Dear Faculty, Please Vary Your Assessments

Early in my college education, I thought grading malpractice had to do with faculty giving preferential treatment and/or better grades to certain students. As I progressed through college and graduate school, I came to understand that unethical grading goes far beyond simple favoritism; it involves pedagogy, faculty engagement, and knowledge of the student experience.

As a faculty member, it is incumbent upon us to cater to all styles of learning to the extent that we can. As more Americans gain access to a college education, the more diverse the student body becomes. And that diversity is not just ethnic, racial, religious, and/or political. It is diversity in learning styles as well! That fact seems to slip the minds of many instructors as they start formulating their courses, organizing activities and lectures, and setting assessments.   

One of the most common issues that leads to grading malpractice arises well before the start of a semester: setting a single course assessment with unclear requirements for our students. Here is an example of a poorly phrased course assessment: “Due to the pandemic, students will not be required to complete any assignments in this course. Grades will be assessed only through your contributions and active participation in the course, which requires students to be present during course lectures, participate in online postings, and engage in in-class discussion. If you are uncomfortable with speaking or participating in discussions during our live sessions, please inform your instructor ASAP so we can negotiate something else.”

There are a number of issues that we can and should take with the way this assessment is phrased:

  • “Due to the pandemic” is not a reason that varied assessments should be canceled. Forcing students to be evaluated through one style of assessment puts them at a huge disadvantage and hinders those who might not excel with a particular assessment because of their learning style.
  • “Grades will be assessed only through your contributions and active participation in the course” requires an actual rubric. How often will the student need to speak during an hour-long course to be considered “active”? And what exactly constitutes a “contribution”?
  • The instructor already concedes that their method of grading students is faulty through the last line of the assessment: “If you are uncomfortable with speaking or participating in discussions during our live sessions, please inform your instructor ASAP so we can negotiate something else.” Since the faculty member can already foresee some students having trouble with a singular course assessment, why is a second or third method of assessment not being added (i.e. a paper or quizzes)?
  • The last clause of the assessment is hugely problematic: “Please inform your instructor ASAP so we can negotiate something else.” The assumption is that students always know prior to a course that they are uncomfortable speaking or participating. What if, for the student, they come to be uncomfortable midway or near the end of a course because of the instructor or their peers? A student might feel comfortable at the start of a course only to find that certain interactions and/or comments later in the course cause them to disengage. What, then, would the instructor do if the student chooses to “negotiate” an alternative assessment near the end of the course?    

The Upshot:

When registering for classes, it always pays to get a copy of the course syllabus as soon as possible. You might be able to get it from a peer, your department, or from the instructor. If you notice that the course’s instructor has only one or two assessments (i.e. your entire grade is based on one or two assignments), you should question the motive behind the course design. Sometimes, an instructor might think that having fewer assessments is easier for students, but that is rarely the case. If your entire grade hinges on participation or on one end-of-term paper, not every student will succeed. Students have different learning styles and different strengths in assessments, so it is important to have a variety of ways of being evaluated. The instructor’s motives might, from their perspective, be kind-hearted, but the course design might also be an indication that the instructor has never taught the course before or has had little exposure to varied student bodies and learning styles. Whatever the reasons may be, let those syllabi with only one course assessment be a red flag to you!

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