Using a computer spreadsheet to compute grades, it's easy to let students (even in a large class) focus on their strengths by choosing what percent (within a range selected by the instructor) of their grade comes from each required activity.
Background and Purpose
I facilitate cooperative classrooms where students are supportive of one another and where much of the learning takes place in class discussions and with students working in groups. To deepen student involvement and to inculcate a sense of their responsibility, I work with the class in making decisions about course operation and learning processes. One day, when the class was arguing about how much weight to place on the various factors that contribute to their grade, it came to me: why not let each student decide for him or herself from a given range of choices? This way students can weight heavily factors which they like or in which they are strong, and they can minimize the weight of areas in which they are weaker or which they dislike. For example, some very mature and conscientious students claim that they study more efficiently if they make their own choices as to what homework to do. One could respond constructively to such students by allowing zero as the lower bound of the homework range. These students then could choose not to turn in any homework and weight other factors correspondingly higher.
Assessment methods for ascertaining grades should be more broadly based, yet the number of different tasks we can expect a student to undertake is limited. Ideally each student should be able to choose his or her own method of assessment to demonstrate competence and learning. The flexible weighting method, to be described here, is a simple versatile extension of standard grading methods. It accommodates the diverse strengths, interests, and desires of the students.
Early in the course, a form which lists the ranges for each factor that contributes toward the grade is handed out to the students. They are given some time to experience the course and gauge the teacher before they must make their decisions. Usually shortly after the first exam and the first project are returned, the students are required to make their choices of specific weights, sign the form, and turn it in. At the end of the semester, I record the computation of the students' grades right on this form, in case they want to check my computations and the weights that they chose.
A typical grading scheme I now use is:
|Board Presentations||5 to 10%|
|Journal||5 to 20%|
|Projects||10 to 30%|
|Homework||5 to 20%|
|Hour Exams||30 to 45%|
|Final Exam||15 to 25%|
The following simplified example illustrates the possibilities. The first column of figures gives the ranges offered and the subsequent columns show possible selections of percentages by different students.
Since I have been using flexible weighting, students have always reacted to it favorably. Often students ask, "Why don't other teachers use this method?" In view of current technology, that is a legitimate question.
Because I want to foster cooperation, not competition, in my classes, I set grade categories at the beginning of the course: 90% or above receives an A, 80% to 89% receives a B, 70% to 79% gets a C, 60% to 69% gets a D, and below 60% receives an F. When students are able to focus on their strengths and interests their learning seems to improve.
Although originally I made some factors optional by giving them a lower bound of zero, lately I have been using five percentage points as the smallest lower bound. This gives the students the message that all methods of assessment that we use are important but that if they really don't want to use one of them, the loss of the five points might possibly be made up by utilizing the freed up time to work more on a different, preferred area.
Use of Findings
Using this flexible weighting scheme has influenced me to include more factors in my grading than I had in the past. For example 5% of a student's grade comes from a "self-evaluation." What part of this 5% students receive depends on the quality of their self-evaluation. Students could say that they deserves an A in the course and receive a zero or close to 0 (out of a possible 5%) because they did a poor job of justifying the A. Similarly students could receive the full 5% of the self-evaluation factor for doing an excellent job of justifying a poor grade in the course. These self-evaluations have enabled me to know and understand my students much better. They make very interesting reading. My present thought is that they ought to be done earlier in the course, around mid-semester, so that students would have time to make behavioral changes based on my feedback.
Note that five percentage points may come from "teacher-evaluation." On the same day that the students turn in their self-evaluations, I give them my teacher-evaluation of their work and learning. Writing the teacher-evaluation is quite demanding and requires getting to know each student. For each student I keep a separate sheet of paper in my notebook on which I record significant observations as they occur during the semester. I record examples of effort and accomplishment such as class participation, willingness to help classmates, intelligent comments and contributions, well-done homework or projects, etc. On the flip side, I record lapses and lack of effort and participation, especially instances of times when students were unprepared or did not do their assigned work. If students have no negative comments on their record, I give them the full five points and tell them some of the good things I recorded about their work during the semester.
Note that in the typical scheme, board presentations have been given a minimum of five percentage points. Some students are terrified of presenting in front of the class. They may choose not to present and the loss of five points won't kill them. However my experience has been that, in order not to lose those five points, students overcome their fear and make a presentation. It is surprising how many of the fearful students go on to "flower" and become regular presenters at the board.
Note also that a minimum of five percentage points has been given to keeping a journal. This motivates most students to perform the useful process of writing about the mathematics that we are learning. Yet the recalcitrant student may still choose, without undue penalty, not to keep a journal.
This flexible grade method has led me to give more respect to students as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and interests. It has stimulated me to move away from being an authority in the classroom toward looking for other ways to turning responsibility and authority for learning over to the students.
After the students have read the first day's handout describing the method, they are usually enthusiastic about it and the following in-class discussion takes less than twenty minutes. It must be made clear that, after they have chosen their percentages, their choices may not be changed later in the semester.
I have written a program on my calculator which I use to compute each student's final numerical grade. If one keeps the class grades on a computer spreadsheet, a formula can be entered which will immediately calculate each student's final numerical grade, once her/his percents (weights) have been entered into the spreadsheet.
Because the method of flexible weightings makes
grading more agreeable for both teachers and students, it is
worth the extra time and effort that it entails.