Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Critique-based Assessment

I said that in my programming courses (and others), I'd rather critique than grade, because grades are such a bad idea.

[And I'm not alone. Alfie Kohn's nice post references similar criticisms as far back as 1933!]

But schools want grades, and therefore so do students, so how do I assign grades at the end of a term?

Here's how my critique-based courses work. Instead "do it once, get a grade, repeat," the process is "do, review, re-do until mastered, then move on." More specifically,
  • Students select and work on assignments (exercises, projects, ...).
  • Students submit their best solutions to each problem.
  • I critique each solution, pointing out weaknesses and areas for improvement.
  • Unless the critiques are non-trivial, the student needs to re-do and re-submit. This happens for most initial submissions.
Quite quickly students begin separating out. Some zip through the early easy stuff, some need a lot of tries to get the basics down. In a standard course, the latter students would be forced to face more and more complex problems with incomplete skills, while the former students would be bored waiting for the challenging stuff.

At the end of the term (and usually at one or two mid-points), I calculate grades based on
  • progress, as measured by the number, range, and complexity of assignments completed to this point,
  • mastery, as measured by the lack of serious basic critiques in the solutions initially submitted, and
  • effort, as measured by the number of submissions and re-submissions.
During the course I get to focus on what I care about: what problems are students having and what advice should they be given. There's no repeated reduction of wildly different points into singular point values. As a bonus, I get a detailed current picture of what students are having the most trouble with.

When I describe this to other faculty, the usual response is "whoa, that must take forever!" Indeed, without some kind of tool support, it would not be feasible to give detailed feedback like this to a large class, and it would be very time-consuming and error-prone to review and evaluate each student's history of interactions for an entire class.

Fortunately, we have the technology. Next time...

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