Testing out a new grade scheme

This semester, I tested out a new grading scheme for my face-to-face version of PR Publications. I’ve taught the class 10+ different times over the past few years, and while all of them have been different to some degree, this semester was different in that I completely eliminated numerical grades from the final grade equation.

I want to preface by saying that I don’t believe this is possible to do in every course and every discipline. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most. But for a class like mine it was the right way to go. My class has no quizzes or tests as it’s  project based. These creative design projects have small tasks that lead up to turning in the project and several of those tasks are feedback loops where students both give and get feedback from peers and myself on how to improve their project. Because of the amount of iteration that takes place before a project is turned in, the majority of students are turning in what I consider (again, very subjective) to be “A” work. Students who don’t do well in my class (and there are very few) don’t do so from a lack of talent or creative ability but usually because they simply didn’t complete the projects.

There were two main drivers in making this decision. One was that, with the move to the Canvas learning system, I could now make assignments simply “complete/incomplete” which I found to be quite nice. Points were no longer a necessity to have a grade book. The second is that, after reading and hearing Dave Cormier talk about learning contracts for many years now, I took it upon myself to read the actual syllabus/spreadsheet (novel concept I know) to get closer to fully understanding the model and I think get it now. I’ll admit I’m still not sure I fully understand his specific model or that I am doing it correctly, but I’m happy to say I’ve settled on a version that works for my course’s needs. I

And so let us imagine the type of questions you are asking so let’s have a pretend conversation….

So how exactly does this work? What’s your grade scheme.

Great question, faithful reader. So before I answer this I have to explain what class used to be like. For the last couple years, I’ve been using the curriculum for the online version of PR Pubs in my face-to-face class as well. You can see that course here. The way that course works, is that the course is broke up into weekly lessons which is broke up into 5 to 10 tasks or “micro assignments.” Most of these micro assignments require students to turn in some type of artifact, usually a blog post, to prove that they have completed the work. A complete course is close to 100 individual gradebook assignments. For me, this has been great for online where I’ve found it better to have students show work through artifacts. It also gives them a very clear path towards completion. But this method hasn’t been super necessary for the face-to-face simply because I physically watch their progress happen in the classroom so the act of turning in of all the individual assignments feels a little bit more like a formality than anything else.

So the first thing I did was simplify assignments. One weekly (16 total) blog post. Five total design projects. You can’t turn in a project until I tell I say you’ve done enough work on it. And I reserve the right to make you revise your work as many times as I think are necessary. All assignments are complete/incomplete. And, YES, students still earned a letter grade. Grade mix was as such:

A: Earn completes on all design assignments + 15 blog posts

B: Earn completes on all design assignments + 13 blog posts

C: Earn completes on all but one design assignment + 12 blog posts

D: Earn completes on all but two design assignments + 10 blog posts

F: Student has failed to earn completes on three design assignments and 10 blog posts

Attendance matters. Students drop a letter grade after two missed classes for each class. I usually don’t like being an attendance stickler (attendance for my class is always high anyways), but my class is lab format and not lecture so students are accruing work hours not just listening hours in my classroom. And sitting and doing work is the only way you actually improve, and in a class like mine where improvement is the name of the game, it’s necessary.

But how do students know how they did if you don’t grade it?

Complete/incomplete as an assignment grade doesn’t mean they don’t receive feedback. As I mentioned, students do SEVERAL iterations on the projects. I believe that my role as instructor is to give my students the opportunity to produce their best work. That means not just accepting a first draft, but giving students the opportunity to rework a project multiple times if necessary.

As for blog posts, I use a rubric not to grade the blog post but to give them feedback on how to improve their blogging. I also frequently gives comments on every blog post. And, yes, I read every blog post.

Last, and I’ve talked about this before, I am as interested in doing reflecting on what they did as I am the work they do. Drawing from art pedagogy and metaliteracy, I’m hoping students achieve self actualization as much as anything else. I say all this to say I want students to learn to be critical enough of their own work to be able to tell me how they did, where they fell short, where they grew, and where they still see room for important. Somewhere on my soapbox I’ll usually talk about how students tend to not get a lot of experience doing this even though it’s incredibly critical in life post-college. Further, I have students doing a reflection posts reflecting on the idea of blog posts (soooooo meta) and a common arch is a student saying they found it pointless and repetitive at first but later found it to be therapeutic and necessary and that they are grateful to now have the collection of all of their reflections.

Did student work suffer?

Absolutely not though I won’t say I wasn’t initially concerned this would happen. I will say that I find it deeply troubling that there is a belief that students will only do work if they are given specific numeric points. I think this is a model that proves students can be engaged beyond points. More on that from a student’s perspective below.

How did the students respond to the approach?

The funny thing is we didn’t really talk about it a lot. And in fact I think that was one of the benefits. Grading creative work is incredibly subjective, but this grading method allowed students to have a complete transparent view of where they stood in the class grade wise. And I’m not looking for great work; I’m looking for their best work. Because students always knew where they stood, I never had many questions about grades. So with that I asked students on their last blog post to reflect on the course format. Students said the following:

The grade scheme relieved initial worry.

Lastly, the “complete or incomplete” grades in this course made me enjoy this class that much more. Instead of worrying about adhering to A-worthy designs, I got to focus on learning and creating. Not having to worry about my percentage throughout the course was refreshing, because it gave me the opportunity to focus on other things rather than making an A. This course’s grading style was definitely unique and effective. Demery Pennington

It did not hamper student effort.

What probably made me the most jubilant was the fact that there we no quantitative measure of grades. We were only asked to do the project and have it approved for submission. The pressure of getting an A left my shoulders. I still understood that I had to create quality work though. I never EVER slacked on making projects for this class. I always gave it my all and I would go outside of class to finish my work if need be. Brian Keener

Students found it fair.

The grading policy was probably the fairest of any course I have taken thus far in my college career because my instructor knows that creativity is subjective. It would be unfair to assign a letter grade to work we put much into. Knowing that as long as I gave it my best and submitted work on time reduced stress. It also allowed me greater time bravely to explore the creative journey. Wyatt Stanford

They also found it student centered.

I’m thankful to be in a class that was centered around the student. Having a class that grades weren’t the main concern allowed me to be able to express my work in a more creative way instead of being restricted to guidelines and classroom expectations from a rubric. Micayla Payne

It allowed them to take risks.

When I first started this class, I was super surprised to hear that instead of getting actual grades on our work that it would be more of a completion grade. This was my first class formatted in this way. I was a little nervous that I would allow myself to not take this class seriously since I did not have to worry about grades, but I am glad I did not do that. I think taking away the grade aspect of this class helped me tremendously. Instead of focusing on getting an A, I was focusing on letting my creative side shine and enjoy what I was doing. Sierra Abbott

Though it could have been more clearly stated.

At first, it was unclear to me if we’d get a letter grade for this class or receive a pass/fail, though. I could’ve simply been distracted when you went over this, but I think making that more clear would be beneficial to students in the future. Sami Canavan

So I’ll go ahead and restate that I don’t believe this method is for everyone nor would it solve the issues I still see with letter grades in general. But this was a way in which I could play within the system given to me but also shift the grade book away from a false sense of mastery and towards a method of gradual progress. I’ll be curious to see the course evaluations (where the critical feedback tends to come) and I’m excited to tweak the recipe a bit as necessary as the course evolves.