Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Notes from "Grading for Growth"

I read portions of Grading for Growth as part of my preparations for the Spring's preproduction class. This book makes a case for "alternative grading," establishing four pillars for their efforts. These are:

  1. Clearly defined standards
  2. Helpful feedback
  3. Marks indicate progress
  4. Reattempts without penalty
I've been reading Talbert's blog for some time, and it's that last one that gives me some difficulty. I was hoping that reading the book would help me understand some practical matters such as grading management and dealing with skills that build upon each other. However, I found myself taking more notes about CS222 Advanced Programming and CS315 Game Programming than about CS390 Game Studio Preproduction.

I have read Nilson's Specification Grading and many articles on alternative grading, so I skipped through some of the content and case studies. The first case study is the one that was most relevant to me: a case of a calculus class in which the professor used standards-based grading (SBG). This was contributed by Joshua Bowman at Pepperdine University. This case study is published at the Grading for Growth blog.

One of the tools that I had not fully considered before is the gateway exam. Bowman gives a ten-question exam early in the semester. Students must pass at least nine questions to pass the exam. Students get five chances to retake the exam, and a passing grade is required for a B- or better grade. This is potentially useful to deal with some of the particular problems I have faced in CS222, where students come in with high variation in understanding of programming fundamentals while also suffering from second-order ignorance. A formalized assessment could very well help with this. 

Another useful idea from the reading is the distinction between revision and new attempt. In my own teaching, I have allowed revisions, but I frequently in CS222 find myself suggesting that students begin assignments anew with new code or contexts. This was never a clear requirement but rather a strong suggestion. Separating these two ideas could increase clarity about the significance of error or misunderstanding. In particular, this could help with a particular error mode that I have seen in CS222: a student submits a source code evaluation, I critique the evaluation, and the student resubmits an evaluation that restates what I just pointed out in the critique. This masks the distinction between a student who has learned the material and one who can effectively parrot my commentary. The problem could be avoided if I required new attempts in cases where I am using my feedback to direct the student's attention to what they have missed rather than to point out small oversights.

Regular readers may recall that I experimented with specifications-based grading in my section of CS222 in Fall 2023. I only laid out cases for A, B, C, D, and F grades, similarly to how I have implemented specs grading in CS315. The reading suggested that +/- grades can also be laid out in a specification, using them for "in between" cases.

I regularly air my frustrations with the incoherent concept of "mid-semester grades," but a piece of advice from the book struck me as useful. There was a recommendation to only give A, C, or F grades at midsemester. This is probably the right level of granularity for the task. The alternative, which I also recently came across in a blog somewhere, was to have students write their own mid-semester evaluations as a reflective exercise.

Bowman and others separate their standards into core and auxiliary. This could be useful in both CS222 and CS315, where I tend to weave together content that students are required to know from the syllabus with those that I think are useful from my experience.

The authors directly address the problem that reassessments have to be meaningful. Unlimited resubmissions will inevitably lead to students' throwing mediocre attempts at the problem in hopes that it goes away. The authors suggest two techniques for ensuring assessments are meaningful. The first is to gate the possibility for reassessment behind meaningful practice, which probably works better in courses with more objective content such as mathematics courses. The other is to require a reflective cover sheet. I have required students to give memos explaining the resubmission, but I've never given them a format for what this entails. This has led to my accepting many "memos" that show little evidence of understanding, usually when my patience is exhausted. Formalizing the memo process would benefit everyone involved.

Those are all helpful ideas for this summer, when I will likely take elements of CS222 and CS315 back to the drawing board, but what about the resubmission rate issue that I was actually looking for? Well, I found quite a surprise. The authors suggest exactly what I have been doing for years: using a token-based system or throttling resubmissions. The real puzzle here then is what exactly they mean by "reattempts without penalty," since it's not what those words actually mean together. Only being able to reattempt a subset of substandard assignments is a penalty, since from a pure learning point of view, there's no essential reason to prevent it. That is, the penalty is coming from the practical matter that teachers cannot afford to teach every student as if they are their only responsibility. This finding was anticlimactic, but part of me expected that it would be what I had found. There's no silver bullet, and if I haven't seen nor invented something better in 20+ years of alternative grading experience, then it does not exist.

(It's funny to actually type out "20+ years of alternative grading experience," but it's true. It's also one of those things that's making me feel old lately.)

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