As the summer season is in full swing, university teaching staff are beginning to look forward to a new year. Between the drafting of the lesson plan, the planning of the readings and the scaffolding of the activity modules, the question of the evaluation of prior learning remains unavoidable. What will be the work to be done? What will be the criteria and instructions for implementation? How to conduct a fair and precise assessment of the skills of each student? The subject is vast, more complex than it seems, and calls for collective reflection on the place of grades in the university environment and on our teaching practices.
The rating system
The “traditional” evaluation system is based on a simple structure for the student and teaching community, and practical for the current bureaucratic model. In a course, students must complete a series of assignments: quiz, tests, written work, to which is added “class participation” – a term referring to an approach that tends to value an extroverted social posture that not all individuals in a classroom share. Can only be done once in the session, each work gets a mark which is added, according to a predefined weighting, to the final mark. It is this mark that appears in the official statement of the educational institution, attached to an equivalent letter (A+, B-, D) which contributes to determining the cumulative weighted average of each student, the famous GPA (grade point average, in English).
On paper, this rating structure looks easy. It seems to meet the educational objectives set by the programs, and offers students the same path to follow, which in the process dissipates the diversity characterizing today’s student community and its needs.
Unfair and meaningless
However, several studies have revealed the empirical weakness and the many pitfalls of our evaluation system. On the one hand, no matter what one says, the marks are inconsistent, irregular, and often assigned by the instructor according to a series of unconscious biases. Only in rare cases leading to a return to work, they communicate next to nothing about the progress, both made and to come, of each student, unless they are accompanied by constructive comments – which is rarely the case. On the other hand, cumulative and necessary for obtaining the final result, the marks erase the particularity of each student both in their learning and in their life course. Fundamentally inequitable, the traditional system does not promote the process of co-construction of knowledge and the dialogue that must take place between the different actors in the classroom. It does not encourage the student to take risks (why do it, if a bad result will cause the final grade to drop?), and rather suggests the possibility, for the student, of negotiating the grade at the end of the session, a nightmare and a pedagogical denial that all teachers know well.
To put it with Jesse Stommel, “the notes […] are the currency of a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a simple transaction. They are a massive and coordinated effort that extracts individuals from the educational process”.
For an inclusive, collaborative… and rigorous pedagogy
Can we envision an assessment system that reconciles the acquisition of skills and knowledge, the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, and the holistic value of learning? Several alternative systems have existed for several years. Opposing the hegemony of the note and its perverse effects, these models rely on the establishment of simple markers encouraging repetition (an essential process in pedagogy), dialogue and the empowerment of each actor in the class. Grading under contract, for example, invites the student to choose at the beginning of the session the grade and the learning objectives that he intends to validate, then leading him to carry out a series of assignments for which he will receive, each time, comments and the possibility of redoing the exercise. Specification-based grading works in a similar way, but does not force each student to make a choice at the start of the year. Denotation, for its part, combines traditional exercises with a series of self-reflections in which the student criticizes his progress, ultimately leading him to assign his own mark.
These few evaluation models all share the same principles: the absence of a mark; the communication of constructive comments highlighting the progress of the student; the establishment of clear university standards, reflecting skills that have been the subject of lessons and workshops duly integrated into the course; the possibility of redoing the work without penalty; the freedom, for each student, to build their learning path.
The resources are numerous, the experiments are multiplying and show that we have everything to gain by integrating these alternative evaluation systems into our courses: the time saved by such a change; the reduction of the mental load specific to the evaluation; reducing stress among our students; the establishment of a dialogue between members of the university community; the creation of an accessible environment, without temple guardians or obstacles.
What are we waiting for to put an end to traditional notation? Freed from an inefficient and inequitable model, perhaps we can restore the overused notion of “rigor” to the meaning it has long lacked in university teaching.