Grades can create a sense of paranoia about learning and widen the power dynamic between professors and students (Cranton, 2016; Supiano, 2019). Grades can take lower-performing students and strip away confidence and willingness to engage. Grades can deemphasize and devalue creativity and convince a perfectly capable student to plagiarize for a grade (Supiano, 2019). Grades can cause students to feel anxious about their performance and create a competitive culture (Palmer, 2019; Supiano, 2019). So, why grade? Many educators maintain grading creates a consistent way for us to evaluate and communicate student success. Like all other assessments, grades are largely subjective (Bourke, 2018; Palmer, 2019). They frequently assess behaviors and student learning, and they are likely to offer a narrow window into a student's college performance by a professor who is unfamiliar with the student's previous work. (Bourke, 2018). I hear you all the way in the back:
"But, there is no good alternative."
"I have to submit final grades and wouldn't have support from my department to do something radical like students grading themselves."
"I must prepare my students for the certification process, which includes testing. The world isn't ungraded, so my classroom practices should not be."
Actually, self-assessing and reflecting are practical tools that promote student success in college and as future professionals (Bourke, 2019). What students will not see in their future career is, you guessed it: Grades (Palmer, 2019; Supiano, 2019). Students are often unable to explain why they are completing a particular assignment or why they got a specific grade (Bourke, 2019). They are often unclear about what they can do to improve upon their grades and are often uninvolved in decisions about the process (Bourke). No educator joins the teaching ranks to strip students of their confidence, leaving behind empty vessels ready to accept imparted knowledge. In stark contrast, we set out to inspire learning and guide our students toward success.
The learning theory principles identify teacher-directed techniques, such as grade-based assignments, as helpful for those who have no prior experiences to associate with a topic, which generally applies to children (Knowles et al. 2015). Still, other research suggests grades are punitive for all learners (Supiano, 2019). Adults learners prefer learning through association, combining new information with known information. Adult learners benefit from driving their learning where possible, which is not in opposition to expertise professors provide in refining students' understanding of content and concepts (Knowles et al.). But, if grades impede creativity and decrease student responsibility for learning, there must be another option for assessing student learning and communicating the value of learning in our learning environments (Bourke, 2019; Supiano). I have seen an improvement in the quality of student learning with a self-assessment model (also known as co-assessment, collaborative assessment, partial un-grading). "[S]elf-assessment incorporates assessment activities that require students to examine and understand their learning" (Bourke, 2018, p. 828). Student self-assessments address learning barriers by encouraging intrinsic motivation and space for critical reflection, which can reveal an understanding of what learning took place and can pave the way for understanding the value of learning (Bourke, 2018; Cranton, 2016; Kearney, 2019). Below is the self-assessment rubric used in my freshman seminar course, a first-year experience, university orientation course.
In this particular course, students are guided through themed activities intended to better prepare them for college life while simultaneously exposing them to the values of the institution: The students completed this, or a slightly modified self-assessment, every three
weeks. One-on-one conferences to discuss their self-assessments would follow. Self-assessments and conferences attributed to 50% of the final grade and their answers on the self-assessments informed their grades for reflections and participation. Students were free to suggest grade adjustments for the more traditionally graded assignments, as each graded item was discussed during conferences. After detailed conversations about their perception of learning, students who were dissatisfied with their grade either came to understand the rationale or reached a consensus. If you are unable to meet with your students, consider implementing peer review. For the self-assessment method to be successful, students must understand that they are generating a grade based on their understanding of their learning and progress, and not that they are guessing what grade you believe they have earned (Deely, 2014). What do you want students to do, learn, and understand the impact of collaborations and assignments? The self-assessment categories can be adjusted to complement course topics, objectives, disciplinary or program goals, teaching style, or even an institution's core values. Students can contribute to the self-assessment categories by studying the syllabus and voting on what they think is essential.
Self-assessments can be added to the end of book chapters or course units so students can assess their understanding of the material. Your students can self-assess their exam performance and study habits to understand better the purpose and learning that comes from retrieval practice (Palmer, 2019). The options to personalize the self-assessments to your students, discipline, teaching, and institution are vast. Self-assessments included goal setting. Research shows forward-thinking, future-driven self-assessments successfully helped students think beyond teacher expectations and letter grades (Bourke, 2018).
Initially, when setting goals, many of my students outlined their goals as "getting good grades." I would ask, "Why not change it to 'commitment to learning?" It was amazing to have such a mature discussion with first-year students about the difference between learning and grades and watch as they changed their goals to "commitment to learning" by our next meeting. The self-assessments and conferences allowed students to observe and reflect upon their growth throughout the semester. For most of my students, the self-assessments contributed to deeper and more mature learning about how one is responsible for their education.
In earnest, the self-assessments did not change the average student letter grades from the previous semester. I will take that to mean that self-assessments are not likely to be responsible for grade inflation. But, the student evaluations of my teaching and the course did improve.
Overall, students better understood the course objectives and felt a more positive connection to me as an instructor.
According to their final reflections, they left the semester understanding more about the value of what they learned than students in previous semesters who did not use the co-assessment approach. The final reflections also revealed that students were aware of the soft skills they gained, including practice in leadership and communication, commonly difficult concepts for students to capture in action.
Based on the majority of student evaluations and end of course reflections in my Freshman Seminar course last semester, students were able to understand the following: why they were learning, what they had learned, the rationale for grades received, and how to be engaged in their learning improve upon their grades in the future. With the added perk of less time spent grading student assignments, I encourage the inclusion of student self-assessments.
1. What would the self-assessment questions be for your course?
2. How could one adapt the self-assessments or co-assessments into an online environment?
3. Is there a case to be made educators to use this style of reflection regularly as it relates to our own teaching practice?
Bourke, R. (2018). Self-assessment to incite learning in higher education: developing ontological awareness. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(5), 827-839. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1411881
Cranton, P. (2016). Understanding and promoting transformative learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Deely, S. J. (2014). Summative co-assessment: A deep learning approach to enhancing employability skills and attributes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 15(1), 39-51. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1469787413514649
Kearney, Sean, Transforming the first-year experience through self and peer assessment, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 16(5), 2019. Available at:https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol16/iss5/3
Knowles, M. S. Holton, H.F.III, & Swanson, R.A. (2015). The adult learner. New York, NY: Routledge.
Palmer, C. (2019). College teaching at its best. Rowman, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Student Self-Assessment. (2019) Stanford teaching commons. Stanford University. Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/teaching/evaluating-students/assessing-student-learning/student-self-assessment
Supiano, B. (2019, July 19). Grades can hinder learning. What should professors use instead? Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_ungrading