Should I Throw Out My Gradebook? Part Two: Not for Now

I don’t think I’ll be throwing out my gradebook, at least for now.

I liked experimenting with the specifications grading (or “specs grading”) model for a semester—I wrote about it first here—and I still think there is much to say for the approach. But there are also some drawbacks, and I want to write about some of those here. Then I’ll write briefly about my attempt to give rubrics a try in lieu of specs grading.

Specs Grading Drawbacks

To be clear, the greatest drawback to specs grading is simply that students aren’t used to it. This was a bigger problem in my online community college classes. There, students log into their Moodle courses with an eye towards getting things done as efficiently and quickly as possible. Many of them are taking too many courses for their current skill set, are working full time jobs, and/or are raising families. As such, my online community college students are less likely to read their emails, or the comments that I provide on their assignments. In a system where revising submissions that they have previously turned in is nearly a requirement for passing, it is a problem if they see the Moodle page as simply a list of tasks to complete from beginning to end.

Even though I built in activities that required them to prove that they had read the syllabus, the specs grading system is counter-intuitive enough that a single read through of the syllabus isn’t enough. In my face to face classes, I could coach the students through the system by reminding them how it works. And I could also spend time explaining why we were doing it that way, which is really important for the students to understand. But if I wrote any such explanations online, there was no way for me to gauge if students were reading it and how they were responding.

Contrary to my online classes, I had many students tell me at the end of the semester in my face-to-face classes that they preferred specs grading. The most ambitious students especially liked that the list of standards was clear, and that if they missed something by accident, they had a chance to go back and revise, and need not sacrifice an A average.

For the students that enter my course with fewer skills, however, writing papers that met the specs could be daunting. And the idea that they would be required to revise it to standards, and that would be the only way they might pass the course, could seem especially cruel. In retrospect, I might have anticipated this, especially since this is a general education course that every student on campus is required to take. In the future, I might try specs grading only in an upper level course with a more self-selected group of students.

The specs grading system also gave the students more rope with which they could hang themselves. And I should be clear, there are many ways in which you can employ specs grading, and some of the deficiencies of my model might not be present in other ones. But in the model I adopted for my face to face class, it was too easy for students aiming for a “C” to skip the first few assignments, and that allowed them to develop some lazy habits. If I go back and try it again in the future, I’ll impose some more guardrails.

Finally, I should note without going into too much detail, that in addition to finding friction because of my students’ expectations, I also encountered some friction because a supervisor at one of my institutions had expectations too.

Rubrics: An Alternative?

In an effort to take what I’ve learned by experimenting with specs grading and to put it to use in a more traditional grading regime, I’m beginning to embrace a method that I was never too keen on: rubrics.

One thing I like about rubrics is quite simply that I don’t have to fight my LMS as I was doing with specs grading. I like doing online submissions, and rubric support in Moodle is maybe the only thing I am satisfied with in terms of how Moodle handles things.

The thing I really liked about specs grading is the way that it puts front and center the exact expectations that I have of students. And you can do this with rubrics too. So I am trying to carry over the practice of writing in my assignment descriptions all of the little expectations that I have of writing—things like writing for a specific audience, using quotes judiciously and effectively, minimizing “schmaltz” and cliches—and then keying those to a rubric slot. You don’t need to have a separate row in your rubric for all of these things, but if you’re explicit about them in the assignment description, you can then have a rubric row for something like “writing style.”

The bulk of my rubric rows are fashioned out of the same things I was using for my specs grading standards. For example, in an essay in which students must discuss two authors and then contrast their writings, you might have two rows for “conveys an understanding of the author, their perspective, and their relationship to one or more course themes”—one for each author—and then another row for how the student contrasts the two authors.

Previously, I might have shrugged at the idea that students should see the specific expectations on which they will be assessed before they turn in their work, but I think it’s really quite valuable, and it’s something I’m taking from the specs grading experiment back to the land of traditional grades.

The “A” Paper Question

The face-to-face gen-ed course that I alluded to earlier is a broad survey on modernity, liberalism, imperialism, and anti-imperialism in philosophy, arts, politics, history, and science. As such, it’s an unwieldy course, and as a gen-ed course, it can be very difficult to promote learning that is more than surface deep.

One issue that I face is that many students in writing argumentative papers settle on points of view that lack sophistication, or feature what I refer to as “schmaltz.” They examine the writings of John Locke and Frederick Douglass, for example, in order to affirm simply that racism is bad. In one sense, it’s hard to expect more in the context of the course, but I do want to encourage it. And this is something that I actually had difficulty doing with the specs grading setup that I created.

So in going back to grades, and moving towards rubrics, I wanted to see if I could solve this issue, and I quite like where I ended up. In addition to the rubric rows like the ones I’ve mentioned above, I created a row called “Perplexity/Sophistication of Argument.” I borrow the idea of perplexity from Peter Elbow—ironically, from a paper he wrote about contract grading. The idea, as I describe it in my assignment description, is this:

Think of perplexity as the degree to which your paper poses a question that doesn’t resolve itself with a simple answer. For example, you might argue that reading Frederick Douglass teaches us that contemporary racism is bad and should go away, and that might be a true statement but it lacks perplexity.

Then in my rubric, I can tweak the numbers such that the drop off between a paper that meets the highest category for perplexity and the level below it is fairly steep—say eight points. So it’s a built in device that distinguishes “A” papers from “B” papers.

I also try to discuss what a sophisticated argument is in class. One thing I’m constantly working on is trying to figure out how to bring the ideas in They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein into my classroom writing discussions more. There’s already a lot going on in the course, but I find taking a little time on this really helps develop students’ sense of what it means to write a good thesis, and in tandem with the assessment of perplexity, I think that one can justify the other in terms of course alignment. I’m also finding more and more that bringing in Graff and Birkenstein helps, if I spend enough time on it in class, in fostering discussion-question writing skills. But that will be the subject of another post in the near future, I hope.

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