While the concept of “grades” was introduced during the Industrial Revolution, the way we think about grades and grading has changed very little since then. Most notably, grades continue to have the unfortunate effect of training student attention to the grades themselves rather than on the act of learning.
As one student said, “Grades don’t measure understanding. They measure compliance.” With grades and their meaning entrenched in the academic psyche and codified into policy and practice, reconsidering a grading system in a course is an act of courage. However, the University of California, Irvine (UCI), in partnership with San Jose State University (SJSU) and Cal Poly Pomona (CPP), received a California Learning Lab grant to establish a cohort-based faculty development program to do just that.
The Teaching Experiment Academy (TEA) specifically targets faculty teaching undergraduate STEM courses and encourages them to re-envision grading structures to enhance learning. The goal of the TEA is to assist faculty in redesigning the STEM curriculum with a mastery learning structure and specifications grading approach in mind. Mastery learning refers to an instructional strategy that aims to personalize learning experiences based on each student’s appropriate level. Students must achieve a level of mastery in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. Specifications grading is an alternative approach to grading that aims to motivate students to focus on learning and improving their abilities. By combining the pass/fail structure with the opportunity to revise work, specifications grading offers instructors a way to uphold high academic standards while incentivizing students to take control of their own learning.
According to Megan Linos, primary investigator for the TEA, the course redesign process is a critical step in changing STEM education for the better. Because STEM education is being transformed by a combination of pedagogical innovation and emerging technologies, rethinking grades and grading systems is a necessary step in fully employing new knowledge about how students learn and succeed. Linos says:
“We hope to foster the development of growth mindsets in STEM students by providing opportunities for them to master their own learning. This is why we designed this program to help faculty reimagine their courses with a new grading structure that increases student confidence in STEM learning.”
The TEA launched in early July 2021, with 40 STEM faculty from three institutions (17 from UCI) completing a 10-day boot camp focused on redesigning courses using mastery learning and specifications grading. UCI faculty member Renée Link, along with two other faculty recently graduated from UCI, William Howitz (Georgia Tech) and Kate McKnelly (Emory University), served as trainers for the program. In addition to the program trainers, each participant was paired with a peer coach and instructional designer to discuss pedagogical design matters during the course redesign process.
During the bootcamp, the cohort worked together to explore ways to redesign their courses to implement mastery learning and specifications grading structure. The process began by examining course alignment between learning objectives and assessments. Then, the cohort worked to design courses utilizing a specifications grading structure to incentivize student agency and to reward students for using positive learning strategies. Canvas outcomes, assignment rubrics, and Gradescope assessments were introduced as technological tools that would help faculty implement the new grading system and track student progress.
Participating faculty will continue working with UCI faculty member Steve Mang along with seven other peer coaches from SJSU and CPP to redesign their courses to be delivered during the 2021-22 academic year. Participants will also be invited to join monthly Faculty Learning Community (FLC) gatherings to check in on the redesign progress, exchange teaching experience, and discuss challenges and issues raised during the implementation of the new grading structure.
The project team will share the TEA experience at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) virtual conference on Transforming STEM Higher Education in November 2021 and will help other peer institutions to clone the TEA program on their campuses. Faculty who are interested in learning more about mastery specifications grading can watch the TEA mini-webinar recordings presented by national faculty experts. In addition, the DTEI will extend the mastery specifications grading training to non-STEM faculty during the 2022 Summer Digital Learning Institute. For more questions or comments about the TEA, contact DTEIsupport@uci.edu.