I hate grading. I happily give feedback to students, but I hate grading. This is especially true with the (false) precision of the 100-point grade scale here at UBC (in contrast to my undergraduate experience with the somewhat coarser grades of A, A/B, B, B/C, etc.).
Do I at least think that a student who receives an 87 on my exam has better achieved the learning objectives than a student with an 83?
But am I confident that if I rewrote the exam and they took it again, they would get those same scores?
But surely, I am at least certain that if I regraded those exams, the scores wouldn’t change.
When I was a student, I viewed grades as objective measures of my learning. Now that I’m the one giving grades, they feel especially arbitrary. More alarming though, I see firsthand how grades warp students’ motivations in a manner that actively impedes their learning.
This week in my graduate course on teaching and learning, we considered assessment. I was mentioning how, in undergraduate STEM courses, traditional approaches (e.g., grades heavily based on high-stakes exam and quizzes) are typically perceived to be absolutely essential. This idea is so ingrained that we don’t even consider that there could be alternatives. This isn’t the case for all of higher education though. As I was pointing out that we don’t grade dissertations, I was suddenly reminded of something from my past. During my postdoctoral appointment at Humboldt University in Berlin, I learned that German Ph.D. students receive a grade on their dissertation and defense. That struck me as absurd at the time, but it didn’t even occur to me that traditional grading in undergraduate courses might be similarly troublesome.
To confirm my memory, I posted a quick poll on Twitter . . .
Because experimental research in teaching and learning is a difficult undertaking (especially in actual classrooms rather than the laboratory), we lack evidence-based guidance for some aspects of our teaching. Where evidence does exist though, I strive to incorporate it into my practice. So what happens when I realize that my evidence-based practice is based on (apparently) fabricated data? First, I take a moment to appreciate the irony that the alleged fabrication was in a study of honesty.
Yes. Next question.
Okay, like all things, this is more nuanced. When this question is posed, the intended point is often that students should be engaged in higher-order learning rather than spending all of their time memorizing disconnected facts. I generally agree with this sentiment, but in order to engage in higher-order learning, students need a solid grasp of the relevant facts and how they are related. In some ways this is obvious, but other reasons behind this may surprise you.
Twice a year, I travel to China to teach intensive 2-week forestry courses (in English) to Chinese undergraduates. Students face several challenges in this learning environment, but English-language ability is the biggest. (I’m not criticizing the students’ abilities. It is simply a key component of the learning environment. I have utmost respect for students taking a course taught in a foreign language.) Students in my courses have a wide range of English abilities. For students with decent English skills, learning in a foreign language introduces extraneous cognitive load (translation efforts use some cognitive bandwidth, leaving less available for learning). Unfortunately, students with marginal English skills simply miss or misunderstand much of what I say when I teach.
I gave my first two-stage exam a few weeks ago. It wasn’t an approach I had considered until very recently. I had previously heard of exams with a group portion, but at that time the benefits weren’t clear to me, and frankly, it sounded odd so I didn’t give it much thought. A few months ago, I was reintroduced to the idea by Judy Chan at a UBC Course Design Intensive workshop. After hearing the process described in detail, the value was immediately clear. This concept aligns with my interest in facilitating effective learning strategies for students, in this case, retrieval practice.
The exam I just gave was a radical departure from anything I’ve done before. During the group portion, I could see through the students’ animated discussions that they were more engaged with the material than ever before. Two-stage exams will be my main approach from this point forward.