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'Grading' vs. 'Assessing': is it a meaningful difference?

Stack of papers Photo courtesy of Waifer X

The academic internet heated up last week after a pair of essays were posted on the merits (sort of) of grade inflation. The authors involved, David Gooblar and Rebecca Schuman, weren’t exactly arguing in favor of purposefully puffing up student grades; rather, they were comforting fellow instructors that such grades were (in Gooblar’s words) a “victimless crime” or (in Schuman’s words) “hysterical complainers” are too much trouble to deal with. A mixture of responses, from applause to angst to vitriol, were posted in reply.

My own opinion lines up more with Rob Jenkins’ take that “My understanding of the whole grading scale thing is that A’s are supposed to be hard to get”, but that’s not what this post is about. Instead, it’s about a different problem that Gooblar brings up without, I think, fully addressing: the difference between grading (assigning an A, B, C, etc.) and assessing (determining what a student has learned in your class).

From my perspective, grading is purely numerical and involves a weighted average of all course assessments over the course of the semester. Assessment is much harder than grading, and it can be done in a few ways. All of these are valid measures of student learning, and all of them can be used in a single course (although not usually on a single assignment!) to measure student learning.

1. Student-self

  • When? This type of assessment is better done towards the end of the course.
  • What? It measures a student’s improvement against his/her own previous abilities.
  • How? A great way to use this type of assessment is to compare a single student’s performance on a placement exam or midterm with the same student’s performance on a final exam.
  • Why? This is a fairly accurate way of assessing how any given student has become more capable in the tested subject matter. For example, has the student learned to calculate a derivative? To identify a compound subject? To conjugate a Spanish verb?
  • Caution: This is where inflation comes most easily. Every student should improve to some degree over the course of the term. Your task is to quantify that improvement. In order to do that, you need to have a plan before you start grading: if Ellie started out with no prior abilities and is now muddling along at average level, is that worth a C to you or a bit higher? Or if she started out doing amazing work but has stagnated, do you still want to give an A? You should have these possibilities in mind as part of your learning outcomes before starting the assessment process (or even better, before the course begins).

2. Student-peer

  • When? This type of assessment can be done at any time.
  • What? It measures a student’s skill in a particular subject area vs. the skill of the class as a whole.
  • How? This can be used for a variety of different assessment types: projects, papers, tests, and homework. I tend to use it for long-form answers on tests and for essay assignments.
  • Why? Especially for a novice grader (or if you’re back grading after a long hiatus), comparing students helps determine the class’ set point (i.e., it’s pretty easy to tell what “average” is and adjust your letter system accordingly). This is also a useful way of determining what the class understood best from the unit and what needs further review.
  • Caution: Beware of favoritism. If little Johnny is constantly coming to office hours but still doesn’t understand the difference between mitosis and meiosis, he can’t get bonus points for trying.

3. Student-teacher

  • When? This type of assessment can also be done at any point in the semester. It is necessary for a placement test (if that test is graded).
  • What? It measures a student’s skill in a particular subject area vs. an ideal of what the instructor thinks a student ‘should’ know at that level of study.
  • How? This can be used for a variety of different assessment types: projects, papers, tests, and homework. I tend to use it for more factually-based assignments, such as cloze exercises.
  • Why? The first time you assess students, you will need a comparative measure of some sort. Past experience, either of earlier student groups or of the subject matter, will help you accurately assess their performance.
  • Caution: It is very easy to be too harsh with this type of grading measure. Obviously an instructor will know more than his/her students! Be prepared to give the first few another quick once-over to recalibrate your expectations.

And remember that key to all three is still feedback. Even the best students need direction to improve.

What is your favorite type of grading? Have I missed any with my three?

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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