Mastery-based Grading (for Moderates)

Last week I gave a short presentation on teaching to a group of faculty at my institution. I decided to talk about an experimental assessment method I’ve been thinking about privately for the last three-and-a-half years (ever since a post at In Socrates’ Wake stirred me from my dogmatic slumber). Next semester I’ll have my first really good opportunity to implement this method. It seemed like the sort of thing worth sharing here, even though I haven’t tested it yet.

Awkward things about traditional grading. I don’t think I’m alone in hating grading. I like reading good student work, but judging it is taxing.Students may think about their grades a lot, but very few of us got into teaching in order to pass judgment on people. And whenever I’m disappointed by an assignment, I ask myself if I taught well enough, if I made my expectations clear enough, if it would be unfair of me to judge the work harshly. Grading has various functions, though, and two obvious ones in particular: to motivate students to do the work (assuming they want good grades), and to serve as a signal of student quality to folks who weren’t in the class and didn’t assess them. Normally this is done by finding a weighted average of each student’s work over the course of the semester. Maybe later assignments count more, or assignments more central to the purpose of the course (like exams and papers) count more.

There are two drawbacks to this “average performance” model. One is that grades provide poor feedback. By the time a student has a grade, they’re stuck with it even if they improve later, and there is little external motivation for them to improve unless another assessment is coming up later that evaluates them for the same knowledge or skills. Instructors usually use other methods to provide feedback (e.g. comments), but those methods don’t motivate the way grades do. A second drawback is what might be called the “improvement problem” (described ages ago by Mark Lance at NewAPPS). Imagine Student A who performs pretty well throughout the semester. Student A may have taken similar courses before, or may be unusually sharp, or may have been better-than-usually prepared for the class. Student A gets an A–. Student B, on the other hand, struggles early in the semester but perseveres until things fall into place and by the end of the term she is outperforming Student A. Nevertheless, Student B gets a B because of her weak early performance. Something just seems a bit unfair about that.

The improvement problem

The improvement problem, illustrated.

Mastery-based assessment. There are a lot of ways to address the improvement problem. One strategy is called “mastery-based grading” or “mastery-based assessment,” inspired by martial arts (earning successive colored belts) or video games (passing successive levels). In particular, Ann Cahill and Stephen Bloch-Schulman developed an ingenious design for a critical thinking course based on the martial arts metaphor. I won’t describe it here, but you can read about it yourself (I recommend it). The problem with Cahill and Bloch-Schulman’s model is that it seems difficult to adapt to certain kinds of courses—it requires students to work individually at their own pace instead of together. The result is that students cover a topic at different times during the semester, and don’t collaborate. It sounds like a great way to teach their course, but I also want students to work with and learn from each other. (In fact I am contractually obliged to teach that way.)

Moderate mastery-based assessment. So my plan is to water down the Cahill and Bloch-Schulman model enough to get most of its benefits without its drawbacks, drawing significantly on a suggestion by Dustin Locke. I have a scaffolded sequence of main papers throughout the semester, each of which focuses on specific analytical skills and builds on the skills assessed in previous assignments:

  • Paper 1: precise description of a topic or view (200 words on the topic of the week)
  • Paper 2: exposition of an argument from the reading (300 words on the topic of the week)
  • Paper 3: Like paper 2 plus an original objection (600 words on the topic of the week)
  • Final paper: Like paper 3 plus a discussion of material from outside of class (3500 words on any topic from the semester)

Now, this sequence works for philosophy courses, but for other kinds of courses one could use a sequence of different skills, or use different kinds of assessments (e.g. tests or creative projects). None of this is particularly new. The “mastery-based” twist is to allow students to turn in the papers when they choose, and as many times as they choose. Only the last grade they receive on each assignment counts toward their final grade for the course. That way, I can hold them to high standards without being overly harsh or punishing them for being unprepared for the course, since they can try again and replace their previous grades.

I may be fooling myself, but I don’t think this plan will leave me buried alive under a mountain of grading, at least in a small-ish course. First of all, each paper but the last is quite short. I have pedagogical reasons for this—it makes the assignments seem less intimidating, and encourages students to focus on the target skill instead of panicking or getting distracted by the mechanics of writing. But also it’s easier to grade a lot of short papers with clear objectives. Second, students cannot regress in the sequence. They must take each step in the sequence seriously, moving on only when they’re satisfied. It also prevents strategic thinkers from massaging their grades and the end of the term by turning in a bunch of short papers. Third, students can only submit one paper a week. This encourages them to invest in each attempt (respecting my time as a grader). It also forces them to choose new topics for each re-attempt, so that they have to practice their analytical skills in a new context. Only for the final paper can re-attempts be revisions of earlier work.

The benefits of moderation. My hope is that this assessment model improves on the problems of the “average performance” model. Grades provide better motivating feedback since they contribute to the final grade, but can be improved if the student chooses to re-attempt the assignment. This model also softens the impact of the improvement problem (though not as well as Cahill and Bloch-Schulman’s more radical model).

And importantly for me, the model is flexible enough to work in courses on diverse topics, and varied uses of classroom time. In particular, I can reserve most of class time for lectures, group work, and discussion as in a traditional philosophy course. I can also have students work together through weekly topics on the syllabus, while they work on their analytical skills at their own pace through the written assignments.

Of course, it’s possible for an extremely driven and well-prepared student to finish all her papers within the first four weeks of the term. I think that’s fine—if she’s that over-prepared she can finish early and spend more time on her other courses. There are other reasons for her to read and come class each week. Another worry that’s been expressed to me is that this plan might contribute to grade inflation. Again, I’m not worried. I think it’ll be easier for me to hold my students to higher standards this way. If they all earn As by the end of the term, they’ll each have earned it.

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The Impartiality Contract

I’ll be teaching my social philosophy course again this summer, which takes a turn through some very controversial issues—the justification of rights, oppression, racism, sexism, linguistic privilege, theories of punishment, &c. So I am thinking of beginning the term with a clarification of my policies about impartiality. In particular, I abide by the following two principles:

I will not be impartial in my presentation of material. A philosophy class is not a venue for indoctrination, but I make no promise that I will present material in an impartial manner. My selection of topics is meant to stimulate my students, but not to present every side of an issue. I will not always disclose my views on a topic, but I will not always refrain from doing so, either. There are several reasons for this.

For one, I don’t think every ‘side’ of the issues we cover deserves a defense in the classroom. I don’t think that Nazis or people who deny the value of logic or reason need their arguments aired clearly and respectfully in every class where they might be relevant, and if I do defend their arguments for the sake of a discussion I won’t do it with an impression of earnestness. So some viewpoints will be left out or marginalized because I don’t think they’re worth considering. That’s not to say we won’t discuss immoral viewpoints or bad arguments—not at all!—but I am trying to teach my students to think well, and I won’t present the bad as if it were good.

Relatedly, I want my classroom to be a particular kind of safe space (insofar as I can make that the case in a classroom). Making my own views clear on certain matters will, I hope, bring some comfort to some students, and make it clear what they can expect from me in one-on-one or confidential conversations.

For another thing, it’s just bad pedagogy to aim for impartiality. I have to make a decision about how to make the material comprehensible in the short time that we have, and some viewpoints and complications will be glossed over. That’s for the benefit of my students (philosophical education involves raising ladders that can be thrown away once they’ve been climbed, right?). So some viewpoints will be left out not because they’re unworthy of serious consideration, but because we have limited time and effort in the course of the term or because of pedagogical demands.

Finally, I don’t think it’s possible to be perfectly ‘impartial’ about any complex topic without specifying a sphere of common opinion or a metric for partiality, which is heavy weather. Ultimately, when considering which viewpoints to address I consider my educational objectives—what content I think my students should be exposed to, which skills I want them to develop, what I want the tone of the classroom to be, and to some extent of course what I think of as right and wrong. That being said…

I will not punish you for the substance of your views. I will impose no sanctions—in classroom policies or in my grading—for holding certain beliefs. That’s right. If one of my students is a literal Nazi and says so, believes that allegiance to an ethnically pure state is paramount and that impure people should be interned or killed, and if they defend these views from a place of conscience, it will not affect their grade and I will not remove them from class. More topically, I won’t dock someone’s grade for being a libertarian or even a white supremacist.

In fact, dissent from the views presented—mine or those of the authors and thinkers I assign—is very important for a philosophy class to work. So I positively encourage productive dissent. This can come in at least two forms: students might disagree with a view or argument under discussion, and even if they don’t disagree they might explore objections. If a student disagrees with a view under discussion, she should test her reasons against those of others. If a student doesn’t understand a view or argument under discussion, considering objections and opposing viewpoints will help her to improve her understanding.

That being said, it’s not the case that anything goes. I will remove students from the classroom if they are repeatedly disrespectful of their classmates, or if they express their views in a way that is cruel or hurtful. So even if a student is a conscientious white supremacist, I the use of slurs or dehumanizing language is still, of course, inappropriate (the mention of such expressions is allowed, with special care).

Furthermore, I expect my students to become familiar with the views and arguments presented in the lectures and readings. A student who does not believe in structural oppression must still be familiar with assigned readings by Iris Marion Young, and must engage with them thoughtfully and charitably.

I have generally followed these guidelines whenever I’ve taught—though in most classes I am very circumspect about expressing my own views. But I think it is probably worthwhile to make these policies explicit at the beginning of the semester. I’ve discovered in the past that some of my students were unsure about the extent to which they were permitted to express disagreement with the lecturer or the readings, and I think these two principles set the stage for critical thinking and lively discussion. The first principle, that I will not be impartial regarding to the subject matter of the class, will probably irk students but it will help to encourage them to question the readings and what I say. The second principle, that I will not sanction students for their views, gives express permission to think out loud and to express their questions and skepticism. Of course, students don’t take in what I say just because I’ve said it. But I have a hunch that discussing these two policies together might help us all to start off the term on the right foot. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

By the way: in my last post I mentioned Adam Ragusea’s discussions of journalistic objectivity and impartiality in his podcast The Pub. The discussions spanned segments over several weeks, but the latest episode of The Pub is a recap of all that material. So if you’re interested, it’s all in one place now [Edit: the episode has finally been posted]. Ragusea is not a philosopher, but I think his discussion reflects precisely the kind of sensitivity to abstract distinctions that we philosophers should be encouraging outside the discipline. Listen if you’re a true nerd!