How Should We Grade Students During a Pandemic? (guest post by Wes Siscoe)

How, if at all, should instructors grade their college students this coming term? In the following guest post*, Wes Siscoe, a postdoctoral fellow at Florida State University and the Mellon Course Design Coordinator for the Philosophy as a Way of Life Project at the University of Notre Dame, offers some suggestions.

[Lisa Reinermann, “Type the Sky” (detail)]

Should We Grade Students This Fall Semester?
4 Strategies for Grading During a Pandemic
by Wes Siscoe

Many universities responded to the onset of COVID-19 by offering pass/fail grading for the spring semester, a move meant to lighten the burden on students negatively affected by the pandemic. The question remains, however, whether pass/fail grading will still be available this coming fall. Large numbers of students will contract the novel coronavirus, most likely far more than in the spring, and many more will have to care for ailing family members.  If universities ceased to offer letter grades in the spring, then shouldn’t they also do so in the fall?

One of the primary worries with moving to pass/fail grading is a decline in academic standards. Without letter grades, less disciplined undergraduates may lack the drive to persevere through rigorous, challenging work. When it comes to assessing student growth though, final grades are not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, to promote student development. For many, the word “assessment” is just another word for “grading.” And if that’s how we’re thinking about things, then it makes sense why a move to pass/fail grading inevitably means a failure to accurately assess students. But designing assessment just means getting serious about measuring student growth and using that information to help students take control of their own learning. A brief comment written on a quiz counts as assessment, even if the quiz itself is ungraded, as that comment serves both to assess the student’s work as well as provide feedback on how they can improve. If we’re thinking about assessment in these broader terms, then there are a number of assessment best practices that can bolster student outcomes in the upcoming semester, regardless of the grading system that universities decide to adopt:

1. Think About Who You Want Your Students To Become: Learning goals might be a surprising place to start when talking about assessment, but without precise course goals and objectives, it will be unclear what you’re assessing in the first place. If you don’t know who you want your students to be by the end of your course, it’s guaranteed that they will not get there. But learning goals are obvious, right? Learning goals are just a list of the course content, tagged with an appropriate verb from Bloom’s taxonomy. Even if that’s the way that many learning goals are written, chances are that if you view your class as a lengthy list of knowledge items, then that is likely also how your students will treat it as well, as just one long, uninspiring cram session.

Start with questions about who you want your students to become by the end of the course. Do you want them to develop perseverance during a tough semester? Do you want them to be intellectually curious, digging deeper in their own free time?  Do you want them to be understanding, able to have productive conversations even when they disagree? Then make a concrete list of the skills that they will need to develop throughout the course. For instance, if you want them to engage in constructive debate, they will need the ability to ask strong questions, empathize with dialogue partners, and explain their own views. These are then abilities that you can build towards throughout the course.

2. Link Your Assessments With Your Goals: Once you know who you want your students to become, then the concept of assessment can actually make sense — you’re measuring whether they begin to embody the course goals. The only way you will know whether they are becoming more creative, inquisitive, and self-motivated is if you intentionally investigate. Want to see if your students are becoming more self-reflective? Have students write about the source of their moral values at the beginning of the course and at the end, gradually making reflection assignments more rigorous throughout the semester. Want to know whether your students are becoming more selfless? Have them volunteer for a video-tutoring service, recording their experiences in a personal growth journal. Don’t let the typical forms of assessment keep you from accomplishing your goals for your students. Quizzes and tests are effective at discovering whether students learned discrete facts, but they are not very useful for investigating whether students have gained certain abilities. Allow your goals to shape your assessments, and your students will find more purpose in those assessments as well.

In the Asking Strong Questions assignment (attached to the end of this post), my primary aims are to help students to ask discussion-starting, philosophical questions and then relate those questions to their lived experience. These abilities help students become more reflective about the philosophical significance of their own stories, both because they can ask better philosophical questions of themselves and because they can then connect their answers to such questions to their day-to-day lives. These are admittedly hard skills to measure. How do you help someone become better at asking philosophical questions? To start with, students meet with their TA in a group tutorial  meeting for feedback and coaching. So long as they make a good faith effort on all parts of the assignment, students then receive the completion points for Asking Strong Questions, but the real value of the tutorial session is helping students prepare to write their own philosophical  story at the end of the semester (see next section). In this way, the assessment structure helps students build the relevant skills throughout the life of the course.

3. Focus On Measuring Student Transformation: Pedagogy specialists often distinguish between summative assessment, the type of grading that occurs at the end of a unit or the end of a course, and formative assessment, the kinds of feedback you give throughout the learning process. Even though summative assessment is the most prevalent, it may not be the sort of assessment most strongly linked with student learning. Formative assessments provide interventions before the semester ends, a time when students still have a chance to further develop the skills that you want them to acquire. Think of formative assessment like coaching. If you want your students to develop perseverance, the most helpful time to check in is routinely throughout the semester, assessing their growth and giving feedback on how they can take the next step. If you want your students to become more empathetic and understanding, have them lead discussion and coach them on how to ask questions that help them understand the views of others. If you want them to become self-driven learners, schedule some less structured research time, giving them benchmarks to meet as they further explore their favorite parts of a course.

In my experience, students are far more receptive to feedback on written work, especially when it’s provided in the context of a coaching conversation, if the first few rounds come with written feedback and “completion plus” points (i.e. 10/10 points simply for completing the assignment thoughtfully). After a few rounds of such feedback, I then grade their essays against the rubric we’ve been working from the whole time. By this point (in the ideal case), the student is eager to demonstrate mastery, and appreciates that the feedback she’s getting builds on the lower-stakes assessment earlier in the process. The Asking Strong Questions assignment isn’t the end of the story. My class culminates in the Apology assignment, an essay in which students must tell a compelling narrative of how their philosophical views developed over the semester, defend those views against objections, and explain how they will apply these ideas to their lives moving forward. The coaching students receive on the Asking Strong Questions assignments helps them develop the skills necessary to do this well, making the entire class a linear development of who I want my students to become. Final exams are the only form of assessment that don’t provide forward-looking feedbackspend more time on assessments that do.

4. Give Feedback Quickly And Efficiently: You know the professor, the one who couldn’t get anything graded until two months after it was due. Even if that paper came with comments, you weren’t in any position to learn from that feedback. You probably didn’t even remember what you said, much less the rubric the professor used to grade the assignment. Assessment loses its formative power if it doesn’t occur promptly, as students are not able to use the evaluation they receive to make improvements. Large time gaps between when assignments are due and when they are graded undermines the learning process by depriving assessment of its coaching component.

The next step then after identifying your formative assessments is reducing the time it takes for students to receive feedback. Offer quizzes that are graded electronically so students can receive feedback instantaneously. Have students turn in small chunks of writing that can be quickly returned with helpful feedback for improving on future work.  Spread out the grading burden amongst several teaching assistants or graders so assessments can be performed in just a couple of days. Keep your assessments formative by keeping your feedback loop tight and efficient.

Regardless of whether students should be graded on a pass/fail basis for the fall semester, your assessments can keep your course meaningful and challenging. Choose worthwhile goals for your students and coach them along the path to achieving those goals. Make assessments work for you by linking them with not just the facts that you want your students to learn but who you want them to become. Empower your students to succeed by making your feedback loop more efficient and focusing on formative more than summative assessments.  Whether or not the grading system is pass/fail this coming fall, you will be well prepared to help your students grow both personally and academically.


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3 years ago

This is a very strange post to me.

“How should we grade students during a pandemic?” is a very interesting question with potentially insightful considerations concerning, for example, how courses should be developed in light of different grading choices made at the department level or higher (letter grades vs Pass/Fail). However, it is unclear why the author immediately conflates “grading” with “assessment” and then goes on to essentially replicate a myriad of already-existing best practices for student assessments.

Wes Siscoe
Wes Siscoe
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Thanks for the response, Matt! When we think about grading at the Philosophy as a Way of Life Project, we try to think more holistically about what grades should be doing — namely, assessing whether students are meeting the course goals. At first, we just made a final exam but then taught like we wanted them to acquire certain skills, skills that were not being evaluated by that exam. Our takeaway was that grading could be doing so much more in our case; it could be the way that we gave students feedback about their progress and how they could continue to grow in the future. And this is attainable regardless of the grading situation that comes about with the pandemic, whether that is grading with less classroom time or even a return to pass/fail grading like the in the spring.

Jill Rusin
Jill Rusin
3 years ago

I wanted to push back a little on the idea that the only good feedback for philosophy students is ‘quick and efficient’. Back in the bad old days when I was an undergraduate, I had one of those profs you mention– who didn’t get my paper graded for (what at least seemed like) months. In fact, I recall he cancelled the final paper requirement because he hadn’t yet returned our midterm papers with comments. The midterm paper assignments were returned at the final exam. (He also failed to turn in our final grades on time, must have been a bad term for him.) Yet this professor was a model of careful attentiveness and intellectual integrity. I did in fact learn from his comments, late in coming though they were, but some of which I remember verbatim decades later. Sometimes good things are worth waiting for. Slow-grading-prof’s attention to and help with my nascent philosophical writing was a revelation to a student who came late to philosophy as an undergraduate, having breezed through many courses in many different departments at unnamed Ivy. I was finally being taken seriously as a student! Instead of being tossed an A–‘great work!’, I received careful evaluation of my work and arguments. Slow-grading-prof and several of his colleagues at unnamed Ivy really opened my eyes to high level scholarship–not just in our course readings, but as modelled in their lectures, assignments and written feedback on student work. Of course it would have been *better* if that written feedback were quicker in coming. But I disagree that “assessment loses its formative power if it doesn’t occur promptly, as students are not able to use the evaluation they receive to make improvements”. Well-aimed feedback on philosophical writing can help students improve semesters and years after it is given, not just in the next assignment in your course that semester.
I do appreciate the conversation about pedagogy provoked by the pandemic. And I can agree with and learn from much of your post, Wes. I do incorporate things like quick-turnaround low stakes assignments, and auto-graded quizzes with immediate feedback; the latter are particularly useful when teaching my logic course. And I appreciate the nudge to think about how we can do better by our students. But I don’t want the slow, careful, and yes, sometimes too-slow and inefficient graders out there to feel guilt that their students are necessarily losing out. Sometimes, yes; you are just too slow. But sometimes, if you are doing it right, your words, inefficient grader, are the ones that weigh and matter most. Just a little Thursday morning love letter to my dinosaurs, my inefficient, old school, too-slow, too-much-lecturing profs from my own undergrad days. It was because of you I snuck out of chem lab to keep doing philosophy on the sly. Don’t repent.

Wes Siscoe
Wes Siscoe
Reply to  Jill Rusin
3 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, Jill! I’m glad that your professor took your work seriously, seriously enough to give you detailed comments that helped you improve years in the future. I think that I agree with everything you’ve said in that careful feedback impacts student growth far more than just handing out letter grades. As you pointed out, it would be better if such feedback were given sooner, but there is a tradeoff between returning assignments quickly and returning them with the most helpful feedback. Formative assessment becomes less powerful as it is drawn out over a significant amount of time, but if papers are being handed back so quickly that there is no time to make specific suggestions for improvement, then the formative assessment process also suffers. Some happy medium between the two, with both insightful comments and a reasonable turnaround time that enable students to improve on future work, is the ideal.