Western Governors essentially splits the role of the traditional professor into two jobs. Instructional duties fall to a group the university calls "course mentors," who help students master material. The graders, or evaluators, step in once the homework is filed, with the mind-set of, "OK, the teaching's done, now our job is to find out how much you know," says Ms. Johnson. They log on to a Web site called TaskStream and pluck the first assignment they see. The institution promises that every assignment will be graded within two days of submission.
Emily L. Child is one of the evaluators. She's a stay-at-home mother of three who lives near Salt Lake City. Her kitchen table is her faculty office. She grades 10 to 15 assignments per day, six days a week, working early in the morning, before her kids are up, or in the afternoon, while they nap. She estimates that she has graded 14,400 assignments in the six years she has worked for the university.
Western Governors requires all evaluators to hold at least a master's degree in the subject they're grading. Ms. Child, a former teacher, grades assignments only in the education major. A typical assignment (the university calls it a "task"), she says, involves a student's submitting a sample lesson plan or classroom strategies.
Evaluators are required to write extensive comments on each task, explaining why the student passed or failed to prove competence in the requisite skill. No letter grades are given—students either pass or fail each task. Officials say a pass in a Western Governors course amounts to a B at a traditional university.
All evaluators initially receive a month of training, conducted online, about how to follow each task's grading guidelines, which lay out characteristics of a passing score.
The identities of the evaluators are kept hidden from students, and even from the mentors. The goal is to protect the graders from students nagging them about grades, or from mentors who might lobby to pass a borderline student to better reflect on their teaching.
Given my general lack of enthusiasm for grading and my skepticism about its learning value, leaving the grading to others would feel like a very modest loss to me! In its favor? Many of my most enjoyable and rewarding teaching experiences have been those where the evaluation of students is done, at least in part, by others (as in Ethics Bowl, where the competition judges play a role, or on student theses, where in my department, all theses have two faculty readers who evaluate them). In my estimation, there's a great deal of merit in 'externalizing' the evaluation process in these ways. The Chronicle article mentions some reasons to favor this division of labor:
- Grades tend to be more consistent.
- Grading gets done more quickly.
- Students can't reward the outside evaluator for giving high grades by evaluating the instructor positively, thus removing a possible motive for grade inflation.
First, in general, externalizing the evaluation process encourages a mastery mindset in students (or at least that's been my observation): They shift from thinking 'what does the teacher want?' to 'what makes for good work, what satisfies the criteria of the assignment, etc.?' Given what we know about what makes for deep rather than superficial learning, this shift is a positive one.
Second, I think a 'us against the world' mentality can be a powerful motivator for some students.
Finally, I'll quote me from a May 2008 post:
At its best, teaching and learning is a partnership, instructor and student investigating a subject together. Grading is by necessity not collaborative. (I'm aware that many people have students do self-assessments, which I support, but conscientious instructors still recognize their role as 'the decider' when it comes to grades.) And when students complain about grades, they're not arguing with Aristotle or Mill. They're arguing with me.Naive though it may be, I'm definitely guided by the ideal of education as collaboration, and in my opinion, grades are the single biggest institutional and cultural impediment to that ideal.
That said, how would all of you react to having grading split from teaching in this way?