Meaningful Assessment in the Liberal Arts

In my first year of full-time teaching, I had major issues with my gradebook. I took a traditional approach: every assignment counts, assignments are each given a single grade (usually a percentage), assignments are grouped by type (homework, quiz, test, project), final grade is determined by weighted average, … you know the drill. But at the end of my first semester, a couple really bright students who aced the final failed the class. (They didn’t do the homework.) A couple students who really struggled in the last few weeks and failed the final ― and who, in my opinion, where not ready to progress to the next course in the sequence ― just squeaked by with a passing grade. (They took advantage of participation points, reassessment opportunities, and the like.)

After working out with my department chair what to do about those special cases, she said very bluntly, “You need a new grading system.” I was already working on one. So I shared with her what I had read about criterion-referenced (or standards-based) assessment. I switched to that the next semester, and while I’ve made changes just about every semester since then, I’ve never gone back to traditional grading. The following story from my personal blog illustrates why:

After grading a round of assignments early this semester, I updated grades in my class’s online gradebook and emailed my students to notify them of the updated marks. Ten minutes later, a student walked in and said, “Dr. Shaffer, I noticed that I have a zero in the gradebook for [music] notation software. Is that because I turned the last assignment in by hand instead of typesetting it?” “Yes,” I answered. She then told me about the issues she was having with her [music] notation program, which we addressed so that she could get the assignment in for full credit in the notation software category. All this happened in a short time (within an hour of uploading the grades), and before the next class meeting when I planned to hand back assignments to the students.

Things were not this way last semester! Last semester, I calculated students’ overall grades using a weighted average of several categories of work. … As a result, student performance was clouded by a haze of numbers and formulas, and their questions to me about their performance as well as my answers were, as a result, continually passed through a filters of numbers, formulas, and mathematically (im)possible scenarios.

While the change may sound radical and unwieldy, it was actually rather simple. It took some getting used to, sure. But when I saw that most of my students had a better idea of how they were progressing, what goals they were and weren’t achieving, and came to me for help with their musical skill development instead of with questions about points, I was hooked. I knew there was no going back.

It helped to understand what I was doing well (I used to think I was doing nothing well in aural skills…which can be a bit defeating) and also helped me to understand where I needed to focus my attention. (From a student course evaluation that first semester with standards-based grading.)

Now, education is about far more than grades. For those of us in the liberal arts tradition, in particular, we heavily emphasize critical and creative thinking, finding new answers, asking new questions… These things resist pre-made rubrics and heavily scaffolded learning objectives.

I’ve thought and written a lot about this. Far more than I care to admit, actually. When I look at the “pedagogy” category on my personal blog, I’m taken aback at how much time I’ve spent agonizing over grades. But it wasn’t unwarranted. Grades are important to my students. Because of the false economy our society has created around them, grades determine placement in desired classes and programs, admission to the next stage in education, whether a student remains in a program, whether a student has the financial aid necessary to pay for the program, their own self-theories about their abilities (which in turn set limits on the efforts they exert and the results they expect), even the time and attention many of their instructors are willing to spend helping them.

As much as I’d like to jettison the whole concept of grades and transcripts, they’re here. So how can we assess student work in ways that are helpful to them as they grow intellectually and professionally, but flexible enough to allow ― perhaps even encourage ― the critical and creative work that is so important in liberal education? Not to mention needed in our society!

To start with, I think we need to have honest conversations about grades with our students. We need to let them know that “focusing on grades leads us to miss the best things an education has to offer.” And then we need to back that up with pedagogical decisions that make it possible for students to succeed in our classes without focusing on grades. That could mean less pre-determined course outcomes. More room for epiphanies. We need to be open about the problems caused by grades, and involve students in the discussion about what they need and want from us (and themselves, and each other!) in terms of guidance and feedback.

We can also start exploring alternate forms of assessment. There are systems like contract grading, which allow for flexible, individualized assessment of creative student work while still giving them a familiar foothold in terms of learning objectives. There are systems like criterion-referenced (or standards-based) grading, which provide still more of a familiar foothold and, in my experience, often work better in professional programs where there are a number of important pre-determined outcomes. Though perhaps less flexible, standards-based systems at least help students move away from “what does my instructor expect for an A?” and towards “how am I progressing in my development of this skill?” This shift to self-assessment can be a major turning point for a student. And there’s nothing that says students cannot collaborate on the list of standards they will pursue in a course. (One of my most enjoyable semesters of teaching was the semester in which my students and I created that list of learning objectives together and then worked to help each other pursue it.)

Finally, I think we should examine how our assessment practices might actually undermine our educational objectives. In my years as a music professor, I found not only that some of the standard assessment practices in my discipline were measuring something different than we thought, but also that some of the standard assessment practices were discriminating against certain kinds of learners who pursued and demonstrated their skills in different ways. Writing about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Bruce Quaglia writes:

UDL’s strength lies in its flexibility. While the UDL Guidelines provide a coherent basis for evaluating our existing teaching practices and for planning and revising future curricula, they also require an honest and considered reexamination of our curricular learning objectives: those goals that we hold as instructors for our students at the culmination of each activity, lesson, course and course sequence. Only by clearly distinguishing between our intended learning objectives and the methods that we use to achieve them can we determine when an unnecessary barrier to learning has inadvertently entered into our curriculum. (emphasis added)

While this post may make it sound like I am advocating radical changes ― and I probably am! ― there is no reason why we can’t critically reflect on our own practices and think of incremental ways to bring our practice more in line with our goals. I’ve never been able to find the sweet spot that brings my goals and preferences in line with those of all my students and the expectations of the institution. But with a little critical reflection and a lot of openness with our students and colleagues, we can start moving in the right direction.

But enough from me. What are your goals for your students? What are their goals? What kinds of assessment systems have helped you achieve those goals? What have been the biggest challenges?