When I first started teaching, I loathed grading lab reports. I had a seemingly never-ending pile of papers almost a foot tall sitting on the front, right-hand corner of my desk glaring at me with that look of “we’re not going anywhere, you know.”
Eventually, I would grab a chunk of labs and my green pen and start reading. I would read each lab and deduct points for errors and omissions. Sure, I would write comments and feedback as well, but I found it challenging to have both a point-deduction-centric perspective and feedback-centric perspective in my head at the same time. Even with a rubric, I spent a lot of time debating with myself, “Is this vague statement close enough to receive full credit?” “This paragraph shows some understanding, but I can’t tell what this student really understands; -1 or -2?” After grading a lab, I would flip back through each page counting how many points I had deducted. Not being a very number-centric person, I would at times ask myself, “Wait, is this lab out of 20 or 25 points; let me check.” I would then check to see if I had made a note on the lab that it was submitted late in which case I would apply a late penalty as well which wasn’t always simple: “Okay the 20th was four days ago but I think we didn’t have class one day; let me check…. Ah, we didn’t; so, that only counts as three days late.” At times, I would question if a specific error or omission should result in a one or two point deduction and, under the guise of fairness, I would search through previously graded labs to find one that I vaguely remembered having made the same error or omission. I spent hours and hours grading lab reports.
When I finished grading a lab for the entire class, I would hand it back but worry that, once I did so, students who hadn’t turned in the lab would copy a friend’s graded lab and submit it as their own. When I did hand back the labs, I would watch students’ reactions. If I put a grade on the front of the lab, they would look at the grade and apply, perhaps subconsciously, an algorithm that resulted in a positive, ambivalent, or negative feeling and then file the lab in their folder. Many wouldn’t even flip through the pages to read my comments. After noticing this pattern, I started writing the grade on the last page. Many students would then skim their graded labs, but they weren’t reading my feedback; they were scanning for the grade that they knew must be in there somewhere. If I forgot to total the points and write the grade on a couple of labs, they would certainly ask about their grades. However, the students were so entrenched in the grades game that I never had any ask for feedback if I didn’t write comments.
This sucked. Grading labs was my least favorite part of teaching. There had to be a better way.
Last year, myself and a colleague integrated our fledgling standards-based grading philosophy into our honors physics classes. We categorized most of labs that were previously graded as learning activities which we defined as “activities that don’t directly affect your grade, they are essential in that they are your opportunity to explore, discover, take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, help each other, practice, and get feedback before having to demonstrate mastery.” We explained this to our students and started our first lab activity. The next day, everyone turned in their labs.
I went home that night and I didn’t grade their labs. I read them. As I read them, I wrote comments, asked questions, made minor corrections. I never thought about points. I didn’t calculate a score. It was wonderful.
The next day in class, I handed back the labs. This new standards-based grading methodology was unfamiliar to the students and many hadn’t internalized the role of these learning activities. I observed some students scanning their labs for a grade. “Mr. Schmit, what is my grade on this?” “It is a learning activity, no grade; just feedback.” As they began to understand that no matter how hard they looked, they wouldn’t find a 18/20 anywhere in their lab, I saw students actually reading my feedback. Some students even asked questions about what I had written.
Lab reports got better. As students embraced the standards-based grading philosophy, they started taking risks because they weren’t worried about losing points. The vagueness of statements was diminished. Students began to write what they actually thought instead of what they thought was sufficiently generic to result in credit. Some students even started writing questions in their lab reports to ask for clarification. Many times, after a productive class discussion or whiteboarding session, I wouldn’t feel that I needed to collect the lab reports and provide additional feedback. The students had already provided all of it to each other.
I had a number of goals, hopes, and dreams when I started standards-based grading last year. Liberating students from grading such that they could focus on their learning was one. Liberating myself from grading such that I actually enjoyed reading lab reports wasn’t one of them, but it was a very pleasant surprise.