Making the grades [Howard Rheingold version]

Howard Rheingold’s social media classroom at Stanford includes an example of the negotiated approach to grading that really interests me. Among other useful, practical advice in his wiki on expectations in relation to assessment, is this:

In order to learn valuable skills that will become necessary in your future lives (and which are not sharpened through traditional grading practices), each student is asked to agree to a contract for a specific grade (contract grading), to participate in helping co-learners evaluate and improve their learning (peer assessment), and to engage in regular reflection on what he or she has learned (self-assessment).

Contract grading, as Rheingold points out, isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s for those who can plan ahead with some confidence that the goals they set for themselves have been correctly aligned to their personal resources and skills. Essentially, contract grading treats the grade not as feedback delivered by an expert diagnostician, but as a deliverable that can be achieved with good management. Agreeing to achieve an A grade isn’t the same as intending to aim for an A grade. The contract sets out what actions and standards secure an A grade, and peer review then confirms (with some modest plus or minus leeway) whether that task was completed. There’s a penalty system, of course, and some waiver instruments to enable students to negotiate misadventure.

It’s really worth reading this part of the course wiki at length if you’re interested in alternatives to “traditional grading practices”.

But I have some questions. First of all, I’m interested to know more about what role students themselves play in developing the framework for considering their learning to have been successful. Advocates for meaning-centred learning argue—effectively, I think—that humans learn best when what they’re learning aligns well to their own sense of purpose at that time. There’s a bit of jargon, but in essence their point is that meaning-centred learning is:

a learning theory that holds that human learning is the self-motivating and self-regulating process of creating personal meaning in one’s life-world through reflective, critical, and inquiry-based activities that occur across all learning domains. Thus, according to MCL, the learner constructs personal meaning from his/her own experiences and their relationship to prior experiences within multiple life contexts in order to continually self-evolve as a mature personality who is capable of authoring his/her own life story (Kovbasyuk & Blessinger, 2013).

It seems to me that the challenge for both authentic and meaning-centred learning is to open up negotiation about grades so that the grades themselves are also able to be personalised. Institutions with whole divisions devoted to ensure that everyone’s measured by the same stick are notoriously weak at encouraging the capacity to identify, own and value your own judgment. And as a result one of the least well developed graduate skills is the capacity to judge your own achievements relative to context. But again, this is a skill that’s there to be learned. To be invited to set the terms on which you’re assessed is certainly something that lines up well with the future, even if it doesn’t produce an uninterrupted symphony of large-cohort assessment data for external reporting.

The second question I have relates to the role peer review plays here. Rheingold’s project openly addresses itself to “dedicated students who would earn top grades under any evaluation scheme”. It’s Stanford, let’s face it, and it’s based on a course taught at Duke U. So I have some questions about how to develop an environment in which negotiated goals that are also peer evaluated can be achieved among people who are in a wider range of personal circumstances. What levels of skill and trust need to exist within a community, that individuals will find common judgment to be just? How quickly can these be achieved?

These are really important questions for anyone who learns through writing in public. When you look at one piece of writing, and then another, and you can tell the difference, that’s the skill the grading delivers. I think we could share this.