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Avoid "Gotcha" Grading

Grading is one of those fundamental realities that teachers must all deal with. Most classroom teachers are told that to show rigor, to promote student buy-in, or to meet administrative expectations they must give letter grades for their assignments. Grading in PBL is a lot like the ugly, dank, gloomy, parking structure next to the sports stadium or the art museum. People don’t show up for the parking garage and most of the people who use it would like to pretend that it doesn't exist because its creepy and an industrial eyesore, but it serves a central, structural role that you really can't ignore no matter how hard you try.

When starting out with PBL many teachers are curious about how assessment and grades work PBL? Is it any different than what I normally do? Is just one grade for the entire project o.k.? Is there a simple rule to keep in mind when grading?

In short, yes there is. Grades should never be given in a way where they feel like “gotcha”. Even if the student deserves the grade for their lack of effort and its crystal clear to you, the teacher, that they should have seen their grade from a mile away due to their total absence of effort, grades should never be a surprise. There is no better way to sew the seeds of miss trust or cripple the classroom culture needed to support project-based learning that the hand the student a “gotcha” grade.

I know what this feels like firsthand. In the summer of 2009 I was working as the media director at a summer camp in upstate New York. Yes, we had a media director at a summer camp whose role was to upload photos to the camp website for the parents, produce the camp newsletter, and put together an end-of-the-summer yearbook. At his point It was my third summer there, and I had establish myself as a reliable, crazy, and creative member of the camp team. I worked at a small desk in the main office with the two directors and the some of the program heads and having established this reputation and enjoying good working relationships with almost all of my coworkers, I didn't think much of the first round of evaluations that were given that year.

When it came time, I sat down with one of the campus directors, and proceeded to be raked across the coals. I was shocked and horrified to hear that I was being given a lackluster review. Apparently, there were several things that I was doing that the director felt personally were either affronts to him or disruptive to the way business was conducted in the main office. After a ten minute tongue lashing I left the evaluation angry, confused, and proceeded to tear up the midterm eval into a million pieces. At no point did I reflect on what I had done wrong or how I could correct my behavior, instead I wrote him off as a jerk and held that grudge for, well I kinda still do to be honest, although now that I am close to a decade removed from the situation I have a little more clarity. I know exactly why I felt this way now. At no point prior to that first assessment had any feedback been given to me about my performance or what I need to improve on in order to avoid a poor performance evaluation. His style as a manager was very “hands-off” and while that method has some merits one thing he didn’t consider is what a lack of formative feedback does when an employee, me in this case, receives a “gotcha” review. If you give an employee a crappy review, you had better have given them lots of “check-in’s” so they have the chance to correct their behavior or fill the gaps in their performance prior to that big, summative, formal evaluation. Otherwise, their emotions will kick in and instead of thinking about, “what do I need to learn in order to improve” they will hate you and to be perfectly honest, you kind of deserve to be hated because it is unfair and unprofessional.

The exact same thing is true of grading in relations to formative and summative assessments. If you don't give enough frequent, small, seemingly insignificant grades as “check-in’s” during the course of the project that indicate how a student is doing, how they are performing, and what they need to do to get their rear in gear before the final grade is given. Otherwise when that summative goes into the gradebook, they are going to feel cheated, angry, and they're not going to take the time to really analyze what they had done or listen to any accompanying feedback you may offer. It's really too late for them anyways, as the summative is typically one of the last grades to get before moving onto another project. They are not going to remember anything except that you gave them a really bad grade that they did not expect and they hate that feeling and by association, you. That's a hard place to come back from.

In the context of a project this could look many different ways. Let’s say the project involves a 2-minute oral defense as the final individual project. The teacher has each students write up their oral defense (formative), self-evaluate according to a rubric (formative), practice with a partner and evaluate on the same rubric (formative), and then do a practice run where the entire class watches and the teacher gives direct feedback (formative). After that, the student present to the authentic audience and received their summative grade on the same rubric (summative) By using the same evaluation criteria, and having feedback come multiple ways from multiple sources, the student will either receive the grade they expect or they have been asleep. Also if something happens during the summative oral defense the teacher can consider the growth shown on the formatives when calculating the final grade.

Formative assessments serve both the student and teacher in different ways. They allow the teachers the opportunity to see where the gaps in the students learning are well before they get too far into a project. They provide an opportunity for the teacher to engage and coach the student. But more importantly, for the student, they allow for a chance to adjust their approach to a project or the amount of effort they are before the summative assessment occurs, which determines much of the grade they earn.

My relationship with that particular camp director, which was fine up until that point, never recovered after that despite the fact that the formal evaluation I was given and the one that went into my personnel file was stellar. Don’t let something as simple as inserting a couple low-stakes checkpoints affect your relationship with your students the same way.

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