25 April 2013

Competency-Based Grading in Introductory Political Science Courses

Last night’s discussion on #fycchat was, appropriately for this time of year, about grading. I briefly mentioned, in response to a thread between Lee Skallerup and Jessica Nastral about grading anxiety, that I have experimented with a system of competency-based grading in my introductory political science courses. That generated some interest, so I’ll elaborate here.

The approach is an alternative to the traditional accumulation of points approach. That, it seems to me, assumes that the difference between an A student and a C student was knowing 20% more content. That, to me, never really made sense; it seems more like an A student should be able to do things a C student can’t. Accumulation of points reduces learning to mastery of the lowest levels of Bloom’s cognitive domain: knowledge and comprehension. Especially when I have more knowledge in my pocket than my college professors had in their heads collectively, learning should be about moving students to higher levels of the cognitive domain, teaching them to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

The competency-based approach that I use starts from the course objectives rather than the assignments (which, if assignments are about assessing learning, every course should do). The objectives are framed in two dimensions: course content and course skills. The course skills are based on being able to use content at increasingly higher levels of Bloom’s cognitive domain. From my Introduction to Comparative Politics Syllabus:
Core Concepts. Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to demonstrate comprehension of and the ability to apply, analyze, and evaluate the following:
  • The basic methods of reasoning and analysis in comparative politics
  • The ideas through which comparative politics understands states, societies, and economies across regime types. 
  • The practices and structures that differentiate democratic and non-democratic regimes. 
  • The processes of political development and revolution.
  • The politics and recent political history of one Arab country in the Middle East or North Africa. 
Course Competencies. Students who satisfactorily complete this course will demonstrate the following skills with regard to the core concepts studied:
  1. Professionalism in the performance of their duties. 
  2. Comprehension of the core concepts of the course. 
  3. The ability to apply those core concepts such that they can understand, give explanations for, and develop responses to political practices, situations, and outcomes in national politics across different types of political systems. 
  4. The ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate those core concepts, both in themselves and in practice, such that they can add original material to those concepts.
I then design assignments to assess a specific competency. Comprehension is assessed with simple, open-book reading quizzes; I’m not really testing whether the students know content off the top of their heads but whether they can understand content that they find in whatever resources they’re using. That especially makes sense in comparative politics; the odds that students will ever need to remember the legislative process in France are slim but the odds that they’ll need to look up the legislative process in a foreign country and understand what they find are more substantial. The other assignments test progressively more demanding competencies. All are graded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory/failing basis.
Assignments. All students will complete the following assignments:
  • Professionalism. Students must complete all assignments in good faith, on time, and in compliance with the ethical standards of scholarship in order to demonstrate mastery of competency 1. Submission of work that does not demonstrate a good faith effort to complete the assignment as required or that includes undocumented outside sources (whether or not in violation of academic conduct policies) in an assignment will constitute failure to demonstrate mastery of this competency. 
  • Quizzes. For each unit of the course, there will be an online quiz of 10 questions. The quiz is based strictly on the readings for the course. It may be completed at any time before the date specified below, and is open-book. A satisfactory score is eight correct answers. Satisfactory completion of quizzes demonstrates mastery of competency 2. 
  • Essay Exams. Students will complete two out-of-class essay exams. Each essay will require students to explain a concept studied in the course and apply that concept to explain or predict the outcome of a political case. The concept and the case will be defined in the question, and material about the case will accompany the question. A satisfactory essay will adequately explain the concept using course material and apply it to make an effective explanation of the case. A failing essay is one that does not reflect a good faith effort to complete the requirements of the assignment on time. Satisfactory completion of essays demonstrates mastery of competency 3. 
  • Country Study. Students will complete one country study as part of the larger class project examining the Arab Spring. The project will require students to explain a concept studied in the course, identify a hypothesis following from the concept regarding how the Arab Spring would be expected to progress in their chosen country of expertise, and determine the extent to which the course of the Arab Spring in that country supports the hypothesis. The paper will require outside research. Satisfactory completion of the country study demonstrates mastery of competency 3. 
  • Group Paper. Building on the country studies, students will, in groups, prepare a paper and class presentation developing a general theory explaining why the Arab Spring took different courses in different countries and testing that theory with respect to their countries of expertise. The paper is expected to be a single, coherent essay and not a collection of separate pieces. Students will receive a common grade for their entire group. Satisfactory completion of the group paper demonstrates mastery of competency 4. 
This translates into a straightforward grading system. Satisfactory completion of assignments allows a clear determination of achievement at each course competency. Each successively more demanding course competency is associated with a higher grade. Course grades thus indicate the ability to use the material in higher levels of the cognitive domain:
Course Grades. Grades will be assigned based on demonstrated mastery of competencies as follows: 
A. Student has demonstrated mastery of all competencies by, in addition to meeting all requirements for a B grade, receiving a satisfactory grade on the group paper and presentation. 
B. Student has demonstrated mastery of competencies 1-3 by, in addition to meeting all requirements for a C grade, receiving a satisfactory grade on both essay exams and the country study. 
C. Student has demonstrated mastery of competencies 1 and 2 by, in addition to meeting all requirements for a D grad, passing all quizzes. 
D. Student has demonstrated mastery of competency 1 and minimal mastery of competency 2 by passing six quizzes and receiving at least an unsatisfactory grade on all written assignments.
So far I’ve had positive feedback on this system, though I have no systematic evidence that students find it more useful. There is some confusion at first due to unfamiliarity, I think, but as students catch on they like the idea that their grades actually mean something concrete and don’t hinge on marginal differences in points. They’ve also said that they focus more on the big picture of both readings and assignments rather than on details that might shift their grade a few points. It does seem to me that students have done a better job of writing to the question rather than on the topic generally when I’ve used this; I don’t know if that’s because they are focused on the meeting the standard rather than maximizing points by putting everything they know about the topic on the page, but that seems a reasonable hypothesis.

Some students have said that they didn’t put in as much effort into assignments dealing with higher competencies because they’d be happy with an unsatisfactory score and a B or C in the course. But that’s fine with me. Students need to learn to prioritize their efforts, and that prioritizing comes with accepting less impressive outcomes on lower priorities. I think this helps them do that.

At the same time it makes my life easier when grading. I don’t need to think about whether an assignment is an 85 or an 88, only whether it constitutes a good-faith effort and meets the standard I defined in the syllabus. I can grade much faster that way (especially at the end of the term when students aren’t concerned with comments) and I can direct my comments to the interesting issues rather than to justifying every point not awarded. I also don’t have to worry about haggling for a couple of marginal points: if the assignment is unsatisfactory, there’s a pretty clear reason for it.

I also allow revision and resubmission of assignments. Partially that’s because every assignment would be make-or-break if I didn’t, but mostly because I believe that revision is the best tool for learning from an assignment. The competency-based system, with clear standards for each grade, makes that more workable. I can focus my detailed comments on the students who will actually put them to good use, discussing the assignments personally with the students who intend to revise and directing them to the standard rather than the minutiae. The revision process gives all students an incentive to take the comments seriously since they can make a major improvement in their grades on that assignment rather than making a marginal improvement or waiting for the next assignment and trying to generalize comments from previous work that they may not have really understood.

One thing that I think has to be done to make this work is to have rigorous standards. This could very much lend itself to grade inflation if your standard for an A is something that you think everyone should meet. I haven’t tried this in an upper-level course yet, but this would be especially so there. I could even be talked into dropping everything down a grade for courses at that level: comprehension alone is a D, application is necessary for a C, analysis and synthesis gets a B, and a serious critical evaluation of ideas is necessary for an A. That said, I think the points approach doesn’t avoid this problem; it only hides it behind the idea that each point not awarded is a deduction from 100% due to some problem, making mere satisfaction rather than excellence the standard.

Of course I only have locally-sourced, artisanal data anecdotal evidence that this works. I’d love to see others’ experiences with anything like this, and especially some actual research on it (though that presents a nightmare of a control problem, to be sure). I have heard of it being used in some other disciplines, primarily ones where there are relatively clear professional competencies such as education, accounting, or nursing. But I think this has good potential in the social sciences and humanities as well. Let me know if you attempt something like this.