Tuesday, December 19, 2023

On the ethics of obscurity

Years ago, I experimented with what is now called "specifications grading" in CS222. I set up a table that explained to a student how their performance in each category would affect their final grade. These are not weighted averages of columns but declarations of minima. For example, to get an A may require earning at least a B in all assignments, an A on the final project, and a passing grade on the exam. This gave a clarity to the students that was lacking when using more traditional weighted averages. While publishing weighted average formulae for students technically makes it possible for them to compute their grade for themselves, in practice, I have rarely or never found a student willing to do that level of work. Hence, weighted averages, even public ones, leave grades obscure to the students, whereas specification tables make grades obvious.

What my experiment found was specifications grading made students work less than weighted averages. The simple reason for this is that if a student sees that their work in one category has capped their final grade, they have no material nor extrinsic (that is, grade-related) reason to work in other columns. Using the example above, if a student earns a C on an assignment and can no longer earn an A in the class, they see that they may as well just get a B in the final project, too, since an A would not affect their final grade.

This semester in CS222, I decided to try specifications-based final grades again. It probably does not surprise you, dear reader, that I got the same result: students lost motivation to do their best in the final project because their poor performance on another part of the class. It's worse than that, though: the final project is completed by teams, and some team members were striving for and could still earn top marks while other team members had this door closed to them. That's a bad situation, and I am grateful for the students who candidly shared the frustration this caused them.

The fact is that students can and do get themselves into this situation with weighted averages as well. A student's performance in individual assignments may have doomed them to a low grade in the class despite their performance on the final project, for example. However, as I already pointed out, this is obscured to them because of their unwillingness to do the math. What this means—and I have seen it countless times—is that students will continue to work on what they have in front of them in futile hope that it will earn them a better grade in the course.

And that's a good thing.

The student's ends may be unattainable, but the means will still produce learning. That is, the student will be engaged in the actual important part of the class. 

Good teaching is about encouraging students to learn. That is why one might have readings, assignments, projects, quizzes, and community partners: these things help engage students in processes that result in learning. It is a poor teacher whose goal is to help students get grades rather than to help them learn. Indeed, every teacher who has endeavored to understand the science of learning at all knows that extrinsic rewards destroy intrinsic motivation. 

What are the ethical considerations of choosing between a clear grading policy that yields less student learning and an obscure one that yields more? It seems to me that if learning is the goal, then there is no choice here at all. How far can one take this—how much of grading can we remove without damaging the necessary feedback loops? This is the essential question pursued by the ungrading movement, which I need to explore more thoroughly. 

I also wonder, why exactly haven't we professors banded together and refused to participate in grading systems that destroy intrinsic motivation? 

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