Monday, May 11, 2015

gearing up

Time moves ever forward, and this semester has been rolling along quickly. We're already at Week 11 on the calendar, and my students will be doing their Week 12 pecha-kucha presentations in just a few short days. Except for today's class, who will re-watch a video, I've promised to demonstrate a pecha-kucha to my students to show them what I'm expecting. I'm going to do a spiel on how and why to make budae-jjigae, which is one of my favorite dishes to make: it's fun, it's easy, and it tastes amazing—especially the way I do it, which is to be very generous with the meat (see here, for example.)

Unfortunately, I've had to "pull a Joker," so to speak, regarding the grading of the upcoming pecha-kucha. I've given all my students an apologetic spiel about the need to design hard tests instead of fair tests because everyone needs to fit inside the mandated grading curve (which I recently complained about here). I've been very up-front with the kids about my opinion regarding the justice—or rather, the injustice—of fitting people into a curve, and how that obligation contributes to the deterioration of the student/teacher relationship. (Some fellow profs would doubtless advise me never to be so confessional, but what can I say? I'm a confessional kind of guy.) By "pulling a Joker," I mean designing a scoring system in which the students will have to hurt each other. Let me explain.

The pecha-kucha presentation is worth 15% of any given student's total grade. I've set up the scoring this way: out of 15 possible points, 10 points will come from the teacher's (somewhat harsh) assessment; the remaining 5 points will come from the students themselves. The students will evaluate each other's performance as teams, not as individuals, but the team rating will translate into an individual rating that will become the remaining 5 points of any given student's score. Each student will rate each team's overall performance as honestly as possible; I'll tally the points and figure out how each team ranks (i.e., which team got the most points?). Once the ranking has been figured out (and ties are possible), ranking points will be assigned: 5 points to the top-ranked team, 4 points to the second-ranked team, etc., down to a minimum of 2 points. The team's ranking points will be distributed to each individual team member. (Laid out this way, the system sounds more complicated than it really is.)

This creates exactly the sort of toxic psychology I didn't want to adulterate my classes with, but I can't see another way around this. Based on the scoring system I've devised, every team will be motivated to rate itself highest (and if all teams do this, the effect cancels out) while rating all the other teams as low as possible. My injunction to "rate honestly" will be adhered to with varying degrees of faithfulness; some of the more fair-minded students will rate equitably while other, more competitive students will rate as if they have an axe to grind. The statistical "static" created by all these crisscrossing motivations ought to produce something like a more or less fair individual rating.

0-10 points = teacher's individual eval
2-5 points = team's ranking points, as determined by the students

15 points possible.

Despite what I said about "more or less fair," above, this is a shitty, shitty thing to make the students do, but because grades right now are still so inflated, even after the midterm exam, steps must be taken to turn some of those low "A"s into high "C"s (no musical pun intended). I have to use ranking points instead of raw averages because there's a chance that the students will rate themselves and each other very highly, and I can't accept that sort of inflation. So the ranking points are themselves a microcosm of the college's grading curve, and yeah, I feel like a hypocrite for railing against the campus's curve while constructing my own.

Post-midterm, most of my students in all my classes still have "A"s, so there's no bell curve yet. I'll be morbidly curious to see whether a curve actually begins to form next week. In theory, it ought to be there, and when final-exam time comes around, the curve should be more pronounced, and I ought to have enough "C"s to satisfy the requirements for the back end of the curve—without too many "A"s clogging up the front end.



Charles said...

Do you really think it is wise, in such a cutthroat grading environment, to give students control of a third of the grade for the presentation? I guess we'll have to see how it pans out, but I'm not quite as confident that "all these crisscrossing motivations ought to produce something like a more or less fair individual rating." I suppose it could work that way, but it seems like the best you could hope for would be for the scores to cancel each other out.

I guess I'm just curious about your motivation, and why you would not take charge of the ranking yourself. You must have a very strong motivation for giving your students this sort of power over their grades--and those of their competitors. I feel like I'm missing something here.

Kevin Kim said...

It's precisely because it's a cutthroat grading environment that the students will likely do my dirty work for me.

Honestly, I want to be like Pontius Pilate and wash my hands of all the bloodiness. But when I look back at the syllabus that I created in late February and distributed in early March, I see that I had always planned to let the students have a hand in their own evaluation. In other words, it's not that I'm becoming Pilate now: I've been Pilate from the beginning.

The question, though, is why should I set things up this way? In February, I was probably thinking that, since this was a presentation for an audience, it made sense for the audience to react in a concrete way. Since I knew I was going to have a major voice in the evaluation, I had already decided that I'd have a 2/3 say in the grading, with the students taking care of the final 1/3.

Technically, this isn't a sudden shirking of responsibility because I did plan for the grading to be done this way from the beginning. But in terms of "strong feelings," yeah—I'm more comfortable with letting the students at least partially bloody each other on the field of battle.

I apologized to my Monday kids again today, sighing in theatrical despondency about the harsh reality of the curve. But secretly, I admit I was relieved to shovel over a measure of responsibility onto the students' shoulders.

Were I to rationalize this further, I suppose I could say that a major theme of my teaching philosophy is the handing-over of control and responsibility to the students. That's a lame justification at this point, but it's at least sort of true.

Is that a response worthy of a politician or what?

Charles said...

I didn't mean to imply that you had suddenly decided to have the students contribute a third of the presentation grade; I figured that this was probably your plan all along.

In theory, of course, it makes sense (for the reason you mentioned). In practice, however, I'm not so sure. I mean, in the end, you are the one the students will be looking to when the grades hit the fan. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but I can imagine students who did their best to ensure that they get a high score, yet still end up getting shafted by the curve, being even more upset than normal.

Still, this is all theoretical, and I have nothing to go on but hunches, which are often notoriously unreliable. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. I hope you will be doing a follow-up, as I am now very curious about how all this will turn out.