In PART 1 of this blog post, I talked about calculating grades. It's something they didn't teach me when I became a teacher. I think they don't teach it because it's stressful, subjective, and sometimes boring.
Actually, I remember having a teaching coach (an experienced teacher to answer my questions) my first semester. I started as a full time instructor in an intensive ESL program. When I asked about calculating grades, my assigned teaching coach showed me how she "did it." She might have explained the whole points-thing and percentage-thing, but I just remember feeling overwhelmed with the task of navigating and entering in those grades on Blackboard and SIS. (Canvas is better, by the way!) The first time I calculated grades for my students, my hands shook; I wanted them to get A's, but some hadn't done the work, so I'd probably have to fail them. I stressed about being unfair. I worried what would happen to these students that I had to fail. I thought about the students who worked hard all semester. Was I entering in their grades in a way that would reflect their good work?
I cried at my computer desk until a coworker (thank goodness) saw me crying and put her arm around me. I called my dad (who used to teach), and he talked me through it. I got them done in time, but this first experience in calculating grades has never entirely left me.
My students' grades are important to me. I'm glad I've developed a better way of calculating grades because my students can know where they stand earlier on in the semester... and maybe do something about it. However, there are a lot of students, I've learned, who, unfortunately, don't think about (or care about) their grades until it's too late.
STUDENTS WHO CHALLENGE THEIR GRADES
Again, it's something they didn't teach me in my Master's degree. We never had a unit on "what to do or say if a student is unhappy with his/her grade." Thankfully, when I started teaching, I had a roommate offer this important mantra: Teachers don't give grades; students earn them.
I inhale this statement every time I calculate grades and/or conference with students about grades. I've put it in my email signature, adding the phrase: I'm here to help you earn the best grade possible. Because that's how I see my job as instructor.
I want my students to earn good grades. I can't force them. I can't make them do it. But I reach out as best I can throughout the semester. I've developed a "how to calculate your own grade" handout so they can experience the kind of hard work I go through every time I sit down to enter in grades. (I think students think I randomly pick a grade for them.) I'm not sure how many students utilize this resource, but I make it available at the beginning, the middle and the end of the semester. Luckily, math talks. Most of these upset students do the math at home (or with me), and they gulp the news down okay. They may not be happy with it and try to get me to accept late work (which I don't), but they, at least, understand where the grade came from.
The majority of the students that argue their grades with me are Arabic. I didn't understand why for a long time, but I finally learned an Arabic concept. For many of the Middle East countries, they have what they call wasta which is loosely translated as "nepotism" or "who you know." They often feel that they can negotiate or "talk" their way into the grade they want. It works in their country. Why not in the USA? I remember that a teacher at the intensive program I started at had a mug that said, "NO WASTA." She'd put that on her desk during finals week as a reminder that that's not how it works here.
I seem to always forget it in the heat of the moment, but there's also another Arabic phrase that helps students to accept their grades. That is Inshallah, which means, "if God wills it." It is something that tells them that it's "out of my hands now," which it is when they're asking the last day what they can do to get the grade they want. I always tell them that's a great question... for 8 or 9 weeks ago. It's too late now. Sorry. Inshallah.
Hubby is quick to point out sob stories to me. I'm getting better at it, but I tend to believe that my students don't lie. (I know, weird, huh?) The problem with sob stories is that even if they're true, there's usually not much I can do to help, especially if a student didn't communicate about it earlier in the semester. I often want to ask, "Why is this just now being brought up, the last day of the semester?" I get sob stories from all cultures, by the way. And they just make me feel horrible because, like I said, there's usually nothing I can do about them. I hate it.
There are probably other things that I wasn't taught about teaching, but grading and conferencing with unhappy students was the number one thing that I realized quickly that I never learned in grad school. The rest--- tweaking lesson plans, building rubrics, crafting assignments, etc.--- is talked about but just needs practice. I complain a lot about teaching to hubby, poor guy, but the truth is--- I love teaching! It's probably one of the most important professions. I'm a little biased, but it's true.
In all my years of studying to become an ESL teacher, not once did they teach me how I should calculate grades and what to do if a student challenges his/her grade.
The thing I struggled with in my teaching (probably the most) was figuring out grades. If I could just teach, and students could just learn and not have to worry about grades (and specifically not having to conference with students that earned an F in my class)--- I'd enjoy teaching more. It's the number one thing that I dislike about my job, and it probably has to do with the fact that no one ever taught me how to do it.
I'm not going all hippie on you (don't worry). I'm not saying that we should do away with the standard grading system, which at the college I work for is:
90-100% = A
80-90% = B
70-80% = C
60-70% = D
< 60% = F
Grades motivate students. They inform advisors what kind of scores they earned in the past and/or what subjects they struggle with, and it's a way to earn scholarships, etc. That's all pretty straight forward. Let's not change that.
I'm not a fan of the math, but even that isn't too bad if I have a clear plan for how many points I want to award each assignment, which, until recently, I didn't.
When I started teaching, I just made up assignments as I went, assessing my students on what I taught (which they did teach me to do in my Master's degree!) whenever I felt like I needed to know if they were learning things. I'd usually try to keep the points simple, like 10 , 50 , or 100 points, depending on how crucial I thought the assignment should be. Then, at the end of the semester, I'd add up all these assignments, plug them into Canvas or Blackboard, and bam! there's my students' grades. It took a long time because I'd do a lot of "little" assignments, and my eyes would get crossed from looking at the computer screen for so long. Thank goodness for Hubby who read my grades off for me (which I always recorded by hand).
About two years into teaching, I decided I needed a better way to calculate grades because students often wanted to know where they stood not only at the end of the semester, but in the middle or at any point, so I started plugging in all these assignments into Canvas/Blackboard earlier. Every Thursday or Friday, I'd spend a good hour or two plugging them in.
In a way, this was better because I was spreading out the data entry, but I still felt like I wasn't very accurate in grading. I always felt like I could do better. I felt like I was doing it the "hard way," but I had never been taught any way to calculate grades, let alone a simpler or better way to do it.
The 1,000 Points System
I'm embarrassed to admit, but it was only last year that I decided at the beginning of a semester to have a total set number of points to award my students. Hubby suggested 1,000. It's a good large number, but not too difficult to work with mathematically.
This has allowed me to say stuff like, well--- writing projects are super important, so I'll have all of their essays (collectively) add up to 450 or 500 points. Participation is important, but shouldn't outweigh their writing because the majority of objectives for this class is writing, so I'll have that worth 100 points, etc. I could confidently tell my students up front that they would be working towards 1,000 points. It made it easier for them to calculate their own grades, which was really great!
I still did quite a bit of data entry, but I soon learned to cluster assignments in this way, so students could see where each assignment belonged (i.e participation or writing project, etc.).
I still don't like the math, but it seems a lot more manageable and more accurate as well. Now that I had figured out a 1,000 point system, I just needed to learn how to deal with those students that wanted to argue their grade. That is, also, something I didn't learn before jumping into teaching... READ PART 2.