Points are Terrible:

Better Communication is Possible

Theron J Hitchman

University of Northern Iowa

JMM 2013 NExT Panel on Assessment

January 10, 2013

Independent Choices

Learning Goals


Assessment Methods


Feedback and Reporting

Part One: General Polemic

The Main Functions of "Grades"

  • Certification -- communication with future employers & instructors. Essentially a reporting scheme for student achievement.

  • Feedback -- communication with student about amount of progress demonstrated. Also data for instructional diagnoses.

Traditional scheme is a failure for certification:

What does a C in Calculus I mean?

What does it mean at a research university?

At a community college?

At a high school? Which high school?

It is not just standard letter grades.

What does a 3 mean on the AP Calculus AB exam? Is that student ready for Calc II?

Traditional scheme is a failure for feedback:

Student scores 72/100 on a calculus exam. They ask,

"How do I get my grade up?"

You and your students should already know!

Traditional Scheme can poison the learning environment:

  • "I think I deserve more partial credit."

  • "Why did I get 6/10 on this problem?"

  • Overheard in the hallway: "Yeah, he gave me a bunch of points for that one. I don't know why."

  • "Can I do some extra credit?"

An alternate source of trouble:

How does one effectively assign grades for a class not handled in a lecture-homework-exam format?

Say you teach a Moore Method Euclidean Geometry class, where there are no standard assessments, really...

And say your goals are mostly about process rather than content...

Part II: Let's Rethink the problem

Goal: an informative and useful way to provide feedback and do reporting.

What about a Standards Based Grading scheme?

Sometimes called Standards Based Assessment and Reporting.

Main Ideas:

  • Focus on Student Learning Outcomes (the standards)
  • Tie each assessment clearly and publicly to standards
  • make expectations clear to students
  • allow for reassessment
  • require reassessment

Aim for clear communication about when a student has demonstrated competence, and when not.

What do you need?

  • A letter explaining the system to students
  • A list of standards
  • Reasonable workflow
  • Rules for conversion to traditional system

My Pieces in place:

  • A letter to students
  • A list of standards
  • An unreasonable workflow
  • Rules for conversion to the traditional certification scheme

A plea:

"...you do not yet realize your importance. You've only begun to discover your power! Join me, and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order..."

-- Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back

After a question from Neil Martinsen-Burrell (Wartburg):

Traditional grading is inherently one-dimensional.

A human being's traits would more naturally be described by some point in an infinite-dimensional space.

Find the largest useful and relevant subspace you can and project onto that.

JMM 2013 Assessment Panel - Google Slides