How Do I Grade Explore Projects?

Recently, I had a question about the Explore Project assignment that I have used in one of my Masters classes and, most recently, in my Politics of Reading class. The question was really a statement that I’m going to rework into question format (so this isn’t a direct quote. i’ve put it into my own words):

How do you grade Explore projects or how would you grade them in a setting that has a traditional grading system?

First, let me say that although I might present some ideas that are non-traditional, I functional within a very traditional system. I had a conversation with someone recently who said that while universities like to say they want creativity and new ideas, they really don’t. Most don’t provide the structures – be it through creating new ones or abolishing old ones – that allow innovative ideas to flourish. That’s a whole other post, but I want to be clear that I function within a pretty standard setting which includes a traditional grading system.

A traditional grading system at the university level simply means that at the end of the semester I have to assign an overall grade. For my masters class, there are three options:

H= High Pass

P = Pass

L = Low Pass

The final grade is an accumulation of a collection of assignments. But, how does one go about getting a grade of an H on an Explore Project? When you read my posts, I don’t talk about grades at all. In fact, after the first day of class I try to avoid the conversation about grades unless I am explicitly asked.

Why is that?

Keep in mind that the Explore Project is about exploring an idea. It is not about mastery. It is about having a question and then having let gothat question lead to other questions and simply going into more depth with an area of interest to the learner. To fully engage with the Explore Project, students have to take risks. These risks include:

  • letting go of traditional norms/assumptions about what it means to do a project
  • accepting that there is no real end for the project
  • being ok with struggles/failures/things not going as planned during the project
  • potentially operating on a very basic plan that shifts a lot based on what happens during the project

I can’t tell anyone how a project will go. I can only tell them to identify something they want to learn about and start exploring it. I cannot tell anyone what it means to explore. I will not operationalize the term explore. I can give suggestions and recommend resources, but I will not define a student’s path for them.

Given all of this, I cannot provide a perfect set-up for grading. For example, when I ask students to blog, I can quantify things a bit. I can tell them:

  • what the minimum number of posts is they need for a semester
  • what the word length of a post should be
  • how often to post

and so on….

Explore Projects don’t allow me to quantify. Or at least I think they would be destroyed if I tried to quantify them. BUT, I still have to put a grade on a report card at the end of the semester so I had to come up with something. Here’s what I did:

To Get A High Pass

A High Pass would be the equivalent of an A. If you want the High Pass, then you have to do the following:

  • decide on a topic by the assigned date (+5 points)
  • post your topic on our class chart on the class wiki (this way, we all know what we are all working on which can promote some collaboration) (+5 points)
  • participate in 4/5 class work sessions. class work sessions are just what they sound like. we work on the project in class. these occurred five times during the semester, but I understand that someone could be out one of those days. (+4 points or +5 if you do it five times – consider it an extra credit point)
  • participate in 4/5 sharing sessions. students need to regularly share their work and have it discussed by their peers (same as before)
  • present your project using whatever guidelines we developed as a class. (+10)

gradesSo really, this is mostly a giant participation grade. You could, I suppose, raise questions about quality and you would be right to do so. Except that I had no issues with quality when doing this with the masters class or the undergrad in the Politics of Reading. I am operating on the assumption that this is because the projects were meaningful and relevant to their needs and interests. I was also never bored during a presentation. I say that because I get bored during most in-class presentations.

For a student to not get a high pass they simply do less of the work outlined above. For example, if they are late on deciding on a topic I would deduct points. They received one point for every work session and one point for every share so the fewer of these they participate in the fewer points they receive.

Basically, I simply identify the key behaviors I expect students to participate in and then make sure that those behaviors are defined. If they engage in the behavior, they get the points. If not, then they don’t. You can do the exact same thing but scale it up or down to fit your class. Or come up with something else that works better for you.

I really do try however to not emphasize the grades for this project and to focus heavily on the process. People tend to get nervous that there isn’t a solid floor beneath their feet (others love it for this exact same reason!). People are used to being told exactly what to produce for a project. I am not doing that here. If I don’t want my students hung up on trying to create what I want in order to give them an A then I have to back down on how I grade. This might make you nervous, but I promise it’s a very freeing process for both myself and the students. If you go this route, you will likely need to emphasize to your students to trust both you and the process. You may have to reassure them that they are doing what they need to do by letting go and not being too hung up on a step-by-step framework.

It’s worth it.


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