May 16th, 2012

Giving Student Choices on How Assignments Are Weighted


Not so long ago in the blog we explored the weighting of course assignments. The more certain assignments count in the grading scheme, the more time students are likely to devote to them. That makes determining how much each assignments counts an important decision. Since then I’ve come across several reports and some research that suggest we should consider giving students a choice on assignment weightings. For example, if the course contains a number of quizzes and collectively they count for 20% of the grade, a student could decide at the beginning of the course to raise that percentage to 30 with the weight of the major exams decreased by a corresponding amount. Or, say there are three assignments in the course that equal 75% of the grade, the student could designate a weight for each assignment between 15% and 45% but the three must total 75%.

Is this just an interesting gimmick or does the approach accomplish some viable objectives? The June-July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter highlights a study in which MBA students were given weighting choices and doing so increased their interest in the course and in taking subsequent courses, as compared with MBA students not given a choice. It would seem sensible to assume that “interest” in a course means more time devoted to study and that should result in more learning. However, in this particular study, the grades of students with choice about assignment weights were virtually identical to the grades of those students without the choice.

Giving students choices about assignment weights does confront them with who they are as learners. Ostensibly they would chose to put more weight on those assignments that build on their strengths or their preferences for how they like to learn. I routinely let students in my beginning communication course select which assignments they would complete (not how much those assignments counted). When I asked students to explain what their choices said about them as learners, the answers were not terribly encouraging. Mostly they reported picking the assignments that looked the easiest.

Researchers in the study found that on average students weighted assignments very close to the default amount; 25% for each of the three assignments, which is how much the assignments counted for students who were not given any weighting choice. I was surprised by how many students in my graduate course on college teaching did the same thing. That course had five assignments. Each assignment counted for 10% of their total grade. I gave them the other 50% and let them distribute it across the assignments. Regularly around half the students would simply add another 10% to each of the assignments, in essence making a minimalist choice.

I’m wondering if these outcomes don’t indicate that giving students a choice about assignment weights doesn’t automatically produce benefits. Most students continue to be very unaware of themselves as learners. They look at assignments and think about grades. They know that assignments require different things but they don’t translate that into assignments depending on or developing different learning skills. They just know they don’t “like” to participate or be in groups or write essays and so make choices that decrease the value of those assignments.

If students are given this weighting option, it seems essential that teachers explain the reason why. The practice gives students some control over how they learn. Students should see that as a plus. The practice enables students to use and further develop their strengths as learners or if they’re brave and value learning more than grades, it allows them to select experiences that will develop their learning skills that aren’t as strong. However they decide to weight the assignments, the decision contains hints about their identity as learners.

These seem to me good reasons to give students this option, provided students are prompted to explore, analyze and explain the reasons why they’ve decided on a particular weighting scheme. Do some of you let students set assignment weights? If so, please share why you do it, how it works, what you’ve learned and what advice you’d offer others interested in the option.

Reference: Dobrow, S. R., Smith, W. K., and Posner, M. A. (2011). Managing the grading paradox: Leveraging the power of choice in the classroom. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10 (2), 261-276.

  • drjeffreyp

    OK, so I suspect this will get me in some kind of trouble. Here's what's troubling to me. I'm all for student centered courses, even facilitating as opposed to teaching (though I think teaching is facilitating) but we keep this, let the student decide stuff, pretty soon they're going to be teaching and we'll be doing . . . what?

    At what point do we acknowledge that we're there as teachers because, at that moment, we know more than the student does?

    Think Mr. Miagi.

    • deanmark

      I have to differ with the notion that "we know more than the student does." Partly, we have to realize that students can gain information far faster than we can lecture or "teach" it with their mobile devices. We have to acknowledge that in this information age, we are not longer the master of content and that students eagerly sit at our feet to gain this information. We have far larger fish to fry: we have to guide their thinking about the content. We have to encourage their critical thinking. We must facilitate their exploration of content instead of delivering content. This is what it needed for our 21st century world and this is how our digital natives come to us.

      We may have thought longer and deeper about our course content. But we have made this thinking our careers, where freshman and sophomores are still wrestling with the career paths and will–by the time they are 38 years old–already moved through 12- 14 career paths (this is attributed to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

      There will always be a place for the "teacher"–we are irreplaceable in the education "industry." However, we have to shape and adapt to the times in which we live and we are no longer in the 14th century universities!

  • deanmark

    In my class the spring, I owned on the first day that I did not have a good idea about assessing their learning. I had identified the outcomes, but I did not have a good idea about how to measure them. I asked the students to collect into groups and discuss amongst themselves how they thought I should measure their attaining the outcomes. The students by and large came up with the same ten items and that is what I added to the syllabus that day for measuring their learning. I believe that beyond the attributes set above, allowing students to "negotiate" their way through the syllabus plays to one the strengths they bring to us!

  • Judy

    I am encouraged to facilitate 'some' individualized grading scheme next time I teach after reading this article. I am a strong supporter of individualized and authentic assessment. However, as a somewhat new sessional lecturer teaching a class of 150, I have been reluctant to let go of 'control' and afraid of increased workload. At the same time, individual students often approached me, usually with strong hesitation and worry, and asked for changes in the grading scheme due to X, Y, Z. I realized that there is so much metacognition going on when students need to articulate why they want a specific marking scheme. I also get to know the students more when they came to talk to me after class 🙂

    This is what I am thinking to do next time I teach: I will provide the 'default' grading scheme and invite students to think about if it fits their learning needs. If not, I will invite them to adjust it with reasons.

    I'm quite excited about this new invitation to adjust grading scheme. Workload? I suspect that most students will go with the default (after some metacognition) and the slight increased in workload is so worthwhile in this case.


  • Kate Bye

    There is a lot to say about perceived control – it is immensely important to us right from the moment we realize we are separate entities from our parents. Giving students the essence of perceived control can only be a good thing – you are not turning total management of the course and content over to them, just asking for their input into how they will be evaluated. The sad thing is that as this article indicates, students are not very skilled at assessing themselves and still focus on the external grade rather than what they will learn. Sigh. It is a challenging position to say the least.

  • carol875

    It strikes me that students, when faced with a complex decision with several unknowns, may have just opted to take the defaults. This is a common behavior, and you could test it in a future class by giving 2-3 different sets of defaults to see if students were likely to change the weights if the defaults were highly unequal, or if they just accepted pretty much whatever defaults you handed them (I predict the latter). Dan Ariely describes this in phenomenon in his TED talk, here:… .

  • oldhat

    There's a long-established name for offering multiple weighting possibilities. "Plussage." Usually this is implemented by the instructor who computes all of the weighted additions, and takes the maximum.

    Try implementing it on Blackboard, though!

  • gldecker

    I routinely have students determine the grading scale. This is most often on the second class meeting after they have had sufficient time to review the syllabus and assignments. In a class of up to 25, I begin by having students get into groups to discuss their thoughts about each assignment. They often ask questions and request clarifications on assignments. Then I project each group's recommendations. Next the class has to come to 100% consensus on the final grading scale. I would say that, in most classes, there is very good discussion about how each assignment should be weighted due to what they perceive will be an expected amount of time, effort, and yes – even learning through completing the assignment. The feedback that I receive from students is very positive (although most of us find that the process of gaining 100% consensus can get tiresome – but I don't budge on that.) This exercise is the first step in students taking control of their learning and commitment to the course. It works very well in meeting my objective, and they come to fully realize its value as the course evolves.