This is another post where I explore and struggle with the notion of grading.
This week I reviewed the first substantive assignment I asked my intro students to write this semester. It was actually assignment number three, where the first two took effort but not much thought. This one asked students to complete a sophisticated task: the apply an economic theory to a real world situation and, after identifying the facts revealed by the theory, to draw some normative conclusions about the situation. I have used this assignment for years and know what to look for in their answers. As I read the essays, I wrote substantive comments for how the essays could be improved, raising questions that would help students take their thinking to a higher level. Only after my reading and writing of comments on all the papers did I start to think about assigning grades.
A not-insignificant number of students failed this assignment. That is, they approached this as a non-economist would, going with their intuition rather than letting the theory reveal the answer to them. Should I give these students an ‘F’ on their essays?
I think it depends on the purpose of the grade. Is the purpose of the grade to make a summative judgment about what the student has achieved on this assignment? Does an F imply earning less than 60% of the total credit on the assignment? I don’t think it should. For one thing, this assignment isn’t about learning content, where learning 59% of the facts isn’t a passing grade, but learning 61% is. Rather, the assignment, applying a theory to derive insights about an issue or problem, is the fundamental goal of undergraduate economics education. It is what economists do. It is far from trivial, and students in the intermediate theory courses regularly show they haven’t grasped it yet. So the objective is not to score the degree to which students fully demonstrate this task, but to help them learn how to competently go about the task.
I have another concern. There’s something about a formal grade and the way that students usually interpret grades that gets in the way of learning. I think this is especially the case for first year students who often have always excelled grade-wise. Getting even a C on an assignment can be a rude awakening to college. I think that the feedback teachers provide on assignments, particularly early in the term, should provide operational information about how students can improve. Traditional grades don’t necessarily do that.
We need to provide opportunities for students to take intellectual risks, but where the consequences of failure are minimal. We need to encourage students who have taken the right approach, a very sophisticated approach, but one which they haven’t executed perfectly, to continue to work in that direction.
What I propose for homework assignments is focusing on the approach students take and (largely) ignoring the details of their reasoning. What this implies is affirming the student who’s taken the right approach but whose product might not be refined enough to earn an A. It also implies providing a signal to the student who is fundamentally taking the wrong tack, but who may have provided enough ‘content’ to avoid an F. In other words, it’s not about assessment of where they are, but the direction in which they are heading.
In practice, I give students credit for a genuine effort at completing the assignment. (On rare occasions I give no credit if it’s clear that the student didn’t put in real effort.) I evaluate their effort using a three level scale which is easily assessed: On the right track, Not on the right track, or Sufficiently well done to be nearly perfect. When computing final grades for homework, I come up with a holistic judgment based on the pattern I see in their assignments graded this way, from which I determine a traditional letter grade.