As part of the Dr. Bernard Bull‘s new MOOC Beyond Letter Grades, an early task “The Affordances and Limitations of Letter Grades” asks for an examination of a syllabus with an eye on the pros and cons of how the letter grade is calculated for the course.
I wanted to examine someone else’s syllabus first, both as a model and exercise, mainly because I am never completely happy with any syllabus that I create. Plus, I tend to not like the templates for creating syllabi all that much either. Consequently, I found a a syllabus for a class I would be potentially interested in taking, a course on systemic functional linguistics (SFL).
How Grade is Calculated
Looking at the way that grade is calculated in this course breaks down the following way. There are essentially two short assignments, two exams (midterm and final), and a final paper, yet participation and presentation are also calculated as part of the overall grade.
Additionally, there is a 20% penalty mentioned for late work, which may significantly impact the grade of the two short assignments or the final paper. Attendance is also a critical feature in grade calculation. In fact, failure to appear for one of the exams without an verifiably excused absence will result in a zero. There are no make-up exam options.
Best Potential Grade Without Knowing Much
One thing definitely going for this course is the explicit mention of using a writing-to-learn approach, which bodes well for the newcomer’s opportunity to earn a high grade without much prior knowledge. Honoring, at least philosophically, the notion of writing-to-learn suggests a cultivation of greater understanding over the run of the course informs the work of the course.
Assessing the grade weighting suggests that one would have to gain pretty substantial course content knowledge to successfully accomplish the tasks assigned. The bulk of the course grade is driven mainly by content. Only 20% of the course is rooted in categories like participation and class presentation, which are potentially far more intangible elements.
Worst Potential Grade While Knowing Much
Similarly, since the 20% of the grade is calculated based on participation and class presentation, that leaves 80% split amongst the primary tasks of the course.
There is an interesting discrepancy between the weight of the midterm (20%) and the final exams (15%). Why the midterm exam value is greater than the final is unclear. This may be an attempt to counter-balance the weight of the final paper a little. Since the final paper (30%) is the greatest weight, the potential back-end calculations at the end of the term could amount to as much as 45% of the overall course grade, leaving 55% gathered along the way.
Given a slight misstep in the first short assignment, someone who is quiet and introspective but learned a lot, perhaps struggling in the early going, could be looking at a potential loss of 25-30% of an overall grade. Albeit that would be a maximum hit to take, but it is reasonable to think a 10-15% loss more likely. Throw in a late assignment or two and things could get quite ugly pretty quickly.
Examining a syllabus this way makes me seriously consider how I calculate grades, which is something I have been considering for quite some time. One tension that is in sharper relief for me is related to transparency. Anyone making an effort to make grade calculation as transparent as possible may inadvertently begin to paradoxically cloud the issue in the process.
Associating a series of weights and values seems to artificially lock the grade into a kind of mathematic inevitability, even if those numbers are not an accurate representation of the student’s learning. Trying to quantify things that are by nature slippery to nail down almost guarantees a certain degree of distortion. Yet, itemizing and categorizing the tasks in the overall calculation does not, by itself, necessarily make how the grade will be calculated clear.
When using categories a series of potential questions are generated. For example with the short assignments (15%) in this course: Are both assignments of equal value? Will the grades be averaged? Is any consideration take into account for growth between the first attempt and the second?
This exercise reminds me of just how dubious trying to glean a single letter grade for a course can be. They are a rather crude abstraction that can become even more abstracted in the unpacking.