Getting away from grades: Student self-assessment

At DPL Vancouver after lunch one day, some colleagues and I had a great conversation with Kris Shaffer about grading. Many of us agreed that grading was one of our biggest challenges as teachers. We all talked about how the process of assigning (and justifying) grades seems to take our time and energy away from giving students meaningful and productive feedback. After years of traditional schooling, it’s no surprise that many students are more focused on grades than on learning, because we’ve set up our educational systems to reinforce this.

Kris explained how he uses self-assessments in his courses to help increase students’ sense of ownership and responsibility for their assessments. And how it helps the instructor focus on constructive and formative feedback. He explained that the process worked better for some students if it was repeated over time in many low-stakes self-assessments (eg. weekly) rather than only at the end of a course for a final project.

I’m really intrigued by this approach to grading, so I’m going to try it this coming Fall semester. I wonder how my students will react to it?

Here are Kris’ self-assessment guidelines from his Intro to Digital Studies syllabus, which I’m going to modify and use in my courses:

Credit and assessment

This course is about growing in your ability to think critically about digital technology and engage it deliberately. That will look different for each person, and to the extent that it can be measured (it can’t), it does not involve reproducing existing knowledge or jumping through well-worn academic hoops. The most important and interesting aspects of learning are things that are difficult to assess fairly and reductively (i.e., with a single letter). As a result, heavy emphasis on grades tends to undermine alternative perspectives and stifle creativity — the exact opposite of what a liberal education should do.

And yet, I still have to assign final grades. So in light of the individualized nature of our work, we will use self-assessment to determine final grades.

Each week (starting in Week 2), each student will write a self-evaluation of their work for the week in a Google doc that is updated each week. This should be a paragraph-long reflection answering the following questions (along with anything else you find appropriate):

  • What did you do this week? (Reference all assigned work, attendance, and class activities, as well as anything else you think relevant to the course.)
  • What did you learn this week?
  • What difficulties/challenges did you conquer?
  • Who helped you?
  • Whom did you help?
  • What are you looking forward to in the coming week(s)?
  • What can I as an instructor do to better support you and your work?

Be sure to provide links to any digital assignments completed (see resources page for instructions, if necessary).

Then provide yourself with an appropriate letter grade (no plus or minus) for the week. Be sure that the details in your paragraph support that letter grade, in light of the work assigned for the week and any specific parameters/requirements provided in the assignment or discussed in class.

These letter grades are proposals. If you defend them appropriately, I will approve them. If I disagree with them, I’ll leave a comment and give you two weekdays to respond either with a different grade, or with additional details. If your response is satisfactory, that will be your grade. Otherwise, we’ll keep discussing until we can come to a consensus.

The final grade will be determined by those weekly grades and your final project grade (which will count as two weekly grades), as follows:

  • To receive an A, you need a median weekly grade of A and no more than 2 weekly grades lower than a C.
  • To receive a B, you need a median weekly grade of B and no more than 3 weekly grades lower than a C.
  • To receive a C, you need a median weekly grade of C and no more than 3 weekly grades lower than a D.
  • To receive a D, you need a median weekly grade of D and no more than 3 weekly grades lower than a D.
  • Anything else receives an F.

What have you done in your courses to de-emphasize grades and focus on learning instead? Have you tried self-assessment, and how did it work?

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