Monday, October 21, 2013

Settings for grading online homework assignments: Why I don't instruct Blackboard to take the most recent grade

In the interest of efficiency, speed of feedback, and mastery learning, I've designed a number of online modules for various Spanish classes I've given. I've described some of these projects in detail in my portfolio, so if you're interested in details, that would be a good place to look.

This semester I'm offering two fairly challenging courses that include these modules, Spanish phonetics, and Intro to Spanish linguistics. For all homework assignments, students are allowed (encouraged, and occasionally required) to submit multiple attempts of the homework. The number of attempts is limited, so students can't "game" the system by simply changing answers until they get them correct (see my portfolio for strategies to create assignments that promote real learning), and while they can see when they get something right or wrong, they never see the correct answer, so they can't simply copy and paste correct answers into subsequent attempts.

At the beginning of the semester, students asked what would happen if they got a lower grade on a later attempt. Would Blackboard keep the higher grade, or the more recent grade? I have Blackboard set to always take the highest grade, and my main reason for doing so is this: I want to encourage mastery learning. I want students to keep trying to do better and figure out where they're making mistakes. Which grading option best promotes that goal? Highest grade, or most recent?

Instructing Blackboard (or any other course management system) to take the most recent grade is enormously demotivating to students. Let's say a student gets a B on the assignment. If they know that they keep the B no matter what, they can afford to take risks and try for an A. But if they know that if they try again and get a C, their grade will go down, then a B might be good enough, because you don't want to have to do the assignment two, three or four more times just to get back to the grade you received on your first attempt.

I saw how important this was over the summer, when my sister was enrolled in an online graduate class. She's a teacher working on her second master's degree, so she's an extremely motivated student. For her online class, though, the assignments were set to take the most recent grade, and I had the opportunity to observe the cost-benefit analysis done by a highly motivated learner enrolled in a graduate program regarding whether it was worth it to attempt an assignment again. Her general rule of thumb appeared to be that a B was sufficient, although not desirable, because she didn't want to end up with a lower grade if she repeated it and didn't do as well on the second attempt, and she wasn't interested in repeating the assignment four or five times just to get back to her original grade. {Side note: I actually looked at these assessments, and they were spectacularly poorly designed. So it was just adding insult to injury to have a terrible assessment and then penalize students for repeating it.} This is noteworthy to me, because my sister is obsessive about getting As in her classes. She's not normally the type of student that's satisfied with a lower grade when she knows she can get a better one. Now imagine that you have an average student, not really interested in the course content, but needs the course for his/her major. Will that student try the homework if s/he manages to get a C on the first attempt? Most likely not, although a better mastery of the content is well within the student's grasp if the assessment is well-designed.

So I tell Blackboard to always take the highest grade. Persistence is key to learning, and if we discourage student persistence by our grading policies, we're doing our students a huge disservice. A recent article in the New York-Times pointed out a connection between high achievers and their musical abilities. Researchers don't know what causes the connection, but one of the high achievers said this:

“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are now moderated due to the volume of spam links being posted in the comments section. To the spammers: Your junk links will never see the light of day, so please stop wasting my time by posting them.