Intentional Teaching

Grading for Growth with Robert Talbert and David Clark

June 20, 2023 Derek Bruff Episode 15
Grading for Growth with Robert Talbert and David Clark
Intentional Teaching
More Info
Intentional Teaching
Grading for Growth with Robert Talbert and David Clark
Jun 20, 2023 Episode 15
Derek Bruff

Questions or comments about this episode? Send us a text massage.

Robert Talbert and David Clark are both mathematics faculty members at Grand Valley State University and authors of the forthcoming book Grading for Growth. They are both incredibly thoughtful and effective teachers who share their experiences, insights, and advice widely. Their new book based on dozens of case studies from instructors across the disciplines who are questioning some of the assumptions baked into higher education and finding better ways to assess students—and to help them grow.

In our conversation, we discuss some of the problems with traditional grading systems, the ways that teaching college students is not like competitive gymnastics, the four pillars of alternative grading that Robert and David inferred from their case studies, and strategies for putting those pillars into practice. I also ask them if maybe it’s possible to not hate grading so much?

Episode Resources

Grading for Growth (Routledge, 2023),

Grading for Growth blog,

Robert Talbert's website,

David Clark's website, 

Podcast Links:

Intentional Teaching is sponsored by UPCEA, the online and professional education association.

Subscribe to the Intentional Teaching newsletter:

Support Intentional Teaching on Patreon:

Find me on LinkedIn and Bluesky.

See my website for my "Agile Learning" blog and information about having me speak at your campus or conference.

Show Notes Transcript

Questions or comments about this episode? Send us a text massage.

Robert Talbert and David Clark are both mathematics faculty members at Grand Valley State University and authors of the forthcoming book Grading for Growth. They are both incredibly thoughtful and effective teachers who share their experiences, insights, and advice widely. Their new book based on dozens of case studies from instructors across the disciplines who are questioning some of the assumptions baked into higher education and finding better ways to assess students—and to help them grow.

In our conversation, we discuss some of the problems with traditional grading systems, the ways that teaching college students is not like competitive gymnastics, the four pillars of alternative grading that Robert and David inferred from their case studies, and strategies for putting those pillars into practice. I also ask them if maybe it’s possible to not hate grading so much?

Episode Resources

Grading for Growth (Routledge, 2023),

Grading for Growth blog,

Robert Talbert's website,

David Clark's website, 

Podcast Links:

Intentional Teaching is sponsored by UPCEA, the online and professional education association.

Subscribe to the Intentional Teaching newsletter:

Support Intentional Teaching on Patreon:

Find me on LinkedIn and Bluesky.

See my website for my "Agile Learning" blog and information about having me speak at your campus or conference.

Derek Bruff 0:07
Welcome to Intentional Teaching, a podcast aimed at educators to help them develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas in teaching. I'm your host, Derek Bruff. I hope this podcast helps you be more intentional in how you teach and in how you develop as a teacher over time. 

My guests on the podcast today are Robert Talbert and David Clark, authors of the forthcoming book Grading for Growth. Robert and David are both mathematics faculty at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and they are both incredibly thoughtful and effective teachers who share their experiences, insights and advice widely. Their new book has one of those long but very explanatory subtitles. It reads "A Guide to Alternative Grading practices that promote authentic learning and Student engagement in Higher Education." The book is based on dozens of case studies from instructors across the disciplines who are questioning some of the assumptions baked into higher education about grading and assessment. And they are finding better ways to assess their students and to help their students grow. 

In our conversation, we discussed some of the problems with traditional grading systems, the ways that teaching college students is not like competitive gymnastics, the four pillars of alternative grading that Robert and David inferred from all their various case studies, as well as some practical strategies for putting those pillars into practice. I also asked them if maybe it's possible to not hate grading so much. 

Robert and David, I'm very glad to have you on the podcast to talk about your new book, Grading for Growth. I'm excited about our conversation today. Thanks for coming on the podcast. 

Robert Talbert 1:48
Thanks for having us. 

David Clark 1:49
Glad to be here. 

Derek Bruff 1:50
And I'll start with my usual first question, which is not about your book, but can you tell us about a time that you realized you wanted to be an educator? 

Robert Talbert 2:04
I'll go first on that one. Absolutely. I have two older sisters. 

Derek Bruff
And you're Robert? 

Robert Talbert
Yeah, I'm Robert. Yes. Hi. And I have two older sisters, and one of them is nine years older than I am. So she was hitting college around the time I was about eight or nine years old, and I didn't know anything about what college was. My my mother did not go to college. My dad had been on the recent distant past and she came was coming home from from university, from Tennessee Tech University, and was talking about her professors. And I was like, hold up. Tell me about this. What are these people doing? And she described her professors do. And I said, So you're telling me that I could that a person can actually make a living off of basically just learning things and thinking about things? She said, Yeah. And right then that was when I decided I want to be a college professor. And here we are now. 

Derek Bruff 2:51

Robert Talbert 2:52
It's like the perfect life, you know? 

Derek Bruff 2:54
Wow. So you were like, eight or nine. That's. Yeah, well, yeah, that, you know, most of the things that we want to do for a living when we are eight or nine, we end up not doing. I am not as far as, for instance, an astronaut. 

Robert Talbert 3:08
I didn't tell you. Yeah. I wanted to be like a standup comedian or a construction worker or something like that. But yeah. So it's probably good that most of those things don't work out, but sometimes that, you know, the right ones can rise to the top, actually. 

Derek Bruff 3:20
That's great. What about you, David? 

David Clark 3:22
So I'm David and. Right. If I was doing what I thought I wanted to do at eight or nine, I'd either be a plumber or an archaeologist. Both of which, I have. To say, are still kind of interesting. 

Robert Talbert 3:32
Yeah, A fine line between those two, actually. 

David Clark 3:34
Really? Real close. Yeah. No. So I grew up surrounded by teachers, both my parents, K-12 educators, a bunch of my aunts and uncles and other relatives. And I actually mainly got the message of this is this is a difficult setting to work in. Don't do it. But what I realized when I went to college is I had one professor who was like doing something completely different from any of the other instructors I had. Like, I realize nowadays it was like inquiry based learning and that sort of thing. And I was like, Whoa, I have never had that experience before. And I was so excited by like what it felt like in the classroom setting that I was interested in, okay, maybe I might actually want to do this, that I had never considered before. Even then, I went off to grad school being like, Yeah, I'm probably not really going to be a professor. I'm going to be a researcher. And it didn't let me go. I kept that stuck in my mind that I wanted to do it. 

Derek Bruff 4:32
That's great. And I do think, I don't know, I having some really fantastic teachers in our lives does help us kind of see the possibilities of what a career in education can look like. Yeah, I like that. I like that. Well, let's let's move on to grading and your book Grading for growth, which is about alternatives to what you might call traditional grading practices. And so I'd like to know why you guys think higher education is talking so much about alternatives to grading practices in 2023? 

Robert Talbert 5:07
Well, that's a really good question. I kind of feel like so much in higher education has just changed completely. Like the whole ground on which we stand has changed ever since the pandemic. And I think before 2020, things were beginning to lead up to some some changes. I mean, the world in which we operate higher education is quite a bit different than it was even just ten years ago. But when the pandemic came along, it gave us, like all of us collectively, it seemed like a lot of permission to fundamentally rethink some things that we thought maybe were just unchangeable, like like part of the DNA of the whole enterprise of higher education, including grading. We we thought very carefully about grading during the pandemic, about pass fail grading and even things sort of adjacent concepts like test optional admissions and all these sort of things to do to help students through this really difficult period. And they're just kind of stuck. And I think once instructors have sort of gotten some perspective on the shortcomings of traditional grading and what else is possible, I don't think that genie is going back in the bottle. I think people want to see what else could possibly be done that is better for students and better for them, too. 

David Clark 6:21
Couldn't have said it better. 

Robert Talbert 6:23
Yeah you could have, but yeah. 

Derek Bruff 6:25
Well, could some of this cause your the idea for the book happened before the pandemic, Is that right? So you guys were already thinking about this before 2020? 

David Clark 6:35
We were. And like Robert hinted at it seems like things were leading in this direction already. Like people were feeling and are feeling sort of like, uncomfortable with some of their practices and the pandemic sort of gave us permission to try to try things differently. But a lot of people were already trying things along the way. And so, yeah, that's why we were starting to look at each other and say, you know, we're hearing from more and more people. This is like 2019. We're hearing from more and more people. We should actually put some of this down on paper and and say something about it. And then in 2020, it just exploded. Right. And everyone realized it was like a glass shattering moment, sort of like, oh, I can think about things that I thought were just supposed to be this way all the time. 

Derek Bruff 7:20
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So let's let's do some rethinking then, of traditional grading before we look at alternatives. And so, you know, let's, let's say one of us is teaching a fairly traditional math class, right? I've got students they're going to take they're going to do some problem sets, they're going to take some exams, maybe do an application project or something near the end of the semester. I'm going to grade each of those on a scale of zero to a 100. Right. And then I'm going to take a weighted average across all those different assignments and grades. I end up with a number between zero and 100 and and then translate that to a letter grade of some sort. And I send that in right? That letter grade is meant to provide some type of holistic assessment of the student's mastery of the course material. What do you see useful in that grading model and what do you see problematic in that grading model? 

David Clark 8:18
Let's let's begin with the useful, because I think we can we can manage that. Okay. Quickly. So I mean, one thing that I think is very useful about it is it's familiar. You go to essentially any institution people are used to what you just described. Students are used to it. It has comforts to it. And I while it's comfortable, I disagree that people actually understand it, especially if you look into the details of what's happening. How are these things weighted, How are they average? How does that actually come into a final grade? Or where did it all come from? Why do we do it this way? There's sort of a feeling of it's always been this way, which it has not, but the comfort is important. I think as soon as you try something different, it does feel like the rug is kind of being maybe not pulled out from under you, but it's shaking a little bit. 

Robert Talbert 9:09
Right. You know, you started asking questions about, you know, everything you just mentioned or just if you just sort of put a stop sign in certain places like hold up, why a hundred points? Why points at all? I mean, why why not 50 points? Why not 227 points? Or why not ten points or two points? Or why not just use adjectives? I mean, what it is, it has this veneer of familiarity to it. And in some ways, like David said, this is okay. This is a good thing for students because it's one less thing that they worry about. Okay. But the thing is, they do worry about it, though. I mean, if they worry about that almost constantly throughout the course, I mean, even though it is familiar in some ways, it's so familiar, it becomes really easy to constantly direct your attention to it because it's it's familiar. It's something you have seen ever since you're, you know, a fifth grader, and so forth. But when you start really probing the the assumptions behind traditional rating, using points, using averages, using statistics, using letter grades, using a GPA that's on a 4.0 scale, I why 4.0 scale. Is that because we have ABCD F? Why is it ABCD F? Why isn't it an ABCDE or something else like that? 

You start to run out of answers really quickly and then then you start wondering, Well, hold up a second, where did all this stuff come from? And is it really the best possible way to do things? So I'm getting I'm generating numbers for things, but these numbers aren't really like measure amounts of anything. I mean, I didn't hook a student up to a to a to a brain machine and get, you know, a reading that is on a scale of 0 to 100, like a Richter scale or something like that. And then then translate that it doesn't necessarily measure anything. So where is it coming from? And when you start asking really inconvenient questions like that, you start to, you know, sort of question your faith in all this traditional grading stuff. 

David Clark 11:02
I do want to say one important thing, which is what you describe, Derek, and sort of what we're talking about is grades within a class or, you know, having a final grade within a class. And one thing we really haven't addressed is the idea of having a grade at all as like a final grade or an average across different classes or things like that. So we're we're talking in the context within a class here. 

Derek Bruff 11:24
Yes. So and I know a lot of practitioners of different alternative grading practices. Still, at the end of the day, there is a letter grade attached to that student in that course enrollment. And and how that letter grade is determined may vary widely, but you're not pushing back necessarily against that structure. You're talking about what instructors can do within that kind of given structure. 

Robert Talbert 11:47
Correct, yes.

Derek Bruff 11:48
So let me let me do a couple of analogies here to kind of kick the tires on this. When I'm watching the Winter Olympics, the figure skaters go out and they do a routine for 2 minutes or whatever. Right. And there are some jumps and twists and whatever. There is a panel of expert judges who then are looking for certain things and evaluating the quality of the performance on these certain aspects. And they put numbers to all of that, right, by some metric that they've come up with. And it boils down to a number. And the judges scores are averaged, right? There's a lot of math there. That's a little bit arbitrary. Right. But the idea is that you can take a complex 

performance and assign a metric to it that has some meaning. And and like we see a lot of meaning in that there's there's I don't I don't know, maybe maybe in the world of figure skating, there's a whole push back against quantitative evaluation of performances. But but it feels like that's a thing that can be done. And so so when I give my students, you know, an 87 as a final course grade in my class, that 87 has the meaning I have put into it based on my evaluation of their work and the weighted averages that I've come up with to create this kind of metric. So is is there some utility there or or is the the educational setting sufficiently different from the competitive figure skating setting that we need to kind of tease that out some? 

David Clark 13:19
So I want to point out an interesting difference with the professional figure skating setting, which is if a professional figure skater is doing something like this, they may. I'm actually thinking of gymnastics as a different analogy here. They may have multiple attempts at doing these things and their attempts are not averaged together. They have either the best attempt or the last attempt or something like that. And that's really important because we're not saying all the things you've ever done leading up to this. They all count together and because you screwed up once, we're going to count that against you permanently. We really do look at it as, okay, what is what's the best you did or what is the stand out performance? Or at least where did you get to by the end? 

And that's really different from how we deal with traditional grades where at least in most classes that I've ever dealt with for traditional grades, you are averaging together what the student did all the time. And if they were struggling early on and they got it later, too bad all of that counts. And yeah, maybe their grade comes up from doing well later and it's also pulled down because they didn't learn it on my schedule and perform on my, my schedule on those tests or whatever. So there is, I think, an important difference in there. 

And also I just want to bring this up because I have a goddaughter who is in gymnastics and who is in like the fun gymnastics things. And there's a difference between the fun gymnastics and the competitive gymnastics and competitive gymnastics is very much what you described with like you have these points, they are average together. The fun one is we have some standards for what we think you should be able to do at this point. And you get a ribbon that indicates what level you performed at relative to those standards. And it's a very different thing. It's also not focusing on competition between the students. It's focusing on what did they actually achieve. So I think that's that difference. There's a reason it's called the fun one, because. We're not. Trying to tweak the incentives. 

Derek Bruff 15:19
There. Yeah, well, in the educational setting, one could make the argument that in fact we would like all of our students to do well and learn things and succeed right in a competitive gymnastics setting. The goal is to pick the best, right? The goal is to rank right. And so I do think that that's part of where the grading apparatus comes in, is that there are rankings that happen. But that's not necessarily why people do gymnastics for fun, right? I mean, it's a different setting. Yeah. 

David Clark 15:51
And I think that's a good question to ask about the educational setting as well. Is is our purpose to rank? And if so, why do we need to rank all the time? Do we need to rank within our classes? Is that important? I think the answer to that is almost always no. 

Derek Bruff 16:07
Yeah. Whereas in the fun gymnastics, if everyone gets a blue ribbon because they've all met that benchmark, that's that's a cause to celebrate, right? 

Robert Talbert
That's a successful gymnastics class if you do that. Yeah. 

David Clark 16:17
I mean that's fantastic, right? They learned what they needed to learn and they did it. And we can celebrate that. And we can do that in my math classes, too, we learned what we needed to learn now. 

Derek Bruff 16:27
And I take your point about the the kind of early failures counting against you in a traditional grading scheme. And that's that's that that's certainly part of it. 

It would be like in the competitive gymnastics setting, having those judges at all the practice sessions scoring their their performances all along the way and using that as part of the final assessment, which is that's not even something they do in the competitive gymnastics landscape. So I see your point there as well. 

Robert Talbert 16:56
Another thing, too, about the measurement, the sort of parameterizing these performances with numbers. Yeah, it's a thing you can do, but what exactly are you measuring and who exactly are you measuring? I mean, if we're talking about the Olympics, then you are grading, if you will, these men and women who are at the absolute top of their profession. They spent years and years and years perfecting their craft. They don't take sick days. They don't have the other jobs necessarily. You know, life is not getting in the way for them because this is the only thing they focus on. And so even if you were trying to separate out so the gold medal, you know, silver and bronze winners, it's a different thing when you start looking at students in a calculus class or writing class. 

I mean, these are not... these are emerging adults. There are 18, 19, 20 year old kids in some cases who are works in progress. Absolutely. And so if we started, you know, adopting the same evaluation scheme for the same basic philosophy, that it's... the construct validity goes out the window. I mean, I don't even know what I'm measuring anymore. I mean, what I want to measure is growth, basically. I mean, that's where we got the name for the book. When you get to the Olympics, you're not, you're not you're not interested. It's not about growth. I mean, it's about top end, end of the line performance. And if you're aren't cutting it, then you're not going to win the medal. And I don't think that's appropriate for higher education in any setting, even at something like the Ph.D. level. 

Derek Bruff 18:27
Yeah, Well, let's talk about alternatives then. Right. And in my my understanding is you've structured your book around these four pillars of grading for growth. Can you walk us through those pillars? 

David Clark 18:41
Sure. So let me begin by saying you can sort of think of these four pillars as describing how is it that you you support and value learning in assessment? So like, what are the aspects of using feedback loops to learn and how would we apply those in specifically in assessing and grading. So we're not selling you something with these four pillars. We're saying, here's just how it's implemented.

So first one, you've got to know what it is you care about, right? As an instructor and as a student, what is it you're trying to do so that you can decide if you've done it or not? And so we call that pillar "clearly defined standards." What's the thing I care about?

If you want to learn, you need feedback to help you adjust so you can eventually make it. And so you need helpful feedback. And our emphasis there is really on the helpful part. If you want to learn something, you need some sort of feedback that can adjust, you can use to adjust and reflect on what you've done.

And so then we get to a pillar that sort of talks about what you mentioned with traditional grades, that grades don't really help you as a form of feedback. At most they're a very coarse measurement of you weren't there or you kind of were there, but you don't know how. And so if you're going to have any kind of grades at all, which we're actually not saying you do, they need to just be somehow phrased in terms of the goals of the clearly defined standards, and they should indicate your progress towards them. So you've met the standard, You're making it there. You need to try again from from start or something like that.

And then finally to actually engage a feedback loop to actually be able to go around and try again to show that you've learned and that you've got there. We need a chance to do that. So we call that "reassessment without penalty," the ability to try again without averaging, without being penalized for having to practice, for having to try as long as you can show you've got there a reassessment without penalty will count fully for you. So those are sort of our four ways of supporting a feedback loop of learning and ultimately value what students learned as opposed to how they got there. 

Derek Bruff 20:45
So let me ask let me give you a what I think is a tough course to teach. When I was teaching at Vanderbilt, I taught a introduction to statistics course. I had 100 students. It was all engineering majors who were taking it because it was required. I had maybe two of them who walked in the door in the front day was like, "yay statistics!" Right? The other 98 were there because they had to be. 

How might I go about it? Because I do feel like a particularly at a school like Vanderbilt, where students are fairly competitive is one reason. One function of grades for good or for ill is to motivate students, right? So those students may not want to learn statistics, but they do want to get a decent grade in the class. And so the grading apparatus provides some kind of levers I can use as an instructor to try to motivate students to meaningfully participate in the learning process. But I think there are other ways to go about doing that. So how would you apply your four pillars in a in a course like that where you do have this motivation challenge underlying the whole teaching context? 

Robert Talbert 21:51
Well, the first thing you'd want to do, as David described, is be really clear about what it is you want students to learn in the course, but kind of at the micro day to day level and also at the macro course wide level, you want to have clearly defined standards. And so, you know, when you're mapping out the course or building the course, ask yourself what is it that I want students to be able to do once the course is over and, you know, maybe like how am I going to know if, you know, what constitutes good enough? Like I want students to be able to state Bayes' formula or something like that. That's like a little tiny a learning objective, or maybe you have something bigger. Like, I want students to be able to apply Bayesian statistics to some real world problem in an application or something like that. You, as an instructor, first and foremost, have to be clear on what it is you want students to do and then clarify that and then hand out, give that out to students. So this is it. This is the whole map of the course. This is what we're going to be learning. 

David Clark 22:48
So then from there, how do you actually... your focus is sort of on motivation, right? How do I help students be a little more motivated to learn as opposed to be motivated by the grades themselves?

Derek Bruff

David Clark
So an example of how you could do that when you have those standards Robert described is... let's say you decide you want to use traditional tests, have a few of those throughout the semester. You could map out your... We've done these four standards, we've covered these four in class so far. Let's have a test on those. Have, you know, maybe a page of questions on each and you really clearly make it. Students know these are questions about the standard, right? These are what we're focused on. This is your chance to show what you've got. And then you grade on each standard individually. You've met it or you haven't yet, or you need to revise your work or whatever.

And then the key here, the engaging the feedback loop part is in the future, have another chance for students to attempt that again so that when a student has finished that first test, they get back feedback, they get back grades, they made it or they didn't on our on each they made it or they didn't on each standard. They know that in the future they can use what they learned, what they got from your feedback or what they figured out since then, and try it again on a future test that covers some of those same topics and that if they succeed then, that it will count fully 100% without being averaged in. They just they get the facts checked off that they have shown they can do this thing, this particular standard, and something I hear from students all the time, and that the people we interviewed for our book told us, as well as the students, find that very motivating. They are motivated to learn. They realize they should pay attention to what happens when they didn't succeed. It's worth thinking about it and trying to learn it better. And so that really changes the direction of the motivation from the grades themselves to, Oh, it's worth my time to learn this thing. 

Robert Talbert 24:44
And you know, what's really demotivating is to know that you have no other chances to try something. I mean, I mean, I'm thinking about that game Wordle that we play on our phone sometimes, you know, the whole thing, it makes Wordle fun and motivating is that you get six tries to guess the word. I mean, imagine if they designed that game instead where you just get one chance. It's like you either guess the word or you don't, and you get a numerical grade based on how many letters you got in the right place. This is the worst game ever. So what what keeps us coming back day after day after day? You know, for me, it's like 100 days in a row at this point is is the feedback loop. The feedback loops are inherently motivating, even if the thing you're getting feedback on wasn't necessarily your favorite thing in the first place. I feel like, you know, you can you can start doing something like working out. I mean, a lot of people start working out. Nobody really likes working out when they first start. But as you start to get feedback on your performance and you get to see where you're growing and you get some targeted helpful feedback on how you're doing with this, it becomes kind of like it's still competitive, but you're competing against yourself. And that's that's a much more healthy form of motivation, I think, than competing against another person for points. 

David Clark 25:53
There's sort of an interesting thing. This is a somewhat half baked thought, which is when you're using grades to encourage sort of extrinsic motivation, right? When the grades are the motivator, that's like there's a hole you can keep digging deeper and deeper. And if you see that that extrinsic motivates students, you can do more of it and you can do more of that and you can focus more on the grades and like you can get so far into that hole that it's hard to realize you're in a hole, that there's daylight up there somewhere. And so you can really change those incentives into, let's use grades to encourage students to actually care about learning instead and let the grades fade into the background a bit more. And it's a real... that's like we talked about at the beginning. It's a big change in in what you are thinking about how things work and realizing that that's even possible. 

Derek Bruff 26:40
Yeah, well, I gave you a hypothetical. Could you share maybe an example or two from your own courses where you've implemented some of these pillars and saw some, some nice results for students? 

David Clark 26:50
So the hypothetical you gave is actually really close to some stuff I've done. I have not taught that stats class. But anytime I teach a new class or I decide I want to take a class I've taught and convert it to some sort of alternative grading, I basically do what we just described, set up a clear list of maybe 16 to 20 standards. Either I'm going to use quizzes or tests. I'm going to have maybe four standards per test or a couple per quiz. And then we just continue and students get new chances on some future tests or quizzes. And I count only what students have actually achieved by the end.

And the most amazing thing about that is that plops in directly to like any class setup you have, you could use if you wanted traditional homework and other things along with it, and you just have this exam or quiz set up where there's a clear list of standards, students are graded on meeting them or not, and they have multiple chances regularly scheduled to do it. And the nice... another nice thing about that is it's a predictable workload. You know, when the grading is going to happen, students know what's coming up and when and they still have these good incentives to learn through feedback loops because they know it's going to matter in the future. 

Derek Bruff 27:56
So let me let me be concrete for a second. So you might have, you know, standards one through four show up on the first exam and then you're going to have a second exam and that will address standards maybe one through eight. 

David Clark 28:08
Yep. And it will be so some new standards, students' first try on it, but then repeated, you know, new questions. But on the old topics, one through four and if students succeed at, you know standard one which they also tried on the first exam, then that's all that matters, that they succeeded at it, not that they did it on the second try or anything like that. And then yeah, so the third exam... one through 12 and, and continue. 

Derek Bruff 28:34
So it's all cumulative and it's kind of forgetful of poor performance in the past. Yeah. I assume there's like an Excel file behind there that helps you keep track of, of, of all of that.

David Clark 28:46
Yeah. You're gradebook is going to look a little different! I have wrote extensively and in excruciating detail on our blog about how to make it happen. 

Robert Talbert 28:52
Ask David about Excel files, and you will have a whole nother podcast episode. 

Derek Bruff 28:57
I have to say, you know, I ran a center for teaching for for a long time. And and in that work, being a director or working with budgets, all this kind of stuff, doing a program level assessment, I had to use a lot of Excel files and all of my Excel skills, all of them came from creating grade books in Excel that did the things I needed it to do. So yes. 

Robert Talbert 29:19
It's a transferable skill. 

Derek Bruff 29:20
Is that of what about you, Robert? What does this look like in your classes in the past? 

Robert Talbert 29:25
Well, I just wanted to share. I had I taught a new prep this past semester. I actually was one of these combined linear algebra differential equations courses for engineering students. It was... I use a system pretty similar to what David described. The most important thing for me at first was getting learning objectives figured out, like, what is this class? What is it about? A lot of instructors I've read online really struggle to kind of find the right tone for this class. There's a lot that has to be left out. And so the question becomes, what gets left in? I mean, what are we going to actually make the class about? So I finally hit upon what I thought was a nice theme. I built some learning objectives compared to that team, ended up being 11 sort of essential core skills with a whole lot of applications because these are all engineers are really into, you know, sort of real life applications of things.

And you have a different... I'm just using a variant of alternative grading that's called specifications grading. Linda Nilson, who is a legend, you know, invented, I think invented or at least wrote a book about specifications grading, she kind of got me started on the whole whole thing back in 2017, and I had a little bundle set up for basic core skills, and you have to master a certain number of these core skills through weekly quiz opportunities like David described, cumulative types of things. You have a like sort of a homework bundle where students would work on sort of mid-level, middle third of Bloom's taxonomy problems in class and then finish them up outside of class. And then there was an applications bundle that was some pretty difficult applications, problems that students did on their own time, and they're all graded sort of on a two level rubric. Either... we had specifications that that really laid out in great detail what was acceptable work and what is not acceptable work on any of these things. And, you know, if you if you had acceptable work, you got success. That was your mark on the grade book. And if you did not have successful work, it was either like retry me or revise or depending on what the assignment was.

And so the marks, the marks are very minimal, but they weren't grades in the sense of being numbers or just marks. They're just descriptors to say, like here, that indicates your progress. So like we said in the four pillars and you just... to earn an A in the class, you have to complete so many foundational skills, so many homework sets, so many application problems. For B, it's the next level down. For C, it's another level down. It's really easy. It's very simple. There were some glitches. It wasn't perfect. So there are some little anomalies or gotchas in my system I wasn't... I didn't foresee. We'll have to change it next time.

But students, you know, I just got my evaluations back and they were very, very positive about this. What they really appreciated, like David said, was it was sort of stress free. And so in a lot of ways, I mean, you did not have to stress over whether you know, you have screwed yourself by doing poorly on something. You can always come back and try it again. And a lot of students said, I you know, I didn't get the grade I necessarily wanted in the course, but I learned more here than I think I ever have in a math class just because, you know, I had to keep going back and pulling things out that were old. You know, I had to... I couldn't just sort of let things pass. Like I did poorly on a homework assignment. I'd have to come back and redo it at some point. I couldn't just sort of let it drift off into the sunset. And, you know, just the fact that you weren't going to doom yourself in a class by having one poor performance just made it a lot more interesting to sit in and you're more willing to show up and do the work. 

Derek Bruff 32:54
And I think you've you've kind of answered one of the questions I wanted to ask, which was if you talk to a lot of college professors about the worst parts of their job as teachers, they will often name grading as being the most. And so it sounds like maybe you don't hate grading now. 

Robert Talbert 33:17
Well, nobody I don't think anybody really enjoys grading, quote, unquote. But I mean, I don't I don't hate it. I mean, because I think it's cruel to be... to orient yourself in this direction means you're always looking down and you have you see the trajectory and you see the the character arc of every student in your class. You can see them grow from point to point to point. And it's really cool, for example, to see a guy who comes on to my class and is kind of struggling at first and does extraordinarily badly on the first attempt on one of these application problems, for instance. But gradually, maybe it takes him like four or five tries. He turns in work that's like legitimately good. And I'm not, you know, moving the goalposts for him. It's still a very high standard that we have for acceptable work. You know, these are engineers. I mean, I don't want, I don't want poor working engineers. I'm going to be flying on the airplanes that you design. Driving across the bridge. I got a stent in my heart, you know, that could have been designed by you. You know, I want quality and I can insist on that. And I can see every student make that approach. And that's just that's that's what we're in this business for as far as I'm concerned. 

David Clark 34:25
Yeah. I'd say that by having easier or like simpler grading decisions, you can engage with the actual content in a much more enjoyable way. So like, like Robert said, although it may not be, nobody's idea of grading is particularly fun. You can engage with the student work and I enjoy that a lot more. 

Derek Bruff 34:45
You have a lot of case studies in your book and I gather they're not all from mathematics, even though we've been kind of sharing examples from that field. Did you see any kind of disciplinary differences in how some of these alternative grading practices play out differences in different disciplines, or maybe class size is more important than discipline? I don't know. What what do you see when you look at the range of examples out there? 

David Clark 35:09
Yeah, we sort of organized not so much by discipline, but by just what you said, like class size and specific types of classes. So lab classes, for example, just have a different set of interests, upper level or, you know, more conceptually focused classes versus ones that might be more skills based. That's the type of of organization that we had and we found. Yeah, we found big differences across that kind of thing.

So I know Robert and I both were talking a fair bit about find like clear, discrete skills that you want to assess students on. And Robert was mentioning how he had some problems where you would want to assess, putting it all together. Right. And the advanced ideas and those take different approaches. Right. You assessing an individual skills is different from seeing if you can put it all together. And so you use different approaches and you look at different things. Do you want to grade holistically or do you want to grade separate skills? Do you want to allow students to revise and show that they have improved previous work, which might make more sense for like an essay or a project or a portfolio or do you want them to try again and show they can do it completely from scratch, which you might want to do with a more discrete skill?

So we saw, for example, in STEM disciplines, introductory classes tend to have a lot of more discrete skills and new attempts to show you can get it from scratch and also so also STEM disciplines. But in arts and humanities and upper level classes, people tended to focus on holistic specifications. Can you show that you've done this thing by putting it all together and gotten the whole idea? And if you haven't, revise that thing in light of feedback and show me that you can perfect this thing as opposed to throwing it away and forgetting about it. Lab classes brought all sorts of interesting differences in like you've done the experiments and the thing you produced, the lab report you produced doesn't make sense. What do you do with that? Because you probably can't go back and just try the experiment again. And we had some interesting answers to that. Such as like, okay, you can revise this by explaining how you got the implausible results. Like what would have caused that? Think like a scientist to help me figure it out and that shows relevant skills. So yeah, we had lots of interesting ranges in that type of way. 

Derek Bruff 37:23
I appreciate that. I think I've got Susan Bloom's edited volume, Ungrading, over on the shelf and there's a lot there. But as I was reading it, I did realize that most of the chapters are contributed by folks who teach small classes and often in the humanities, and there's a whole conversation around ungrading and related topics in those settings. What I what I love about what I'm hearing from you is that there's a kind of range of approaches across the STEM fields as well that get at some of these core principles, right? But perhaps through very different methods than you would see in a 20-person humanities seminar. 

David Clark 38:06
And I think that's a really important point. And maybe a message that doesn't get out enough is that there isn't just one way to do it. And in fact, there isn't a single ideal that we should all be moving towards. There is different ways to implement alternative grading that are more appropriate for different people in different places, different students like you can and can and should adjust what you do to your setting, and that makes a big difference. 

Robert Talbert 38:32
Yeah, Yeah. I mean, I think the thing that I enjoyed most about the final product of the book was... David did all of the work on these case studies and that just the sheer diversity of ingenuity that ordinary everyday frontline professors bring to this idea is just really cool to see. I've always just enjoyed seeing how other people do things, and there is definitely not just one way to do it. We were tempted to at some point make this sort of universal theory of everything for alternative grading in the book. But we settled on the four pillars just to say like, Look, you might be in a position or a state in your life or a point with your students where all you can work on is giving more helpful feedback. Okay? And the rest of the stuff is just going to have to wait and that's okay. It's actually really good if you can work on that. So any one forward progress, even as small as it may be on any one of those four pillars, I mean, I feel like it's like a tremendous, great step in the right direction for any instructor and your students.

And we have more case studies that we didn't fit into the book, we probably could make a second book out of just the extra case. The case studies are on the cutting room floor and we have our blog. You know, that's going to probably continue to showcase some of these folks, but there are a lot of people out there who are doing some really interesting things that are nontraditional, that are a little bit of a mash up of all these different sorts of things you see. Some are like it's kind of a little bit of ungrading, a little bit of specs screening, but it's also a little traditional. There's anything you can imagine because it being done at this point successfully by everyday professors, not rock stars, just ordinary good faculty members. And I think that's really cool. 

David Clark 40:11
Yeah. Yeah. I feel like I learned a lot from doing these interviews and I have changed some of my own practice as a result. Like you hear a thing, you're like, Oh yeah, that's perfect for what I'm going to be teaching next year. I'm going to do it. 

Derek Bruff 40:24
Yeah, yeah. Well, and I think the growth in your book title is, is primarily your students growth. But what I'm also hearing is your own growth as a, as a teacher over time, which is certainly something I'm I'm a big fan of.

Well, thank you both. This has been fantastic. We covered a lot of ground today. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and experience and expertise. And I'm looking forward to reading the whole book. 

Robert Talbert 40:49
Thanks a lot. Thanks for having us again. 

David Clark 40:51
Thanks for having us. It was great. 

Derek Bruff 40:54
That was Robert Talbert and David Clark, both math faculty at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and authors of the forthcoming book from Stylus Publishing called Grading for Growth. While you're waiting for their book to come out, I highly recommend checking out their blog, also called Grading for Growth. Robert and David and their occasional guests blog there every week with all kinds of useful explorations and examples of alternative grading practices. See the show notes for links to their blog and to more information about Robert and David and their book. And thanks again, to Robert and David for coming on the podcast to talk about their work.

Over on my Patreon Web site, Intentional Teaching supporters can hear a bonus clip from my conversation with Robert and David, where we speculate on the future of grading and higher education. Patreon supporters are also invited to my very first Ask me Anything, an AMA scheduled for Wednesday, June 28th, 2023. I'll be taking questions about teaching and learning and technology and anything else, both before and during the event, and I'll share the audio recording of the event on Patreon for those who can't attend live. If you're not already supporting intentional teaching on Patreon, now's a great time to sign up.

This episode of Intentional Teaching was produced and edited by me, Derek Bruff. See the show notes for links to my website, the sign up form for the Intentional Teaching newsletter and my Patreon, which helps support the show for just a few bucks a month. You get access to the occasional bonus episode, Patreon-only teaching resources, the archive of past newsletters and a community of Intentional Educators. As always, thanks for listening. 

Podcasts we love