August 30th, 2017

A Challenge to Current Grading Practices

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students taking test

There’s a lot to be gained from considering ideas and arguments at odds with current practice. In higher education, many instructional practices are accepted and replicated with little thought. Fortunately, there are a few scholars who keep asking tough questions and challenging conventional thinking. Australian D. Royce Sadler is one of them. His views on feedback and assessment are at odds with the mainstream, but his scholarship is impeccable, well-researched, and logically coherent. His ideas merit our attention, make for rich discussion, and should motivate us to delve into the assumptions that ground current policies and practices.

Teaching Professor Blog Sadler’s 2016 article proposes three radical assessment reforms. I have space in today’s post to explore one: “accumulation of marks” or grading systems where students collect points across the course. This is probably the most commonly used grading system in North America. Here’s Sadler’s position: “Whether the actual path of learning is smooth or bumpy, and regardless of the effort the student has (or has not) put in, only the final achievement status should matter in determining the course grade.” (p. 1087)

He makes three arguments against “accumulating performance measures.” First, continuing summative assessments rob students of the opportunity to learn from failure. Students need opportunities for “false starts,” “bumbling attempts,” and “time spent going up blind alleys.” (p. 1088). Those are the very experiences that lead to deep understanding. Developing competence takes time. It requires experiences that occur across months, not days.

Sadler’s second objection involves how final grades “mishmash” the data, mingling credit for behaviors like effort, engagement in preferred activities, completion of exercises, and participation with evaluations of academic achievement. “These behaviors and activities may well assist learning, but they do not constitute the final level of achievement or even part of it . . . . The cost of using marks to modify behavior is contamination of the grade.” (p. 1088)

Finally, although earning points throughout the course motivates students and keeps them working, that focus ends when they’ve acquired enough points to satisfy their grade needs. Moreover, this grading approach reinforces the idea that everything students do in the course merits points. But even more significantly, “A steady stream of extrinsic rewards is a poor substitute for developed intrinsic rewards where students take primary responsibility for their own learning.” (p. 1088) These are not grading systems that encourage autonomy and self-direction in learners.

The alternative? Sadler advocates formative assessment, clearly separated from summative evaluation. Purely formative assessments have high stakes for learning and zero influence on the final, end-of-course assessment. So, students do all the regular course assignments and exams (save the final) but not for credit. Sadler also believes students should be much more involved in assessing their work. In a 2010 article, he offers ample evidence that few students act on the feedback teachers provide—something many of us have experienced with our own students. It’s another example of how teachers tell students what they should be discovering for themselves. “Students need to become competent not only in making judgments about their own works, but also in defending those judgments and figuring out how those works could have been made better.” (p. 1089)

As for the final summative assessment at the end of the course, Sadler pushes us to think in new ways here as well. Student knowledge and understanding should be tested in more authentic ways. Final assessments should allow students to take advantage of “the technologies and tools of production currently used in most workplaces . . . .” (p.1090) Time limits should be more generous, with responses written and then revised. “The quality of a student’s response as appraised against standards rather than against other students’ work is a clearer indicator of their capability than the speed of task completion.” (p. 1091)

Clearly, these ideas hold students responsible to a far greater degree than current practices do. Sadler acknowledges, noting that these reforms “shift a significant measure of responsibility from the educational environment [teachers, program directors, the institution, for example] to the students themselves.” (p. 1091) Most of our students are not prepared to accept this level of responsibility, and there are institutional barriers associated with class sizes and teaching loads.

These aren’t easily implemented reforms. But that shouldn’t prevent us from considering the ideas, debating their merits, and if we concur in principle, searching for small changes that might move assessment practices in these directions.

References:  Sadler, D. R., (2016).  Three in-course assessment reforms to improve higher education learning outcomes.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41 (7), 1081-1099.

Sadler, D. R., (2010).  Beyond feedback:  Developing student capability in complex appraisal.  Assessment & Evaluation, 35 (5), 535-550.

Previous blog posts that highlight some of Sadler’s work: 


  • pat bowne

    How would that work in a content-heavy class? It would, I suppose, mean going back to huge cumulative final exams. I’m old enough to remember the passionate arguments against having grades depend on those.

    • sgjones

      I think your question reflects the need for faculty to define what constitutes mastery of the content. Is it recall of definitions, processes, etc? Or is it the application of content to answer questions, solve problems, etc? If the latter, then students should have the opportunity to review the content from source material rather than be required to recall the content. This approach allows for what I believe Sadler and others mean by authentic assessment.

      • Gonzalo Munevar

        Some courses do have divided content, though. Say, a course on viruses and bacteria. By showing mastery of the content on bacteria we cannot automatically infer mastery of the content on viruses. To such courses it would be more difficult to apply Sadler’s advice. But in a large number of courses we can.

      • pat bowne

        In many of our courses it is both. Students must not only apply the material, they must construct a mental framework of what the material is so that they can quickly identify which material they need to apply… the classic example of the open-book assessment, where you cannot look up what you need if you don’t already know what to look up.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    Sadler’s advice is very good, although not very new. 48 years ago I took my first senior course in philosophy from a very tough professor, John T. Saunders. The class grade was given by a midterm paper and a final paper. In the midterm my grade was D-. My grade for the class, however, was an A. Why? I learned from my mistakes in the midterm and wrote a terrific final. Prof. Saunders threw out my midterm grade. When I became a professor myself I followed his example. I thought of teaching my students as if I were training them for the Olympics. If a student could run the 100 meters under ten seconds by the end of the semester, why should I hold it against him that it took him 14 seconds two months earlier?

  • douglasgroothuis

    One way I implement these insights is to allow students (in smaller classes) to rewrite their papers after receiving the initial grade and my comments.

  • Moin Ali Khan

    I think self assesment of students should also be considered in Final grade. For eg I ask the students to do a Take Away from the course and indicate how much marks will he/she give out of 5 .

  • Laura Shulman

    “students do all the regular course assignments and exams (save the final) but not for credit”. In my experience, many students do not bother to do assignments that are not graded. This suggested approach to ungraded formative assessment with summative assessment at the end may require a change in culture (shift from what students are used to as well as how faculty are accustomed to assessing and grading student work).
    Also, many schools/students ask for midterm progress reports for success programs the students are involved in or to send to prospective transfer schools. If we do not grade student work until the end of a course, then on what basis do we indicate their midterm progress report “grades”?
    Then there is the issue (raised by another comment here) of basing on course grade on a huge cumulative final exam and/or a major semester long research or case study type paper. I much prefer multiple and different types of low stakes assignments that are all graded. As another comment here also notes, I too would allow revisions for poor performance on an assignment.
    We may need a compromise approach, such as other examples here were
    midterm or lower grades from earlier in the course are dropped.
    Though I would LOVE to be able to just teach without grading work at all. And I am sure that students would also love to learn without the worry about grades.

  • Eric Pollock

    I do not think that “purely formative assessments have high stakes for learning and zero influence on the final, end-of-course assessment,” is necessarily true, A teacher can design, for example, a discussion rubric in which students have clear expectations, roles, and responsibilities, and is clearly assessed against those parameters. The final grade should consist of different metrics, even discussion and engagement throughout the year, with the caveat of course, that the student should show progress towards the end of the year. I can see those rubrics being put into a category of say, I know this is trending less, Participation, and that should count for a certain percent of an overall grade.

    Students can then be formatively assessed as to whether or not their discussion skills have improved from Day 1 to Day 180, with the hope that the student has progressed fairly well, and what the students used to have as expectations may be advanced with further-reaching expectations by the end of the year.

    ericpollock@yahoo.com

  • Alexandria

    One of the changes I made is to incorporate student self-assessments (based upon the rubric and instructions) as part of some of the assignments. Students are required to provide an explanation for the points they feel they earned. To illustrate, if a student shares understanding the instructions but waiting until the last minute to do the assignment, I don’t judge students for being candid.

    I believe this process helps student to take responsibility for their work and not view a grade as something I give to them. I am able to see where students are coming from, and I use their self-assessment as part of my feedback. I have saved significant time on my feedback by implementing this process. Also, when students feel they earned an A, and my assessment is quite different, I explain to them the reasons. I have not conducted any formal research on this process, but I noticed after a few self-assessments were completed we had similar assessments. I view self-assessment as a skill, and one needs to practice this skill. This can also be implemented for exams.

    I use Dee Fink’s significant learning taxonomy, and I believe learning is more than just “cognitive”. Fink’s learning taxonomy includes: learning how to learn, integration, human dimension, caring, foundational knowledge, and application. Fink’s model also emphasizes thinking about what we want students to be doing with the information they learn several years after the class.