Thanks Matt! or the conundrum of grading: PART II

24 04 2009

I thought of putting this as a comment but realized it was bigger than that and wanted to give it its own post.

It is interesting that Matt mentioned performance art grading as a model because as some of you may know I have a theatre background. Furthermore I often think about the grading models I was subject to in that theatrical work when I think about IT grading and often find them useful analogues, so here is a little explanation of how it works and why it is quite relevant:

When I was an undergrad at Swarthmore the grading methodology in my theatre and art classes was very different from any other types of classes.  That was in no small part due to the fact that the deliverables were drastically different because rather than papers and tests we were creating drawing, models, paintings and performances.  Both models worked quite well and ultimately I think both of them have had an influence on how I grade online as well as in the classroom.

The one model that was practiced in my theatre courses was that the bar for completion of wark was set very high, that is they gave us a ton of work to complete within the semester.  It could be designing or performing or directing, no matter what it was it always bordered on the edge of not humanly possible to complete.  The program responded to that by noting how hard you worked to complete the assigned goals and your grade was mostly if not completely based on that accomplishment rather than any subjective evaluation of the quality of your work.  That was very important considering that there are so many variables in theatrical work, such as working with other people and differences in artistic style and preference.  So it wasn’t about how good your design looked or how well you acted a scene, but that you showed that you put effort into your work and were dedicated to the class. In the end the grade served as a reward for hard work and persistence and there was a sense of satisfaction at getting a good grade at the end of a semester.

A similar model was applied for art classes.  Grades in these classes were often based on the progress made in improving your work over the course of a semester.  This balanced out the different levels of artistic capability in the class by focusing more on whether students were really working to push themselves to new level of artistic exploration and invest themselves in increasing their technical skill and ability to think more creatively.  Once again it was not about how “good” your work was but more about how much commitment you showed to improving yourself over the course of the semester.  I even remember one semester where I was at first surprised that I received a low grade by a professor who I had already taken a course with.  Then when I thought about it outside of my haze of frustration, I came to realize that the grades for the two classes really were directly proportional to the amount I had worked towards evolving those two semesters.  It was a powerful moment because rather than having failed at executing a specific task or memorizing certain information I had received a lower grade because I hadn’t completely embraced an opportunity to make myself better.  What better way to employ grades to teach a student life lessons.

So, when Matt mentioned performance art grading it reminded me that these two models have really affected how I grade certain aspects of online coursework.  In particular I think of them when I am grading assignments in discussion and blog formats because I place a premium on participation in these types of spaces.  The reason I place this premium on participation is that I have found that as online conversations evolve (whether in discussion boards or through blog comments or another model) there is a certain point where the students through the communication and conversation inevitablly find their own path through the material to insightful, thoughtful conclusions that are often exactly where I was hoping they would go.  Sometimes they even exceed those expectations.  For me this becomes kind of like the theatre grading model in that if you get them working hard enough and force them to really work the material, they will ultimately find their own path of learning and I would prefer that any day to me telling them what they should know and how to reach a conclusion.  I have seen this in the discussion forums in my Online BA course and I have seen it when my students get into blogging in my courses at Marymount and Cooper and the more I see it when it works the more convinced I am that it works and it does so by putting the process of learning into their own hands. So by building a grading structure based on participation, and repeatedly making it clear that it will affect their grade, I am trying to get them to that space as much as possible because the more they contribute the more likely they are to not only learn the material but also have a powerful role in shaping how they are learning alongside their fellow students; which is what was so great about doing theatre after all.

As far as the art grading structure goes that is actually really valuable for considering how to grade students when learning about these tools IS the content and the tools are not simply a method for teaching materials. When I teach about blogs and wikis it is often the first time that many of the students have used the tools, while some have experience commenting or even authoring their own blogs.  In this environment I try to consider how each student is embracing the assignment of say, writing in your personal blog twice a week or contributing to a wiki entry.  Since these are usually multiple stage assignments I try to trace the path each student is taking and when I think about how they are participating in the experience, I also think about where they have come from and how much they have really worked at it each step of the way.  It is a great way to reflect on how someone is interacting with a new tool and really takes into consideration that so many of our students start at a different place when entering the world of online education or the Internet as a whole.

Hope these little musings and recollections have helped someone out there or just stirred up some ideas.  Also sorry for the length.  Ironic that I tell students to try to keep blog posts short and this one cleared 1100 words UGH!

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