A Selected Disagreement: Changing Grades

When people respond to the automated sbg persuader, I get anonymous email with their disagreements. Here are a few messages along the same theme.

In response to the premise that “if a students’ level of understanding changes, so should his or her grade,” I received:

At age 46 I do not recall everything that I learned in my engineering classes 25 years ago. However, those grades reflected my ABILITY to grasp and use the information AT THAT POINT IN TIME. Given the time and putting in the effort, I could attain those grades again. For example, I just passed the Praxis II with high marks, but had to study almost a year to recall all that I had forgotten.

This writer is suggesting that his grades from college shouldn’t retroactively go down just because he hasn’t bothered to keep refreshing his memory every month for the last 25 years.  The grades he earned represent what he knew THEN, and don’t need to constantly change to reflect what he knows NOW.  Can’t the same argument be applied within a single year?  Why should Sarah, who was fantastic at addition in October, be penalized because she can’t remember how to do it in May?  And why should Chekol, who showed perfect memorization of Native American tribe names in September, have his grade lowered after forgetting half of them in April?  Can’t these students just look this stuff up?  We’ve already seen that they have the capacity to know it, after all.

I got many messages with this idea, that grades shouldn’t necessarily be lowered.

100, 100, 100, 100, 70, 50.  Did this student forget addition?  How do you forget addition after 4 successes?  Or did their house burn down near the end of the year?

and in the opposite direction, with an extreme example, another commenter asked

But how can I account for the timeliness of learning?

He or she went on to wonder whether learning about fission after the enemy has the bomb should “count for as much.”

These questions strike deep into the heart of the philosophy of providing easy remediation and very flexible grades.  I have my own ideas, but I’ll write them in the comments.  Please write with your own responses!

6 thoughts on “A Selected Disagreement: Changing Grades”

  1. I’d like to say how much I appreciate seeing the disagreements with SBG. I feel like I can never really understand an issue when I only see the viewpoints from one side.

    It seems to me that there are two closely related, but very distinct issues being talked about here: the issue of lowering students’ grades and the issue of raising students’ grades. Lowering grades places value on the retention of material over knowing the right thing at the right time. On the other hand, raising grades neglects the competitive nature of school.

    In mathematics, I believe that the ‘timeliness of learning’ can be detrimental to the heart of the subject. We teach math linearly, but in reality, it is anything but linear. Each concept builds off of and supports each other concept and mathematics is a tangled web of interrelated ideas. The issue isn’t so much that some students are fast learners while others are slower, but that when you give a test on a concept you’ve only shown some of the ways of examining it. The folly of traditional grading is that it fails to acknowledge that the exploration of new ideas supports older concepts by providing alternative methods of understanding. I believe that one value of SBG is to account for the inherent problems with teaching a nonlinear subject in a linear fashion.

    In lowering grades, I’m still not sure how I feel.

  2. In mathematics, engineering, and other subjects that are taught over multiple years, point estimates of student knowledge are not very useful. You want to know whether they have the tools needed to continue on to the next course in the sequence. Granted they may forget most of what they learn over the next 20 years, but if they’ve forgotten it all before the next course, there really isn’t much point in passing them.

  3. The first commenter proves his point–it probably took him many years to achieve the learning in the first place, but only a year to refresh his learning.

    Regarding the second commenter–we are always going to need to use judgment in grading. Personal tragedy is one such instance.

    For the cases of Sarah and Chekol: aren’t students already penalized (by cumulative midterms/finals) for forgetting information learned early in the year? I would argue, that in the case of addition, Sarah is likely to have been using addition throughout the year so her loss of skills would have a detrimental effect on any new learning. This is definitely a problem (and she will be penalized by her ability to complete more complex problems, even if straight addition is not reassessed). OTOH, Chekol’s inability to regurgitate information memorized early in the year is insignificant.

    I think a problem with SBG, is the emphasis on *grading* rather than on *learning*.

  4. I will admit that this is why I prefer systems which require a student to demonstrate mastery, and then let them off the hook for proving it further. (eg. get 4/4 twice and then you can skip those questions later)

    You could also come up with reasonable compromises – always take the most recent grade when it improves things, but if a grade drops significantly then take the average of the old and new.

    I don’t think such compromises are a weakness. I think pushing yourself in a new area of learning always involves a bit of spring-back at the edges of your understanding. You learn A, then you learn B, and then if you walk away from it for a bit B starts to feel shaky, but then later you learn C which depends on B and by the time you’re done pushing to the edges of C you may feel shaky with that but B has suddenly become rock-solid for you.

    (Does that make any sense at all without, I dunno, a diagram or animation or something?)

  5. I completely agree with @emily that addition is vital to continue but the tribe names are probably not. (Which may also show how I don’t understand the importance of knowing the tribe names…) So I wonder—as I stuggle with this issue too!—whether just maybe knowing the names of the tribes is not worthy of being a goal we assess for mastery.

    I feel the same way about factoring non-square trinomials. And integration by partial fractions. And the mode. Maybe there’s a standard for “Showing you can learn, however briefly, something tangential to the main thrust of the syllabus.” That one I could get behind!

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