TITLE: What Grades Mean AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 27, 2008 12:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My younger daughter entered seventh grade this year, and at the orientation session last week the teachers made a point of saying that timeliness matters. If a student turns in late work, they will be "docked". My mind ended up wandering away as I thought about what this means for her grade. If she ends up with a B, what does that say about her mastery of the material? About her timeliness? Perhaps I was primed for this daydream by a conversation I had had recently with a colleague who teaches one of our CS1 sections. Traditionally, he has had a very lax policy on late work: get it done, even late, and he would grade it straight up. His thinking was that this would encourage students to stick with assignments and get the practice they need. In past years, this policy has worked all right for him, but in the last year or so he has noticed more students putting off more assignments, many students turning in several or all of their assignments at the end of the semester. Not surprisingly, these students do poorly on the exams for lack of practice and so do poorly in course overall. He and I contrasted his policy with mine, which is that late work is not accepted for grading. I'm always willing to look at a student program after the deadline, but it will not count for credit. This is one of the few ways in which I draw a hard line with students, but I find that it encourages students to take assignments seriously and to get practice regularly throughout the semester. Until I heard my daughters' teachers talk about their policy, I'm not sure I had realized quite so clearly: My late work policy conflates mastery of content with professional work habits. A student can learn everything I want him to learn and more, yet earn a low grade by not submitting assignment on time. To be honest, that's probably not a problem. In our current system, it is not entirely clear what a grade means anyway. Across universities, across departments at the same university, and even across faculty within the same department, grades can signify very different results. Conflating the evaluations of knowledge and behavior is only one source of variation, and almost certainly not the most significant. Employers who hire our graduates want employees who know their discipline and who deliver results in a professional many. Still, I can't help but think what it would be like to offer two grades for a course, one for content and one for all that other stuff: timeliness, teamwork, neatness, etc. Instructor: "Johnny, you get a B for your understanding of operating systems, and a D for behavior, because you don't color within the lines." Employer: "We really need someone with the right professional skills for this position; let's teach him what he needs to know after he gets here." Increasingly, I am drawn to a competency-based scheme for grading what students know. West and Rostal have been advocating this idea for a while, as part of a larger overhaul of CS education. It takes some work do right, but the effect on what we expect of our students might be worth it. Unfortunately, within the broader university culture of grades and effort and time-delimited courses carved out of a discipline's body of knowledge, moving in this direction creates logistic costs that may be larger than the pedagogical ones. In any case, I've been thinking of ways I might change my grading scheme. I'm not likely to change the "no late work" policy, at least not for upper-division courses, and to be honest I find that very few students have a problem getting their work in on time in face of the policy. (Whether the work is complete is another matter...) Still, I might consider changing how the homework grade figures into the overall grade. Perhaps instead of counting homework as 30% of the grade, I could count it for "up to 30%" and let the student select the percentage. Students who would rather not bother with falderol of assignment requirements could stake more or all of their grade on exams; students who worry about exams could stick with 30%. Perhaps having that be their choice and not mine would motivate them even more to make a good faith effort at completing the entire assignment on time. I suppose that my real concern in all this thinking is with my seventh-grader. She, my wife, and I already pay close attention to her work behavior, trying help her develop good habits. She's already a conscientious student who just needs to learn how to manage her own time. We also pay close attention to her understanding of the content in her classes, but her assignment and test grades are a big part of how we track that progress. As the grades she receives begin to include both elements, we'll want to pay closer attention to her understanding of the material in other ways. I guess I'm in the same position as the employers who hire my students now! -----