The year after my Distinguished Faculty Lecture research project, I experimented with a radical sharing of power with students. Over the course of two semesters groups of students, called “Grading Teams,” were responsible for grading two of the four major assignments of the semester. Three grading teams comprised of four students each evaluated one assignment, according to collaboratively developed rubrics, and second set of three teams evaluated another. Guidelines for the Grading Team work are linked here.
My purpose in this experiment was two-fold. First, stemming from the success of valuing student expertise, I wanted to push students to “own” their expertise as critical readers and writers, and second, I wanted to make the role of peer feedback meaningful to students. For many students, the ultimate arbiter of their writing’s worth and, ultimately the purpose of their writing, is the grade that is assigned to the final product. I hypothesized that if students were assigning grades, not only would they read more closely and analytically, but they would also recognize their ability to do such critical work.
This experiment had mostly positive results. Unsurprisingly, most students resisted the notion of other students actually having control over their grades on their assignments. To account for this concern, I also read all of the papers to monitor whether a grading team graded too harshly. If a team assigned a grade more than 2/3 of a grade level lower than I would have assigned, I spoke with the grading team before they returned the papers. I also instituted processes of appeal in which a student could ask for a re-evaluation of their writing from a grading team other than the one that had graded their work. If eight classmates agreed on a grade for a paper, then the grade stood. If the two teams disagreed, then the higher grade was assigned. It was rare that my own evaluation was off by more than 1/3 of a grade level (e.g. B to B+, or B+ to A-) for any given assignment.
It appeared that those most opposed to the grading team experience were those students who self-identified as strong writers. Instances of conflict occurred when a student who may have had a long history of strong grades on their writing found themselves being assessed by their peers as having less than excellent writing performance. Most often, these conflicts were resolved by listening to the grading teams’ response and feedback, but occasionally, a student was not able to transcend their need for the teacher to be the only one to assign value to writing.
At the end of each semester, I assessed the Grading Team experience by asking the students for anonymous evaluation of the process and the outcomes. Each time, I told the students that their evaluations would determine whether students in my future courses would do the Grading Team process or not. In the first set of evaluations, 100% of students said they would recommend the Grading Team process. In the second, 95% of students agreed that it was difficult, but a valuable learning experience.
Ultimately, even though the Grading Team experiences mostly met the goals that I had intended for them, I decided to discontinue them because of the tension and stress that often led up to a student appreciation for them. I decided to take another route to enabling students to own their rhetorical expertise.