Saturday, May 16, 2015

Counting, Grading, α, β, γ, δ ,ε, στ, ...

A few things happened this week which seemed to point to a nexus on grading, grades, and a throwback to Week 3 of Rhizo15 on what counts. The three thing that came together for me were Whitney's post from Week 3, My own grades from EDDE 802, and me designing (or rather re-designing) the introductory course in instructional design which I will teach/facilitate/rhizolead this summer.  All these things happened independent of one another but in reading Whitney's post I realized that there was some sort of coming together in a nexus, or rather a vortex of grades and assessment.

Part I:  A reaction to Whitney's post
Whitney writes that she is not a fan of grades and that she has found them motivating at times, and demotivating at other times. This got me thinking about my own connection to grades.  People assume that since I have earned 3 master's degrees I am naturally some sort of smart person and that I care about grades. The reality is that I don't.  I don't dislike grades, but at the same time I don't like them either.  I am ambivalent toward them.  As a kid, growing up in Greece my grades were average (or just below average).

In the US, in high school, I was able to hit the reset switch on grades. I had better academic support to be able to catch up in some academic areas that I had fallen behind in K-8. As a result I earned better grades.  One of the reasons, or motivators to earn better grades was also the negative attention I got from my father in the US. Get better grades (translation: get "A") so that you don't get the talk about academic achievement...  Even in college I barely cared about grades, but I needed to maintain a certain GPA to graduate (which I barely made in my major ;-) ). I remember in the final weeks taking the bus into school and sitting next to my professor for my final computer science class trying to draw out of him if I passed the course with a high enough grade to graduate.  Those were the days.

Finally, for my graduate degrees there was really only one reason to care for grades: honors at graduation.  We don't have Latin Honors at UMass Boston for graduate programs, but each department has a Book Award for one graduating student in that degree, and departments also have other awards that they give out during this time (Applied Linguistics I think has six awards each year).  Was this perk motivation enough for me to get straight-A's?  Nope!  I did manage to earn top honors for 2 of my 4 graduate degrees without trying - which probably pissed others off. By the time I was done with my first graduate degree education ceased being about a piece of paper (although it does open some doors), and it was more about life long learning, and more importantly having fun with the stuff you are learning. I think this was probably why I got good grades. I was less concerned with rubrics and more concerned with learning.  But...isn't that sort of oxymoronic?!

Part II: Grades in EDDE 802 (and doctoral-level education in general)
This week we also got grades for my second doctoral course (thus finishing off my first year as a doctoral student).  The grades first hit moodle, and then the SIS (student information system) which had the grade of record.  The course was taught/lead by George Siemens so for me, in addition to getting a refresher, and very in-depth expansion on research methods, I was able to be in the same classroom as someone whose work I've been following since I got into MOOCs in 2011.  The final grade, for me, was more of a curiosity than anything else. I had made a comment earlier in the semester on twitter, while interacting with Lisa (from Cohort 6) and George that grades really don't mean much at this level of study (unless you fail, in which case that signifies something).

I logged into Moodle and my grade was an 81. I thought to myself "not bad, that's like a B+ or A-".  In the US the numeric to letter grade system is different and a 81 at my institution is a B- (and sort of frowned upon in graduate study). Well, the moodle auto-calculation was wrong, and I think my correct score was actually a 90. Again, still not bad - this pushed me into a solid A.  However, what was most valuable for me in this course was not the grade, but the interaction with my cohort, my instructor, the feedback I got, and the grappling with epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies (can't forget about those ;-) ).  The more I learn, the less concerned I am about grades. A simple Pass/Not Pass would suffice for me.

Part III: Design of an intro course
So, just by stroke of luck I have a course to teach this summer: INSDSG 601: Introduction to Instructional Design (just finished the syllabus). I wanted to go all Open Access and Creative Commons with my materials for this course, but the time constraints didn't allow for it.  Oh well, maybe on the next round of design.  The two topics that I really wanted addressed in this course, that I didn't feel were addressed well in previous iterations of the course's design, were:
  •  ID beyond a "simple" process. In other words what areas relate to the instructional design process that learners could have hooks into for future study (either on their own, or through a program like the ID MEd program at my school).  Think of it as an amuse-bouche or an appetizer to wet the learner's pallet for future learning, but that still has relevance for this course.
  • How does one assess this added stuff, and how does one include it in the course without overwhelming the learners?
One of the things that I don't like is haggling over numeric grading.  Even with a rubric, that clearly states the different levels of competency the learners can demonstrate there is (at least in Blackboard) a range.  So if you are in the mid-range of some competency you will be given a grade between 79-89.  Why give one person a 80 and another and 85? What's the difference?   Over the years I've tended to just give everyone the upper range of that category unless I think they've just half-assed it to meet the letter of the rubric (this doesn't happen often).  Since learners in introductory classes are probably coming back to school after a period of not having structured classes grades are probably at the forefront of their minds. I just don't want to haggle for numeric grades - I do want to give feedback and see people grow!  So, my solution is to make assignments pass/not pass.  There are still deadlines (which are important to me). My main issue is that Blackboard doesn't allow for pass/not pass, you still need to have either a letter or a numeric grade... So I've devised the following schema:
  • 0 points - you did not submit anyway
  • 50 points - you submitted something, but it didn't pass muster, needs major revisions
  • 80 points - you submitted something and it was passing quality, needs some revisions to improve
  • 100 points - you submitted something and it was passing quality, needs minor revisions to improve
I am hoping that this grading schema will desensitize the students to grading and focus them more on reading and analyzing the feedback and on improving.  There is still the small issue of what people get for a final grade (do they all get "A"s?) but I'll save that for another blog.

Part IV: Welcome to the vortex
OK, so all these things are happening independently, and suddenly there was a reaction between these three ingredients and BAM. Question forms (partly based on Whitney's post): Grades, what are they good for?  I learned last year in Edmonton (and maybe this is apocryphal) that  the grade system (A, B, C, etc.) is based on the USDA's grading system for meat.  What separates an A from a B from a C? And, when people graduate, do people care?  Do people use grades in classes and transcripts for things other than assessing "proficiency" in those courses?  I know that some HR departments look at GPAs, but what does that tell an employer about the work you can do?  As someone who focused on HR in my MBA I'd say "nothing" - but feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

A Challenge for you: Grades, what are they good for?

  1. In case you didn't catch it in the title, the Greek letters aren't just Greek Letters, but rather ancient Greek numerals. Α = 1, Β = 2, Γ = 3, and so on. It seemed appropriate for the topic of this post ;-)
  2. Finally  caught up with all Rhizo15 related posts on my Pocket! yay!  Now, just you watch...more will show up...
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