Thursday, February 7, 2008

Professor Project Offers a Reply to Spreadsheet Steve.

I bet most professors could guess their students’ grades without looking at the grade sheet, and be right about 95% of the time. At most jobs, when you’re evaluated, you don’t have a spreadsheet - you get an interview, and you have a portfolio. Your tenure committee examines your portfolio, throws in the political and personal issues, and makes a decision. The elaborate spreadsheet method of student evaluation seems both artificial and inaccurate, a shield to hide behind when defending grades.

What does this have to do with learning? Very little I think. I would prefer not to grade at all, but since I must, I evaluate two things: Did they do the work? Is it done well?

All of my classes are project based. Some are very specific, and some are more open-ended. I make the goal of each project very clear, and give a due date. But I don’t take attendance, and I don’t have a spreadsheet. Students must complete the projects whether they were in class or not. Lazy students who miss class needn’t be penalized for poor attendance, as the work will be crap anyway (or not even finished). Brilliant students who get done early get a day off. At midterms, the students hand in their portfolios. If all the work is there, and excellent quality, they get an “A.” All there and good quality, they get a “B.” I go over the strengths and weaknesses of the portfolio, tell them what I think needs redone, and tell them their grade. Then at finals, I do the same thing, with the final portfolio grade representing 100% of the final grade for the course. It’s easy, simple and the students don’t have to lie to me about their dying grandmother.

I used to rely on elaborate point systems for projects, and lots of spreadsheets, and I found it to be a waste of time. Not only was I spending a lot of hours entering numbers, but the students wanted to micro-argue their grades, or they found ways to fulfill the stated criteria without really engaging in learning or solving problems.

Additionally, I want to make my students behave like the professionals they hope to be after graduation. The spreadsheets seemed like a barrier to this - it turned me into their Dad rather than their mentor. I have no problem asserting my authority, but I don’t want to turn into a grade accountant. Everyone has a different style, and I think the spreadsheets work for some, but I’m much happier with a simpler measure of grades, and at least in my courses, the work tends to be more creative, ambitious and professional.