Season 1 – Episode 31 – The Impacts of Grading: Part 1
Grading practices in higher education vary a great deal between colleges, departments, and universities. The grading practices of a professor often reflect the instructor’s beliefs regarding a student and their motivation and success within an academic discipline. While faculty members might strive for equitable and fair grading practices, they can often perpetuate unfair policies that disadvantage their students. Faculty members can struggle with evaluating their own grading practices, communicating their practices, and assessing their practices as it relates to grading.
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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is On Campus. Today, the first of two episodes discussing what are grading practices in higher education? How does the current system of grading potentially impact students? And what are fair grading practices? I spoke with Adriana Streifer, Assistant Professor and an Assistant Director in the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on course design and alternative and equitable grading practices. She teaches writing and English literature courses and graduate seminars on teaching philosophies in higher education. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only, it is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about the relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are certainly those of the presenter. Hi Adriana, thank you for joining me today.
Adriana Streifer: Hi, thanks for having me.
Darren Gaddis: To get us started, could you give us an overview of what the current practice of grading is in higher education?
Adriana Streifer: So I would say that there really is no single current practice, so it’s better to speak of practices, plural. I guess I can generalize a bit about what some of those practices are. Most colleges and universities require instructors to submit grades to grade students and typically grades in the United States use the A through F letter system, although there is no standardized system for calculating those grades or for aligning letter grades with numerical grades. But again, typically grades in the A range align with 90% and above, B with 80% and above and so on. And again, generalizing, instructors most commonly calculate a letter grade as a weighted average of grades on various assignments that students complete across a course or a semester. So for example, an instructor might decide that an essay is worth 10% of the course grade or a group project is worth 20%, et cetera.
But there are other approaches that are used at colleges and universities around the country, including pass/fail or credit/no credit grading and also norm-referenced grading, which is also known as grading on a curve. Some institutions and schools mandate certain practices. So for example, nearly all medical schools use a pass/fail approach and nearly all law schools enforce a norm-referenced approach. Most institutions require an A through F grade, but they don’t exert any oversight over instructors on how to calculate that grade. So these days, many instructors are experimenting with alternative or non-traditional practices. Some of these include specifications grading, contract grading, labor-based grading, mastery-based grading, among many others. And these alternative methods are basically ways of complying with the institutional requirement to submit grades at the end of the semester, but without having to assign point values to student work.
Darren Gaddis: And how could this current system potentially negatively impact students and maybe non-traditional students specifically?
Adriana Streifer: So I’d like to first, before I answer that, unpack this notion of non-traditional student. Just some data from the NCES, national Center for Education Statistics, there are over 25 million people enrolled in post-secondary education as of 2020/2021, 38% of them are part-time. Nearly 7 million are over the age of 25, 48% of them are white, about 19% are Latino and about 12% are black. And you can get more detailed data from them. But this is just to say that we have this cultural vision or stereotype of college students as predominantly white, middle class, 18 to 22-year-olds in residential colleges and it just doesn’t actually hold. So-called non-traditional students are now traditional or the majority students and so I think they deserve to be treated as central and not anomalous. So the impact on them is really the impact on students writ large.
I think that the current system of grading can negatively impact all students, to be sure those impacts are likely to be the most intense for students whose educational experiences and economic situations are the most precarious and those who do not receive adequate resources and support. So let’s look at some of those negative impacts. One big one is stress and anxiety. Grades cause a huge amount of stress for students and a lot of anxiety around learning. And we know that stress and anxiety negatively impact both physical health and mental wellbeing and also cognition. If we are constantly in a heightened fight or flight mode, our ability to learn is weakened so students’ fear of grades really has a negative impact on their learning. And students are not entirely wrong to feel stressed and anxious about grades, there are high stakes to grades.
Employers use them, graduate schools use them for admissions, intern programs use them to accept interns. They all use grades to determine who they accept and there are severe consequences for students when they earn poor grades. And it’s a shame, I think, because grades as they’re currently done are often meaningless, they don’t accurately measure students’ learning. Another negative impact is that there is a lack of understanding or at least students often have a lack of understanding of what grades mean. And this isn’t their fault, it’s not because students are unintelligent, students don’t understand what grades mean because grades are not always clearly connected to an instructor’s learning objectives for a particular course. Students don’t understand what their grades mean or why they receive them and therefore grading feels arbitrary to them. So one of the negative impacts is that grades do not provide information to students about how to improve in their learning and what they should focus on.
Deciphering grades can be a cognitively demanding task for students and that takes up effort and energy that they could better spend on actual learning if the meaning of grades was more transparent to them. And two negative impacts that are really near and dear to my heart is that grades muddy the purpose of education, they distract students from experiencing genuine intellectual curiosity and they make it really difficult, if not impossible, for students to care about their intellectual growth and skill development. Because again, the stakes are high and the motivation has been externalized, they’ve been trained their whole lives as students to care about the point value, to care about the grade and not to care about the learning. So I really think that’s a real loss both to students and to our world, our country, to have a group of people who come out of educational degree programs not really focused on the intellectual benefits, but much more focused on the personal credential.
Finally, I find that grades undermine positive relationships between students and instructors. Ideally, these relationships are based on trust, caring and support. Students can trust that instructors have their best interests at heart, that they’re there for them to provide their resources they need to learn and that their instructors care about their success as students and their wellbeing as just human beings in general. So instead of having an instructor role as a mentor, an advisor and a guide, students perceive instructors as judges. And that really undermines this very wonderful positive relationship that students and instructors can have with each other if grades don’t get in the way.
Darren Gaddis: And what are fair grading practices?
Adriana Streifer: So first I want to interrogate the meaning of fair before I answer this question. When we talk about fairness, we can talk about many different things. So for students, they may define fairness as getting what they want and they want high grades or they may see fairness as earning a grade that reflects the effort they put in. Fairness might mean sameness for some people. So we could see fairness as implementing identical grading practices across all courses, departments, majors or institutions. Although I wouldn’t consider that one fair because I think it would ignore the context that is really important to consider about how different majors or institutions work. Another element of fairness is what I call alignment. So this is making sure that grades accurately reflect learning and align with an instructor’s learning goals for a particular course. Basically, it means that the things an instructor pays attention to and evaluates are the things that they actually have deemed the most important for students’ learning.
And finally, we can talk about fairness in terms of equity. So this would be grading in a way that reflects an environment an instructor has cultivated in which all students receive the support they need to succeed and that there are efforts being made at the course level, the department level and the institution level to right historical and ongoing wrongs that have unfairly excluded particular student groups, especially those along race, gender and class lines from succeeding in higher education. So that is my definition of fairness. And I tend to lean toward the side of fairness that sees fair grading as practices that promote equity. And equitable grading means that grading is the end point, not the starting point of ongoing assessment. A grade is not the first time that students receive information or feedback on the quality of their work. Grades should never be a surprise to students. Feedback and assessment should be continuous conversations and so students will not be blindsided by their grades.
I also think that fair grading is grading that only occurs after all students have had sufficient opportunities and resources to practice the skills they are acquiring in low stakes ways. The nature and forms of support that students need may vary to accommodate various learning needs, various scheduling difficulties, et cetera, but they’re all getting the support they need to succeed. Grades are not used to punish students and grades should not be tied to students’ behavior, compliance, participation or attendance because there’s lots of literature that supports the idea that grading those components of a student’s presence in class is a prime way for bias, especially racial bias to creep into our grading. And finally, I define fair grading in terms of a revised definition of rigor. So rigor here is holding students to high expectations and also providing all of the support students need to meet those expectations. So we should want all of our students to succeed and when we are grading in a way that is promoting success, that to me seems like fair and equitable grading.
Darren Gaddis: What are the benefits for faculty and students to utilize fair grading practices?
Adriana Streifer: So the first benefit, I think, again, for both faculty and students here is more learning. The best grading schemes are planned carefully and instructors design them to align with the elements of learning in their course or discipline that they prioritize. So if evaluation is just one part of a formative learning focused process in which communication is clear and ongoing, then grades cease to be a distractor for students and students can focus on the learning and students can be confident that focusing on learning is reflected in their grades. So successful learning equals a high grade. So another benefit is reducing stress and anxiety. When students have that confidence that real learning leads to high grades, they’re going to feel a lot less stressed and anxious. And this is a benefit for students, but I’d say it’s also a benefit for faculty. Faculty have a lot of additional labor to do when it comes to supporting and managing students’ fears and anxieties. They also may fear addressing grade complaints from students.
So fair grading practices reduce stress and anxiety for faculty and students alike. I think that fair grading practices also lead to better relationships,, it restores that trust, that accountability and that sense of mentorship to the student-instructor relationship. I think there’s a lot of value too in treating students as competent partners in the act of learning and teaching. So when fair grading practices give students some choice and some say in how they’re evaluated, students are being treated like the adults they are and they are given autonomy and instructors can have that more balanced relationship with them.
And for faculty, there’s potentially a benefit of less labor down the road. I think there are a lot of high startup costs to equitable grading practices because it’s a major change, it takes practice, it takes some work to design those equitable grading schemes. But down the road, it reduces the occurrence of grade complaints, it reduces fraught interactions with students, it reduces labor spent on trying to figure out why students didn’t understand something and then having to go back and offer them more support. Because with that transparency in place, the communication’s already there, so it saves a lot of work in the process of grading during this semester.
Darren Gaddis: We are going to pause here for today’s episode, but be sure to listen later this week when Adriana and I continue discussing how fair grading practices benefit a student’s learning. What challenges faculty and even students could face with fair grading practices? And the implementation necessary to move grading practices into a more equitable space. Be sure to follow, like and subscribe to On Campus with CITI Program to stay in the know. I also invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses and webinars that may be of interest to you. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions. You may also be interested in CITI Program’s Preparing for Success and Scholarly Publishing course. Please visit the CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings.
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- Season 1 – Episode 30: Food and Housing Insecurity: Higher Education
- Season 1 – Episode 29: Admissions: Undergraduate, Graduate, and Transfer Students
- Season 1 – Episode 28: Workforce Development in STEM
- Season 1 – Episode 27: Academic Career Pathways (Part 2)
Meet the Guest
Adriana Streifer, PhD – University of Virginia
Adriana Streifer is an Assistant Professor and an Assistant Director in the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on course design and alternative and equitable grading practices. She teaches writing and English literature courses, and graduate seminars on teaching philosophies in higher education.
Meet the Host
Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program
He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.