(This is the fourth in a series of posts about preparing to teach my first online class. You can jump back to the beginning and read the first post here.)
I haven't been quite as regular with these updates as I had intended. Oddly enough, the work of actually preparing for an online course can get in the way of blogging about it. In my last post I gave a very general explanation of the new specifications grading system that I'm adopting, but I left out two important things: how I feel about it and how I'm actually going to use it. In this post I'll tackle the first of those.
As faculty, we have a tendency towards self-deception. One of the fictions we spin for ourselves is that our students are all hard at work on every reading, activity, or assignment that we give them. A second fiction follows from the first: that the final grades we give represent an accurate appraisal of each student's academic potential.
Clearly, the first is fiction because we constantly lament the reality. Many students are far from diligent. Work is completed at the last minute without full or sincere effort. Students make strategic choices about where to focus their energy. The sheer joy of learning is rarely a student's principal motivation. As a result, the second is fiction as well, even if we struggle to admit it. Whatever grades measure (remember my previous post?), they can't be absolute appraisals because we never see student ability and performance in the absolute. Everything we observe is bounded by the reality of student effort and motivation.
Putting student control front and center, specifications grading represents a change of perspective that makes those familiar fictions hard to hold onto. Depending on how you structure your assignments, a student aiming for a C could potentially stop work half way through the semester. To a chronic overachiever (as I and, I imagine, most faculty are), that feels a little weird. At the same time it's: 1) a more honest version of things than the fiction we often believe; 2) a perfectly rational decision for the student who would be content with something less than an A and who feels they might have a better use for their time and effort; and 3) likely that because of the fundamentals of specs grading, the work of the C student may be of a higher quality (and the learning itself greater) under specs grading than in a traditional system where they've earned their C as the result of a mathematical average.
Second, while specs grading might feel a bit weird, I also think that it makes perfect sense as part of the suite of commonly used instructional design approaches. It may be the new kid on the block, so to speak, but I think it plays particularly nicely with the Understanding by Design approach. UbD does an excellent job of first focusing on student learning and then making sure that assessments and the design of content delivery follow afterwards. Backward design as I understand it, however, works at a micro level; the focus is on how individual assessments are aligned to the individual learning outcomes that have been established. What's missing is the macro level perspective. After a course has finished, how do we most accurately and fairly label the status of a learner's mastery in toto? Specifications grading provides the missing piece of the instructional design puzzle when it comes to the certification of student learning.
Third—and again I'm being totally honest here—I'm concerned about explaining my grading system to students in a way that they can easily understand. In general, students resist academic innovation. That's something I've learned from my work with the flipped classroom. Educational inertia is a real thing. Even more than expecting students to actually do work between class sessions, downplaying points in the grading process is going to be a big change for most. Reports from the specification grading frontlines already suggest that I should expect a certain threshold of student complaint based simply on principle ("this isn't how you're supposed to do it, change it back"). I'm prepared for that. My concern is for the rest of the students, and it comes in two parts: 1) helping them to see the value in this change; and 2) on a practical note, not making the system so complicated that they don't understand it.
On the first front, I think and hope I've got my bases covered. I'm not going to try and sell students on specs grading as some new and shiny teaching innovation. I don't think that a majority of students think or care enough about pedagogy for them to be impressed by that logic. What it does do is set students on edge. They're being explicitly told that "we're doing something different" (read "I haven't done this before, fingers crossed"), which for many gives them the feeling that they're being experimented on and that the quality of the experiment could affect how well they do in the course.
Of course students don't realize how much we do tweak our courses from semester to semester and how much experimentation actually goes on. Calling too much attention to it, though, is a recipe for trouble. I saw this once with a group of nursing faculty who were conducting an actual experiment with flipped instruction—control group and all. They opted to tell students what was going on and the result was a near rebellion as their very driven nursing students complained to the administration about how their education was being put in unnecessary jeopardy. Let's have none of that. I think the right path is to focus on Nilson's description of the ideal grading system, pointing out the ways that traditional grading creates unnecessary stress, conflict, and uncertainty. Then I'll describe how our system (without necessarily referring to it as a system) serves to alleviate those problems.
The practical challenge of getting students to understand it, however, may be more important. Even a student sympathetic to my cause might get turned off if figuring out what they're doing in the course becomes too complicated. On this count I can only hope that I'm on the right track. A few things I'm doing to help here. First, I've tried not to make my grading structure too complex. I can see how easy it is to go crazy with bundles, options, levels, and more. The right system, though, has to have a certain simplicity to make sure it's understandable; in my next post I'll explain my system and you can weigh in on whether you think I'm headed in the right direction.
Second, as with almost anything in teaching you need to explain, explain, and then explain it again. I'm trying to be very conscious about the language I use and providing (if anything) too many reminders and explanations for students. For example, in the different content areas of my course site I'm explicitly labeling things with reminders like "to earn a passing grade in this class, you must complete this module with a score of PASS." Before the semester starts, I'm also hoping to put together a quick video that explains—for a student audience—how the grading system will work. I know from the research that written explanations don't always communicate things effectively to online students, no matter how complete you make their explanations.
Finally, I'm fighting my LMS. At my institution we use Blackboard Learn which, despite its warts, is fairly competent at what it claims to do. But I'm not sure there's a single major LMS that plays nicely with specifications grading. Blackboard's grade center and its emphasis on spreadsheet-style rows and columns shows the unquestioned hegemony of points and percentage-based grading. It makes it very difficult to show students how separate assessments are related to or dependent on each other. It's even harder to help them visualize where they stand in relation to their final grade. I'm doing all I can to use the lesser-known features of Blackboard to my advantage—creating a special "Pass / No Pass" grading schema for display clarity, using smart views to make it easier for me to enter grades without being assaulted by the huge spreadsheet, and even using grading periods to group each learning module's assessments together. But it's not enough, so I'm using my edu-hacking skills to write my own web-based gradebook that actually shows students the information they need to monitor their progress (see an alpha version screenshot here). I realize not everyone has that option, but in my case I'm worried that Blackboard's own grading tools may be one of my biggest obstacles to succeeding with specs grading.
In my next post I'll walk you through the specs grading framework I put together for my course. As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated.