Today, our news cycle is dominated by the protests erupting around the world as a result of racial injustice and systemic racism. In a recent blog post, we discussed the impact COVID school closures had on students, and analyzed why minority students (both in terms of race & economic status) were disproportionately negatively affected by the school closures. Building an equitable learning environment – where students of different races and economic status have access to an education that is fitting to their own unique circumstances is a challenge plaguing not just educators, but institutions and policymakers alike. With endless solutions to a complex problem continuously being discussed, it may be hard for some educators to figure out where to begin. In today’s post we wanted to discuss a particular area educators have a direct impact on, and that is grading. We will break down the biases existing in grading today and how educators can build a more equitable learning environment for their students by improving how they grade their students work.
The hallmark of any university experience for students are the assessments they will undergo; from quizzes, exams to final papers, assignments are a regular part of a students life. Assignments are created and graded on the discretion of the instructor; while instructors are certainly subject-matter experts in the field, many are not taught how to grade properly. The prerequisites to become an educator are rooted in their ability to convey their expertise, but often, how they are able to assess others’ understanding of their expertise is not standardized from one institution to another. While some institutions certainly offer training and support for their educators to assist in grading and class instruction, not all do. This disparity in itself is an affront to educational equity.
The result of this imbalance is that student grading standards differ not just from school to school, but from department to department from within the same institution and sometimes within the very same class, as multiple teaching assistants often aid a single professor to grade their class’ work. While some instructors may argue that regular discussions on grade standardization occurs, unfair grading procedures are still present. Here are 2 examples of unfair grading practices which most educators are deploying right now:
- Participation grades. Subjectivity grading such as participation or “student effort” is based on a professors/teaching assistant’s perception of their student’s engagement. While you can certainly count the amount of times a student raises their hand in class, how do you rank thoughtfulness? What makes a student question a good one? These questions are not black and white, but rather grey, and unfortunately differ from instructor to instructor.
- Grading on a curve. Educators assess students based on how they perform in relation to each other as opposed to a student’s individual merits. Why can’t 8 students in a class receive an A if they in fact deserve it, even though the department mandated only 5 students to receive an A? Grading on a curve pegs students against one another as the spots available for the top grades are pre-determined.
While these approaches are commonly used, there are professors, departments and institutions out there who are actively seeking new ways to improve their grading structure to ensure each of their students receive fair and equitable grades based on their efforts.
How to improve grading:
- Stop subjective-based grading: If you can’t translate ‘participation’ or ‘student effort’ into a standardized grading scheme, then do not deploy these grading criteria. Look for tools like a discussion board where student engagement is tracked & monitored throughout the course. Being able to quantify participation whereby it is no longer subjective will be imperative in ensuring an educator's inherent bias or prejudice is not taken into account.
- Utilize anonymous peer grading: Peer to peer assessment if often celebrated by students as an opportunity to receive feedback on their work without the threat of bias opinion being present, because they evaluate each other's work anonymously. Peer to peer assessment also ensures more unique and diverse opinions are recognized - the life of a 21 year old, growing up in poverty is likely to be more relatable to that student’s peers rather than to their instructor.
- Rubric-based Assessment: Providing clearly outlined rubrics for each assignment that show students a pathway to succeed will help students frame their work and ensure subjectivity on the part of the grader, is greatly reduced.
Equity beyond a single classroom
The strategies I presented above are great for individual instructors to begin deploying in their classes today, but they do not take into account the lack of grade standardization across departments and institutions. It is therefore incumbent on department chairs to offer their educators group sessions and instructor-to-instructor grading review sessions where policies and gaps can be identified and actioned on.
There is no simple solution for equitable classrooms; it takes time, planning and commitment from all levels of academia, but it is necessary. Technology like Kritik can help educators build an equitable classroom environment by removing the subjectivity barriers inherently present in grading. But the solution to this systemic problem is greater than a single technology can offer, but with commitment, an equitable classroom is achievable for all students, regardless of their background or personal circumstances.