Thursday, April 19, 2012

One more time: Grading on 'effort'

We had a lively discussion a while back on the merits of grading students on effort. Now Maryellen Weimer at Faculty Focus reports on studies comparing faculty and student attitudes about whether grading should depend on effort. The upshot: Students think about 40% of their grade should depend on effort, whereas faculty thought 17% of a student's grade should depend on effort.

The obvious problem in discussing this issue is figuring out what we mean by 'effort'. As Weimer puts it:

If effort counts, we should seek ways to make the assessment of it as objective as possible. Maybe discussion of that topic begins with a definition of effort, or a description of what it takes to learn something.

So let's start with the argument against grading on effort: 'Effort' looks like a means, something you have to put in in order to master a body of material. But grading should reflect the mastery of said material, not the amount of energy students need to expend in order to master it. After all, if a student can master a body of material with little effort, why should her grade be lowered on those grounds?

A retort? It's debatable whether content mastery exhausts all the learning objectives we care about as instructors. Many of the elements that might be classified as student 'effort' (revising their papers, class participation, office hours visits, etc.) might be seen not as content-based learning objectives, but as habit-based objectives. That is, students' grades reflect the habits we have good reason to believe will prove valuable to them academically and professionally. Yes, ultimately, we (and the rest of the world) want students to be able to perform particular tasks well. But one mark of being a student is not necessarily being able to do the task well and hence needing guidance (and incentives!) to develop the habits needed to perform particular tasks well down the road. Grading on effort, in this sense, is legitimate because the grade will likely track students' progress in acquiring these valuable academic habits, even if their performance on tasks lags behind their acquiring these habits.

But now I wonder if grading on this basis amounts to grading on 'effort' at all. For one, what seems relevant is not the raw quantity of energy students expend in a class but its directedness. Revising papers, etc. are forms of intentional activity that have more learning value than other kinds of 'effort' that might not help students learn much (in philosophy, putting quotes from philosophers on note cards and trying to memorize them takes effort, but has low learning value). Second, if 'effort' is instrumental, then grading students on the degree to which they engage in habit-forming activity doesn't confuse means and ends, because the acquisition of the habits is itself an intermediate end that subserves the final ends of disciplinary content mastery. You're not grading 'merely' on effort; you're grading on the basis of a legitimate, albeit intermediate, learning objective.

In any case, I'm with Weimer in that I'm not sure we can make any headway on this question unless we understand what we mean by 'effort' and why it might be legitimate for it to influence students' grades.


  1. When I read the original FF report I mentally divided the assignments I give my students into two groups. First there's P/F work that really measures whether they did some activity such as participating on the course discussion board before class (to check that they have done the reading), preparing an outline and bibliography for the final paper, etc. I suppose this could be viewed as grading "effort," since I basically give them points for having done the work. (Usually it amounts to 10-15% of the semester total.) On the other hand, there are the assignments that are evaluated for quality, such as various papers and exams. While there may be separate effort-based assignments that help the students get ready to do this work, the assignments themselves aren't graded based on effort.

    I think this is pedagogically appropriate and fair. As this post argued, "effort" grades that build up good habits aren't necessarily a bad thing. But I also think this is different than what students have in mind when they talk about grading based on effort. They probably want an actual essay grade to reflect that they worked hard on it. And that is inappropriate, I think. It might be helpful to keep these two types of "effort" grades in mind when thinking about this topic.

  2. My lower divisional classes always include "effort" components because such students are new to philosophy courses and really don't have much of an idea about what they are doing. So I want to create a space where effort does matter, and content less so. That said, these segments are clearly separated (content/effort). A paper is graded on content, not effort. However participation (both online, I use forums, and in class) is effort driven. If I can tell you have done the reading, and are working to understand it, you get the points. In lower divisional classes that dual participation grade runs about 25% of the course grade, making 1/4 of their grade essentially effort driven.

  3. I sometimes get students in their final year taking a freshman class. If they sail through the material, that's fine - why would I grade them down for lack of effort if I can see they've mastered the material?

    Sometimes I have freshman and sophomore students taking upper division classes. If I think the material is too much for them, based on their first homework assignments, I advise them to drop the class. I'm not going to make allowances for them, because if a student passes a class at a certain level, that should indicate they are ready to begin work at a higher level still.

    So, I don't penalize good students for sailing through without effort, and I don't allow effort to be a substitute for mastery. However, with students who are coming straight from high school, I recognize that it will take time for them to master all of the skills they will need at university. A freshman student who starts with no idea how to write a paper, and ends up by producing a paper that is starting to look like college level writing is a borderline case. That is when effort starts to count for something.

    So, I wouldn't say that x% of every student's grade should reflect effort. I'd pick out the particular situations in which effort should be taken into account when grading.

  4. I suppose as an EFL(English as a foreign Language) teacher I have a slightly different view. Participation is part of your grade. You need to be able to answer questions. You need to be able to speak your mind. You also need to be able to respect your classmates so that they can do the same.

    10% of my classes are participation, part of that is just showing up and being polite. If you choose to text through class, that's OK, and I won't begrudge you the other 90% of your grade (nor the extra credit should you choose to do it) but 10% is how engaged you are in the class.

    I am sure to remind my students of this. I give them a survey that they fill out and comment on and I can respond to. That way nothing is a secret and they know where they stand.


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