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An Alternative Assessment Approach to be More Inclusive and Inspiring

I want to propose a different grading system that I think is more encouraging to some students and will be particularly useful for supporting diversity in physiology classes and in science general education classes.  Two separate influences converged to give me insight in creating this grading system.

In many of my courses, I value 3 different aspects of student participation and work: their attendance, their homework and their project work. My dilemma was how to grade in such a way that a student had to do all 3 well in order to get an A. If each aspect was weighted equally, then a student could get 100% on two parts, would only need 70% on the third part, which did not suit my purpose (see Figure 1A).  If each part has different weights, then the student can get even less than 70% on the part that has the least weight, only making matters worse.  I then tried to use the geometric mean, taking the cube root of the product of the percentages on the different parts (see Figure 1B).  While that improved things somewhat, it still did not achieve quite what I wanted and it was a bit confusing to the students. Finally, I tried  multiplying the grades in each area; while this was an improvement, if I stayed with the 90%, 80%, 70% cutoffs, this was too harsh a system (see Figure 1C).

The other influence that occurred was that our university started an incentive program to get people to be more active. If a person walked a million steps in 1 year, they would get a pay bonus. In talking to a colleague about this, the colleague pointed out that behavioral economists would argue that the incentive program would be more effective if the university handed out the bonus in January and said, if you do NOT walk at least 1 million steps this year, we will take back the incentive in December; basically, people will work harder not to lose something than to get something they do not yet have (3, 5, 6, 7).

My grading system is to tell the students they have 1,000 points on the first day of class and that 900 points is required for an A.  They lose 25 points for every class absence, they lose 25 points for every homework assignment not done satisfactorily, and up to 300 points if the final project or assessment is not satisfactory, see Figure 1D.  Consider a course that meets 3 times per week for 15 weeks and has homework for each class. If a student misses 5 classes (11%) then they cannot get an A.

If a student has more than 5 unsatisfactory homework assignments, then they cannot get an A.

If they lose more than ⅓ of the points on the project, they cannot get an A.

If they miss 2 classes and have 3 unsatisfactory homework assignments, they cannot get an A.

The conventional system in which a student gets x points for this assignment and y points for that assignment makes some assumptions (1, 9).  One assumption is that the response is additive and independent; there are plenty of phenomena in physiology that we know are synergistic and not additive.  My system is more like requiring a properly functioning heart, lungs and brain in order to consider the organism to be properly functioning, whereas the conventional system would be analogous to weight a properly functioning heart as much more important that properly functioning lungs.

Many students taking science classes suffer from imposter syndrome (4, 8, 10).  By making it clear that the student is starting the class with an A, I hope to make them realize that they do belong.  I reinforce this by saying that I view myself as their coach and I want them to succeed. But as a coach, it doesn’t help them if I do all the practice, they have to put in some work-hence the reward for attendance and homework.  (In classes where I have TAs, I refer to them as assistant coaches-again, to stress that we are there to help them get better and to emphasize that they have to do some work and not just watch us.)   Of course, some students worry that the project is a “gotcha” assignment.  I get around this by using an idea from Mittell (as quoted in 2).  If the project gets a not satisfactory evaluation, the student can revise and resubmit.  I use Mittell’s analogy that in my class “not satisfactory” is like when their parents say, “your room is not satisfactorily cleaned for you to go out” (as quoted in 2).

A business school colleague objected to my grading system because he felt students should earn their grade.  I appreciate and respect that point of view and I think it depends on the student, the class, and the teacher.  My analogy is, for a sports team, before the season starts, is the team undefeated or winless?

There are several reasons why I give credit for attendance:

I encourage discussions and brainstorming in class.  Students not present cannot learn from these interactions.  Furthermore, the rest of the class loses the absent student’s insights and questions which would enrich and diversify the interactions.

I am a bit more interested in developing lifelong habits that will serve the students well than in having them memorize information and theories, in part because some of the accepted information and theories are likely to change over their lifetime. To me, learning to attend class is a bit like learning how to get, and stay, in shape. Part of that is the ability to set aside time to exercise and to do it even on days when one is not in the mood.  For me, process is at least as important as short-term results. So I wanted a grading system that rewarded the behaviors I wanted (9).

A colleague also pointed out that if a student can get an A in a class without being in attendance, then, apparently, class time was not necessary for learning for that student (or, perhaps more accurately, class time was not necessary for passing the exams for that student).

Finally, I have a selfish reason for giving credit for attendance. I think the class works better when most students are there; I certainly find it more rewarding and enjoyable to be in front of a full class than when half of the students do not attend.

As I developed this grading system, it made me reflect again on what were my goals for the course.

Was I more interested in results or process? Taking my coaching analogy, if I were coaching physical fitness or flexibility, was having the student be able to run one mile in under 5 minutes or being able to touch their toes the goal of the semester or was it to help them develop habits, get in better shape than they started, and learn to enjoy the satisfaction of being in shape? For me, the analogous traits are to develop solid learning habits, to learn to critically think, to improve their ability to discuss and brainstorm about concepts and mechanisms, and to learn to enjoy the satisfaction that comes with thinking deeply about a problem.

In reading about other approaches to evaluation, I also realized that my previous approach to grading rewarded those who came into the course with a better background (2).  This did not seem fair to me. I am still struggling with the best way to account for the different skills and levels of the students when they enter the course.  Going back to the physical fitness training analogy, if a student comes into the course being able to run a 5 minute mile and finishes the course running a mile in 4:50 should they get a better grade than a student who entered the course not being able to run a complete mile and finishes the course running a complete mile in 10 minutes? (2)

One small difficulty with the approach is the dissonance of reading a fine assignment and then entering 0 in that grade column. Similarly, some students initially get concerned seeing a 0 in the grade column, so now I remind them when I reveal the grades for the first few evaluations that a 0 means they have done a satisfactory (or better) job.

I have found that the students find this grading system reduces their anxiety and makes them more comfortable in taking creative risks when doing their assignments.  It also makes evaluation an easier process as I am focused on helping the students improve and not on ranking them.

In summary, I hope some readers find that the ideas and questions that prompted me to adopt this grading system may help them reflect on how well their goals for the course match up with how they evaluate and reward students, even if they are not interested in adopting this grading system.

REFERENCES

  1. Elbow P, Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment. College English 55: 187-206, 1993
  2. Jones JB. Experimenting with Specifications Grading Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2016 https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/experimenting-with-specifications-grading/61912 accessed 8/17/2021
  3. Kahneman D, Tversky A. Prospect theory: an analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica. 47:263–91, 1979
  4. McGill BM, Foster MJ, Pruitt AN, Thomas SG, Arsenault ER, Hanschu J, Wahwahsuck K, Cortez E, Zarek K, Loecke TD, Burgin AJ. You are welcome here: A practical guide to diversity, equity, and inclusion for undergraduates embarking on an ecological research experience. Ecol Evol. 11(8):3636-3645, 2021.
  5. Morewedge CK, Giblin CE. Explanations of the endowment effect: an integrative review. Trends Cogn Sci. 19(6):339-48, 2015.
  6. Ogdie, A, Asch, DA. Changing health behaviours in rheumatology: an introduction to behavioural economics. Nat Rev Rheumatol 16, 53–60, 2020.
  7. Patel MS, Asch DA, Rosin R, Small DS, Bellamy SL, Heuer J, Sproat S, Hyson C, Haff N, Lee SM, Wesby L, Hoffer K, Shuttleworth D, Taylor DH, Hilbert V, Zhu J, Yang L, Wang X, Volpp KG. Framing. Financial Incentives to Increase Physical Activity Among Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Ann Intern Med.164(6):385-94. 2016 .
  8. Persky AM. Intellectual Self-doubt and How to Get Out of It. Am J Pharm Educ. 82(2):6990, 2018
  9. Potts, G. A Simple Alternative to Grading . The Journal of the Virginia Community Colleges 15 (1):29-42, 2010.
  10. Winzeler EA. An improbable journey: Creativity helped me make the transition from art to curing malaria. J Biol Chem. 294(2):405-409, 2019.

Figure legend.

Outcomes from different grading systems. In all 4 cases, the course has 3 different areas (e.g., attendance, homework, and project). The percent of the total points possible for each area is determined. The right column (in red) are the percentages obtained in one area and the top row are the percentages obtained in the two other areas. Using the traditional cutoffs of 90%, 80%, for grades, the orange shaded areas would get A’s, the purple shaded areas B’s, and the blue shaded areas C’s.

A). Outcomes from an additive or average grading system.  In this system, one takes the average of the 3 areas. In this case, someone could get as low as 70% in one area and still get an A if they get 100% in the other two areas.

  1. B) Outcomes from a geometric mean grading system. In this system, one takes the cube root of the product of the grade in each of the 3 areas. In this system, getting 80% in one area and 100% in the other two still gets an A, but 70% in one area and 100% in the other two is now a B.
  2. C) Outcomes from a multiplicative system. Here one multiplies the percentages from each area. In this system, there are many fewer A’s.
  3. D) Outcomes from a loss aversion or endowment system. In this system, each student starts with 1,000 points and loses points when they do not satisfactorily complete an assignment in any area.  In this system, a student can only lose 10% of the points in one area and still get an A.  Even if the student gets 100% in two areas and 80% in the third area, they get a B.

    Mark Milanick

    Mark grew up in Novelty, OH and went to high school in Harmony, PA.  He attempted to double major in physics and English literature at Swarthmore, but ended up just majoring in English. He took a year abroad at the University of St. Andrews, taking pure Maths, Pharmacology and Modern Literature. After doing lab rotations with Ed Taylor and Richard Miller, he did his PhD with Bob Gunn in the Biophysics and Theoretical Biology at the University of Chicago.  His postdoctoral training was with Joe Hoffman in physiology at Yale.  He had over 20 years of NIH funding on red blood cell membrane transport and physiology. He particularly enjoys teaching physiology and general education classes, such as Toxins, the Good, the Bad and the Beautiful; Bodily Fluids and their Functions; Filtering Fact from Fiction in TV Crime and Medical Dramas; and the Science of Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll.