Active grading means:
- Emphasizing the learning that grades represent, and trying to avoid holding grades as the final product of education.
- Allowing students to react to their grades. Grades are the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
- Helping students to understand their grades by organizing them into topics (vanilla SBG).
- Actively keeping students informed by assessing their skills often and giving them feedback as soon as possible.
I think a lot of us like the ideas of active grading because we care more about helping our students learn than about
- their transcript or
- comparing them with each other.
We give feedback as a way of helping students learn.
But we also want to give feedback in the form of numbers. Numbers have all these great properties that meaningful feedback doesn’t have – you can average numbers but not comments, and you can compare numbers “objectively” but not comments. It’s faster to read numbers than comments, and I can scan a transcript with a GPA to decide whether to let someone into my college much faster than I can read 30 pages of writing.
So, we condense our knowledge about students’ learning down to numbers (or, more extremely, a single number!).
Once we record a grade as a number, we’ve lost information. I gave Mike an 85% last year in calculus, but that doesn’t tell you that he just couldn’t get his head around the idea of a differential equation. You gave Sandeep a 75% because he aced every test but never handed in a piece of homework and skipped every other class.
But now I’m a college, Mike has a 3.5 GPA, Sandeep has a 2.5 GPA. I can clearly see from these marks that Mike is a better student – by twenty-five percent of the scale. Maybe Sandeep has some extracurriculars or something, but he’s got some major catching up to do!
When we do this we’re acting like recording grades as numbers adds information to them! We can’t sort comments in order of academic achievement (automatically), but it’s no sweat sorting GPAs – even from different teachers in different schools, each with his or her own idea about what the grade levels even mean! This is inappropriate. The numbers are not orderable.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of months, as I build ActiveGrade. How do we use numbers to represent grades where it’s appropriate – to get the power of the best-fit line, or the correlation – without giving those numbers too much power, like the power to rank (which is nonsense with different definitions) or average (a 0% F averaged with a 100% A is: a 50% F. Talk about effed up!). I think I’ve hit upon a few great ideas – more on that soon. What do you do?