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On Campus Podcast – The Impacts of Grading: Part 2

Season 1 – Episode 32 – The Impacts of Grading: Part 2

While grades can serve as a motivator for some students, traditional grading practices can disproportionally advantage students from a privileged background and disadvantage underserved students. It is necessary and important for faculty members to assess and review their grading practices to ensure they are equitable and fair.


Episode Transcript

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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is On Campus. Today, the second episode discussing how fair grading practices benefit a student’s learning, how to move grading practices into a more equitable space, and the potential challenges faculty and students could face with 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 solely those of the presenter. Hi, Adriana. Thank you for joining me today.

Adriana Streifer: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Darren Gaddis: What practices should faculty implement to move grading practices into a more equitable space?

Adriana Streifer: So, I am going to resist providing specific practices because there are as many choices out there as there are instructors. But I do think that instead of practices, there is a list of principles that faculty members can think about when they are designing their grading scheme. So, one of those is transparency. Do students understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated? Is that communicated early and often to students? And do students have a chance to practice and make sense of those criteria? So, transparency is one principle.

Feedback is another principle. Feedback should occur regularly. It should be formative, not only summative. And it should not always come with grades or points attached. There should be feedback prior to any grading. Giving students choice is another principle. And what choice looks like will vary depending on the teaching context. But we can give students choices of the types of assignments they complete, the topics for their assignments. Sometimes, we can even give them choices of deadlines if that works for the instructor, which that idea of choice leads me to the next principle, which is flexibility. Being flexible with things like deadlines or even modality of completing work is really beneficial for students.

Grades should align with learning objectives. In other words, both faculty and students should know what the goal or purpose of learning in a particular course is. And the things that are graded should be evidence of achieving some amount of learning in those areas. So, there needs to be alignment between learning objectives and what is graded. Providing opportunities for revision to students is another fair, equitable grading approach, although again, what revision looks like and how frequently it happens is up to the instructor.

Anything the instructor can do to lower the stakes of any particular assignment or assessment is really important. So, this often looks like giving ungraded practice opportunities to students. And I also think there’s a bit of a mindset shift, so from a outcome-based mindset to a growth and process-oriented mindset. And again, what that looks like in practice is going to vary, so that’s why I’m thinking in terms of principles and philosophies here, but really looking at learning as an ongoing, continuous process and not simply valuing the outcome.

I also think that instructors can consider alternative ways to arrive at letter grades. This is where alternate forms of grading come into play. So, there is specifications grading, which is a form of grading in which grades are not given to students on assignments that they complete. Instead, credit is given to students for the amount of quality work a student does. So, each assignment simply gets a credit or not credit based on whether they met the standards for that assignment. And then at the end of the semester, an instructor tallies up the amount of high-quality work a student has done, which then results in a letter grade.

Another alternative way of grading is contract grading. This is where students and instructors create a contract between them that details exactly what it takes to earn a grade. There’s also labor-based grading where grades are earned for the amount of work completed rather than the quality of the work. And finally, there is mastery-based grading, which instead of grading assignments, students are graded on mastery of particular skills that are identified and grouped into categories to produce a final course grade.

And I’d like to note here that a colleague of mine, Michael Palmer, and I have developed what we call a grading scheme anatomy. And this anatomy details the choices that are available to any instructor when they design their grading scheme. And even if we eliminate the choices that are most known to inhibit equity and fairness, there are still more than 15 million possible choices available to instructors. So, instructors have a lot of freedom to experiment in this space and to make their grading more equitable. I don’t advocate telling anyone precisely what they should do to make grading equitable. Instructors can be really creative and still produce equitable grading practices.

Darren Gaddis: What challenges could faculty and even students face with fair grading practices?

Adriana Streifer: There are a few challenges to fair grading practices. One of them is resistance from students, partially because they may fear the unknown. They have been trained their whole lives in a certain form of grading, and it may be new to them to be graded in any other way. And the solution to this is obviously lots of communication and preparation. So, with alternative grading practices in particular, instructors will need to explain in depth and repeatedly how the system works so that students can follow along.

It may also be challenging for students to get out of that grade-focused mindset and shift gears to a process-oriented mindset that values learning for its own sake rather than for the points or the number or letter that they receive at the end. Instructors may face resistance from administrators or institutional structures. An instructor who teaches in a required sequence of courses or in a school or department or program that requires a certain grading approach may not be able to implement all of the fair grading practices they would like to implement. So, there’s sort of a communication issue where instructors need to advocate for these practices.

I think that there can also be misunderstandings on the part of both faculty and administrators about what rigor is. And rigor properly defined is not about keeping people out. It’s not about failing students. It’s about setting high standards and helping students meet them. We should want all of our students to succeed. So, in courses or disciplines in which a curve is enforced, and this is what I called norm-referenced grading, not all students will be allowed to succeed. It will be enforced that only a certain percentage of students can earn an A, can earn a B, et cetera. But this has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with artificially imposed ideas about how many people can succeed. If all students are getting the resources and support they need to learn, then all students should be able to earn A’s if that’s what happens. So, sorting out these misunderstandings can be a real challenge for faculty.

Darren Gaddis: What else should we know about fair grading practices in higher education?

Adriana Streifer: Faculty should know that grading is not only an evaluative bureaucratic process. It is not just something that happens after instruction and learning. It actually is an element of learning and instruction. I encourage faculty to think of grading as a set of pedagogical choices. And these pedagogical choices should align with one’s values. So, if one values inclusion and equity in teaching, you can embrace equitable practices. But if your grading practices are still high-stakes and zero-sum, there will be a mismatch between your values, what you do, and how you grade. So, I encourage any instructor who cares about fair grading to think about grading practices as one piece in an ongoing conversation with students. Grading should be part of a recursive process, and most of the emphasis should be on the formative elements of that process rather than the summative elements. So, fair grading benefits student learning most when the grading is just one piece of an entire philosophy and practice of openness and clear communication about learning.

Darren Gaddis: Adriana, thank you for joining me for this special two-part episode of On Campus.

Adriana Streifer: You’re welcome.

Darren Gaddis: Be sure to follow, like, and subscribe to On Campus with the 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 Open Access Publishing webinar. Please visit the CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings.


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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

Team Member darren gaddis

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.