May 16th, 2012

Giving Student Choices on How Assignments Are Weighted

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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.