whack. Are the "performance" grades all at a C level and the "effort" grades at an A level, and is this bumping up essentially average performance too high in the final grading scheme, or vice versa? Does the eyeball test say that Student X should be getting an A because of paper grades, when her average is closer to a B range because of the "effort" grades?

Because the percentages are set in the syllabus, they can't be changed for the current semester; also, usually the "eyeball test" just confirms what Excel is already saying: that the grades seem fair and reasonable. But using the eyeball test to check for fairness helps me to set the percentages for the next semester so that the class is graded equitably for both kinds of students.


dance said...

Many things in your post strike me as familiar.....I finally just said the hell with it, and daily discussion grades are based on 0 for silent and full credit for not-silent. Eventually I'll put up the post I drafted about this.

Still struggling with how to weight effort vs. performance, though--thanks for such a good articulation of it.

Mel said...

So, do you have a sense of what your ideal balance between effort and performance is? I use a process similar to yours for my actual grading. But my thoughts about how to weight the different components are still developing...

undine said...

Dance, I always think I'm going to write those grades down daily and never do. I end up just thinking over the semester and the student. I'm going to try making some kind of running record next time, though.

Mel, I still don't know what the ideal balance is, but it's weighted toward performance. I just don't think there's a substitute for being able to think, write, and analyze well, however diligent someone may be.

Anonymous said...

just to illustrate how these things work for me--

I do a sign-up sheet for attendance, and I try to take 30 seconds after class just to write an S[ilent] next to the people who said nothing. That's been quick and easy for me, after earlier missteps. Also a good way to use those old spiral-bound notebooks with blank pages remaining.

With my 25-person honors classes, participation is 15%, because almost all of them get high effort scores---with my 35-person lecture/discussion non-honors mix, I should have used 20%, but didn't. The people who took the time to read and talk when it was easy not to I think deserved more than the 15% they got. I keep it low-ish because I tend to grade effort easily.

I'm still struggling with research classes--I tend to grade the outline and rough draft mostly on effort, meaning in research classes students get easy As on an extra 15-20% of the grade, and I'm not so happy about that.