The current debate over badges as a tool for learning assessment has gotten me thinking about one of the current features of the assessment system in university classes. We do not reward people for progressing through learning. Rather, they begin the class with a potential A and gradually lose points over the course of the term.
My university this term is offering a class on Greek civilization that doubles as a freshmen writing requirement. Students learn how to branch out from the 5-paragraph template of high school writing into more complex essay construction focused on argumentation and evidence. They engage in a series of incremental exercises intended to focus their abilities on particular features of an essay – the thesis, the evidence, the outline, the reasoning, etc. However, these exercises have no grade. Students can receive feedback on these activities, but these assignments have no visible or direct effect on the class grade. This means that for students, these assignments have no value.
I have talked a bit here and elsewhere before about how achievements and badges create a value system overlaid on the content to which they have been applied. In a class, grades act much the same way. Only those activities with a grade have value to the students. Grades have the value, not the lessons learned.
In such a system, a student begins the class with a potential A. On the first day of term, they have had no opportunities to lose points from an A, their attendance record is spotless, and they have grand intentions of participating in class each meeting. Of course, this rapidly falls by the wayside and over the course of the term, that A degrades into an A-, or maybe even a B+. Only those activities which have the power to maintain or degrade that final letter have value in the class.
This is a negative outlook on achievement. Since we like games and games often work on principles of achievement and assessment, let us use a game as a rough example. In an RPG, I certainly do not start out at level 50 and gradually lose levels as the clock ticks down, perhaps ending still at a 50 if I am particularly lucky (or have a lot of free time). I start at level 1 and in true democratic fashion, everyone starts at level 1 and everyone can get to level 50. In fact, every little level ding makes me want to play just one more turn, just one more quest to get that next level.
I said rough example because a game such as this has no strict time limit and has many other forms of incentive aside from level dings. A class however is much simpler in a way – there is only one ding (that final A) and not everyone is going to get it. Everyone can get somewhere though. Everyone can make some progress. Degrading their achievement (their A-grade) over the course of the term even when they are making progress seems counter-intuitive. Should we not be rewarding them incrementally as they progress incrementally?
Back to my writing class example from above. If this writing class were using a system more closely aligned with a leveling or experience-point system, the students could earn assessment points throughout the term after each activity. The incremental assignments wouldn’t be worth as much as a full paper, but they would still have some value. As the students progressed incrementally in their writing skill, their class grade would also incrementally progress. Rather than being mere busywork and inefficient uses of their time, these activities would now have obvious value.
Not only would a progressive assessment system change the notion of value in class activities, it would encourage students to continually work toward A-level work in a process, rather than work only to not lose their A-level grade. Rather than trying to hold on to grass on the edge of the cliff before they drop precipitously to an E, they are slowly working their way up the hill to the eventual peak and its glorious view. One step up the spiral staircase at a time.
Further, incremental assessment progress equalizes the definition of an A. In many of my writing classes, students will ask what I am looking for. They want to know what an A means for me so that they can mold their work to fit that definition and thus not have their A-grade diminished. In an incremental system, an A is less murky. It is quantitative and attainable through clear means. Not everyone will achieve it – but they will achieve something.
At the end of the class, a student will still either end up with an A or something else. But the means to that A have become different. The perspective has changed, and perspective can change a great many things.
For one rich example of incremental assessment in writing classes, see this middle-school example. My own suggestions here are of course much simpler.