If you bring any of these four topics up in a department or faculty meeting, you’re likely to get an earful of opinions. My opinion on these has certainly evolved over my teaching career and in the last few years I’ve even asked students to help me craft late work policies. Joe Feldman takes on all these issues in Chapter 9 of his book Grading for Equity.
Feldman makes the argument that if we want grades to be an accurate reflection of a student’s academic performance and equitably assigned, then “grades should be based on valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge, and not based on evidence that is likely to be corrupted by a teacher’s implicit bias or that reflects a student’s environment.” (p. 110) I generally don’t believe teachers are knowingly biased against some students, but I do believe that we all, myself included, harbor unconscious or implicit biases. These biases are based on our own lived experience and are sometimes counter to our espoused values. They can be triggered very quickly upon meeting our students and are not intentionally controlled, according to the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State. Given those facts, we need to put in place grading practices that are bias-resistant.
Don’t grade participation or effort.
Participation and effort grades are often used by teachers as grade “hacks” to make up for other unfairnesses they perceive in the grading system they use (or are forced to use). But even if participation and effort aren’t used in this way, they focus more on the conduct of the student rather than what the student has learned. Grading effort is a minefield because it involves imagining what’s going on in a student’s head. Because of this, they are a fundamentally subjective judgement of student behavior. Even the most well-meaning teacher will be affected by their unconscious bias when awarding grades for participation and effort.
Participation is also problematic because it involves students conforming to a teacher’s expectations of a “good student.” Feldman explains, “Students who haven’t been successful in school, and who have experienced school as an antagonistic place where they have been tracked, disproportionately suspended, and then told they are failing, are less likely to engage and invest in that very institution than the students who have had a pattern of success.” (p. 121)
Additionally, attempts to grade participation and effort would be based on wholly incomplete data--teachers cannot observe each of their students outside of class or even within the classroom on a constant basis. My time as a teacher is better spent on finding clever ways of encouraging participation than trying to track it.
Don’t grade participation or effort.
Don’t use extra credit.
I stopped giving extra credit some time ago because I didn’t feel I was doing so fairly or equitably. I also thought it would prevent students from annoyingly asking me for extra credit points instead of doing the work I had already assigned and asking for help. (That partially worked.) Joe Feldman cites four reasons why extra credit doesn’t match up with the principles of grades being based on valid evidence of a student’s knowledge and not based on evidence that is likely to be affected by implicit biases or a student’s environment:
- Extra credit reinforces the idea that the class isn’t really about mastering a standard, but is instead about acquiring points however possible.
- Extra credit teaches students that points are interchangeable. Weakness on one learning standard can be compensated for by strength on another.
- Extra credit “undermines a teacher’s own curriculum and instruction.” It supplants a teacher’s lessons with things that may have nothing to do with a target learning standard--think of extra points for bringing tissues or canned food, attending the school play or a guest lecture.
- Extra credit is “inequitable because it reflects a student’s environment over which she has no control [and] because it requires extra resources beyond the course requirements.” (p. 114) Extra credit can often require money and/or transportation.
No grade penalty for late work
I’ve been conflicted over my own late work policy and I’ve changed it nearly every year over the past decade--sometimes enlisting students to help me develop the policy. However, I’ve always included a grade penalty of some sort. Mr. Feldman argues against any grade penalty for late work because “the practice creates inaccurate final grades.” (p. 115) If a student who demonstrates A-level work and then has their grade lowered to a B (or lower) because it’s a day late, does that accurately reflect the student’s academic performance?
He goes on to say that:
“late work penalties can disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable students. Students turn in assignments late for all sorts of reasons. They have few resources, weak prior knowledge, overwhelming schedules, a lack of engagement, stress, and simple forgetfulness. They may not have been able to entirely control all the circumstances that caused the assignments to be late, and our implicit biases influence the assumptions we make about whether they had. They may learn at a slower rate and need more time to complete assignments to actually learn from them.” (p. 115)
When we penalize late work, we may inadvertently cause students to stop working and not complete the assignment, and or cause others to resort to copying in order to get the work done by the deadline.
Not penalizing late work sends the message that high-quality work is valued and that if the work is important, it’s important whether or not it’s done by the due date or a week later. Meeting deadlines is also important, of course, but teachers can still indicate on most grade programs whether or not assignments were completed on time even if there is no grade penalty.
Additionally, no teacher wants to grade a flurry of assignments at the end of a marking period and so some set deadlines for late work. Last year I started accepting late work up until the summative assessment for a unit since it was designed to help them perform well on that assessment. The policy wasn't perfect, but it was a step in the right direction.
Grade the work, not the timing of the work.
Don’t give zeroes for cheating
Cheating is often viewed as the antithesis of learning and some teachers view cheating as “an act of treason--violating the trust between the student and teacher, and casts doubt on the validity of a student’s...performance.” One of the most common punishments for cheating is the zero. Feldman acknowledges that “we want students to understand how severe a transgression cheating is, and we hope the zero teaches that lesson.” (p. 117) But the zero violates the idea that grades should be about academic performance and not behavior.
Why do students cheat? Lots of reasons, of course, but they basically come down to the fact that the student doesn’t believe they can be successful without cheating. Maybe they didn’t learn the material as fast as others; maybe they were prevented from studying by some extra-curricular event or family emergency. In any case, Feldman suggests that when it comes to cheating, “we might treat it as a symptom of a student’s academic or personal struggle, and that alone might warrant a different kind of consequence than irredeemable punishment.” He goes on to write, “The real irony of assigning a zero for cheating is that it lets the student off too easy.” (p. 118) If we penalize students with a zero, it makes their grade inaccurate and robs them of the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned and robs the teacher of knowledge about what the student still needs to learn. Assigning a zero may punish cheating but also “exempts cheating students from learning.”
Feldman further discusses potential aims of punishment (including deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, and restitution) and how these aims come into play for punishing cheating. Just as schools are thankfully moving away from retributive and deterrence punishments (think “no-excuses” and zero-tolerance policies) that often have a disproportionately negative impact on students of color, we can think about more rehabilitative and restitutive consequences for cheating. He writes, “The consequence for cheating that aligns most closely with these purposes is not to assign a zero, but instead to require the student to complete the test or assignment and reveal her true level of content knowledge.” (p. 119) The student would be undergoing rehabilitation. Perhaps the cheating student “...must complete the assessment, or future assessments, with closer monitoring until she has restored our trust--in other words, restitution.”
Cheating is a behavior and should have behavioral consequences, not grading ones.
To sum up:
- Exclude participation / effort from grade calculations
- No extra credit--only required content
- No grade penalties for timing of work
- Non-grade consequences for cheating
Next ...what to do about grading homework...