Examining The Points-Based Grading System

Recently, I came across this article on point-based grading systems. The ideas in the article were nothing new, and I’m sure you’ve heard most (if not all) before. This includes things like:

  • students expect and are used to points
  • points are not entirely objective
  • points are an extrinsic form of motivation; the goal is to get more points

My take away from this article is that while points-based grading systems have their place, they emphasize the earning of points and de-emphasize learning. Recently, I shared a post where one of my former students wrote about their experiences with my own point-based system. While the author of the points-based post refers to a previous article on how to get students to think more about learning, and less about grades, the ideas fell flat with me.

The truth is, grades matter and they particularly matter at the undergraduate level where students are often thinking ahead to advanced degrees. Students don’t just expect points anymore. They have grown up in a system where they are sort and ranked and tested to death. They have grown up in a high stakes system that emphasizes grades over learning.

Even at the Masters level, I have found that students’ rationale for why they are there is first and foremost a pay increase (totally understandable). At least, that’s what the majority of them have said on the first day of class when asked to share what motivated them to come back to school. Yes, some people put learning first. Most put salary first, and most don’t mention learning.

How Might We Change This?

I think getting students to be more interested in learning and less interested in grades is difficult – especially in higher education. Doing so requires a cultural shift both in how we do things and how students perceive the course and engage with it and each other. Grades are high stakes. And, even if they are not, students are so used to seeing them as such that it’s a common mindset to hold.

If we want students to put learning first, then we have to accept that learning comes with risks. We learn, in part, through trial and error. We learn by taking chances. We learn by struggling. We learn by failing. And none of that is commonly valued in traditional grading systems. The norm is you have one chance to show what you understand. If you take a risk, and you bomb out, you will pay the price.

That’s not what I want.

The Place for Competency Based Education

This is where I think competency based education (CBE) has a chance to play an important role – at least at the graduate level. However, it requires doing some things differently. I could run a CBE course and tell students that an A is earned by acquiring so many competencies, but I don’t think that’s what we want to do. Instead, what I would envision is this:

  • students enter a program and are given a road map for completion.
  • the road map takes stand alone courses and breaks them down into competencies
  • students need to acquire the knowledge relevant to each competency and then demonstrate a particular level of mastery to get it checked off as being met
  • students leave not with a grade (although we could assign them if need be) but a list of competencies they have obtained and the mastery level they obtained each with

Something like this would work well in an online program where teaching and learning could be more fluid if traditional face-to-face meeting times were scrapped. Instructors create content, share readings, and set up ways for students to interact and share work. This could be done through an LMS, a facebook group, twitter chats, and so on.

Getting Started

Doing this kind of work requires a program to let go of traditional semester systems. It means that we have to let go of traditional views on teaching loads in higher education. It does not mean that we overload instructors with students and work to accomplish this idea.

For the last 12 years, I have taught a 2/2 load. While numbers of students within a class vary, it’s reasonable to assume an average of 25. That’s 50 students a semester or 100 a year give or take. If I worked only in the type of program I am laying out here, then let’s say I could be responsible for up to 100 students at a time.

Initially this would be a lot of work. I would have to get everything set up. However, once I did then the work load would decrease to something reasonable. My focus would shift to making sure content was updated and relevant, interacting with students, and providing assistance (and scoring) competencies.

So, in the end, what I’m saying is I don’t think we even need points-based grading systems. Certainly not for everyone. If we want students to focus on learning then we have to make their experiences about learning. In a couple of weeks I will lay out my thoughts on how we can set up a structure to do just that.

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The Problems with Competencies

I’ve been reading¬†College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education.¬†Because I am in the middle of reading it, this post isn’t meant to be a review of the book (which I am thoroughly enjoying). The point of this post is to bring us back around to discussing issues with competency based education in higher education.

In general, I’m a big fan of seeing what we can do with competency based education (CBE) in higher ed. But, as you can see, I’ve titled this post about the problems with CBE. This isn’t because I truly think CBE is problematic. Instead, I think CBE can cause problems within the existing structures of higher ed (hence the book title – College Disrupted), and I think that while we should recognize these issues we should not let them be reasons to not move forward and see what CBE has to offer.

The Summer Course

I got to this post because I was thinking about a summer course that someone at my new institution will have to teach every year. I have a new job, and while this summer course is not in my contract for me to teach it is a required course that someone has to teach every year. I am a very appropriate person to teach it. FYI: summer pay for teaching a course is not that great, and it’s not exactly on my agenda of things I want to do. Ever.

But, if we assume that it has to be taught, what are the options?

  • someone else can teach it
  • maybe the university would allow an advanced graduate student to teach it
  • i could take the money in exchange for turning it into a CBE course

Back Up a Minute

Initially, I was wondering if we could take the entire masters program – of which this course is a part of – and make it CBE. But I thought that might be a bit much, and it presented a whole host of problems. The biggest one I saw right away was:

  • how do we handle teaching loads in a CBE situation?

One obvious way to handle it is to just keep courses on their normal timeline but make them competency based. I’ve done this before, and it’s not a big deal. But given that the masters program is online, it seems like we could really open this baby up and let her rip. Take down timelines. Or maybe set up some place holders like the degree needs to be completed (and all competencies mastered) within so many years of starting the program. But when you do that you cycle back to the question of teaching loads. The university has created a structure of what teaching looks like. CBE has the potential to really not work well within that structure.

Go Back to that Summer Course

I returned to just the idea of the summer course because it was a manageable thing that I could easily see getting accomplished. I thought….what if I could convince whoever is in charge to let me take the course (which is fully online) and run it as a CBE? The course could still launch in the summer if they needed it to, but we could give students a year to complete the competencies.

As far as my teaching load goes, well, this course would never count as part of my load because it’s supposed to be a summer course that I would be paid extra for. So let’s let it run for one full year. Give me the money you would give me had I taught it in the summer. I’ll stay on top of the students and check off their competencies earned as they complete them. I’ll organize the whole thing, and we can use it as a test run.

I have no idea if I can make this idea fly. But, for me, it solves the problem of who wants to teach the summer course AND it allows me to explore CBE.

Don’t Let the Problems Be Problems

I once had a phone conversation with a group of people who were very interested in developing online education courses. They wanted my input, and they hoped I would be a part of it. Now, I’m not saying I was full of brilliant ideas. But what did happen is I was met with reason after reason for why my ideas were too difficult to implement. Not that they were bad – just hard to do.

When I was thinking of CBE I was brought back to the realization of how universities structure teaching loads. That can make thinking about how to implement CBE challenging unless you confine it to a typical semester box. But, if you don’t want to do that, then don’t. Acknowledge the challenge and then work through it, work around it, but don’t let it be your brick wall.

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