Paralegal studies professor Jesse Raskin, JD, challenges popular beliefs about grading to promote student motivation and deeper learning.
Professor of Paralegal Studies,Skyline College in San Bruno, California
JD, Teaching Credential (Education), BA in Sociology and Anthropology
On his first day as a professor, Jesse Raskin, JD, took a tour of his new department. “I was told, ‘Here’s the Scantron machine—that’s for grading your assignments,’” recalls Raskin, who is an associate professor of paralegal studies at Skyline College in San Bruno, California.
Raskin was fine with the idea at first: After all, he had more than 100 students and wanted to provide them with timely test results. But the more Raskin thought about it, the more he wondered if there was a better way. “The Scantron machine is just one example of how so many things at the college are set up to work a certain way, and we don’t question them,” he says.
For example, he wondered whether the scale of 0% to 100% provided an accurate gauge of understanding. He also started to question whether extra-credit work was unfair to students who did not have time for a bigger workload, such as those with children or jobs. And he began to worry whether some types of grading were actually demotivating for students. “Our traditional grading system frequently searches for fault in a student’s work rather than searching for positives,” he says.
In response to these (and other) concerns—and a desire to promote student success—Raskin decided to put his grading practices through a “fairness” test. Below, he shares the approaches he has developed as a result.
“A lot of the widespread grading practices out there put students at a disadvantage and are unfair to groups traditionally disadvantaged in higher education, as well as to working students, parents, and others who have significant responsibilities beyond their studies. In using the traditional grading system, educators become gatekeepers to opportunity. By interrupting these traditional practices, and the way of thinking that underlies them, we can instead support students who seek success in college, career, and beyond.”
-Jesse Raskin, JD
Course: ADMJ 104 Concepts of Criminal Law
Course description: Historical development and philosophy of criminal law and constitutional provisions. Special emphasis on legal definitions, the classifications of crime and their application to the administration of justice system. Study of case law, methodology, and concepts of law as a social force.
Raskin’s do’s and don’ts for more equitable grading
Raskin has devised an array of solutions that he has found to be more fair to all students—as well as more accurate as an assessment of their learning overall.
Here are some of his tips:
DO link grades to meaningful learning objectives
When Raskin compared his grading with his course’s learning objectives, he realized the two were out of sync. “I started to look at what I was grading and why, and I saw that some things were truly arbitrary,” he admits.
These days, Raskin’s assignments come with a detailed rubric rooted in the course learning objectives as well as a sample of passing work. “I want my students to be totally clear on why they are doing any particular assessment or assignment,” he explains.
DON’T look at student names during grading
To prevent unconscious bias from skewing his grading, Raskin uses the built-in anonymous grading feature in his course management software to remove student names. But any educator can use this same strategy by assigning each student a random ID number to put on their paper, then consulting a key when it comes time to enter grades.
“If I don’t have student names while I’m grading an assignment, it gives me much more of a chance to step back from my biases around race, gender, or just how the student presents themselves in class,” says Raskin.
DO abandon the 0-to-100 scoring model
In this “classic” grading model, everything up to a 69 is a failing grade. “That means that failure is the most likely outcome,” explains Raskin. To create a bias toward success instead, Raskin adopted a 0-to-4 grading system.
“I had to give myself a way to really know and thus be able to justify to any student why they were given any particular grade,” says Raskin. “A 0-to-4 model made the grades I give more accurate and clearer to students, too.” In this system, each number equates to a level of proficiency—the quality, amount, or level of work that was done by the student.
“Each number, 0-4, in this system is linked to clear written standards for proficiency,” Raskin explains. The standards are provided along with the assignment and range from “assignment does not meet any of the standards for proficiency” to “assignment exceeds the standards for proficiency.” Raskin adds, “It is a very rare that a student can demonstrate no learning, and thus it is very rare that I ever give a grade of ‘assignment does not meet any of the standards for proficiency.’ When I do, the student always has the opportunity to rewrite to demonstrate additional learning and earn more points.”
DON’T score a missed assignment as a zero
Giving students points for an assignment they did not submit may seem unfair to students who actually did the work, but Raskin takes a contrary view. Grades, he explains, are supposed to reflect whether or not the student learned the material. “By not turning something in, they haven’t demonstrated that they haven’t done the learning,” he says. “They just also haven’t demonstrated that they have done the learning.”
For this reason, Raskin gives students a 2 instead of a 0 if an assignment is not turned in. This way, their grade for the course will not drop a whole letter grade—which would be very demotivating for students who are otherwise doing well.
DO weight grades more heavily as the semester goes on
Raskin believes that, early in the semester, students are still learning how a professor operates and how a class really functions. For that reason, he makes assignments worth more as the semester progresses. (For example, he might double the possible points per proficiency level to 0, 2, 4, 6, and 8 for an assignment.) “This way, you’ve given students a chance to learn how your class works,” he says. “They’ve picked up on the way you’ve socialized them at that point, and so you’re grading less on that and more on the course content.”
DON’T give extra credit
Raskin sees extra-credit assignments as inherently unfair. “If you’re working a job or taking care of a child or an elderly parent, you won’t get the same grade as the students are who are doing extra-credit work,” says Raskin.
Instead, Raskin believes in an assignment policy that supports students in learning and achieving success. Quite simply, he encourages students to submit an assignment repeatedly until they are satisfied with the grade. Most students, after going through a process of multiple revisions once or twice, quickly decide that they would rather submit higher-quality work early in the process.
The goal of this and his other grading policies is straightforward. “It all goes back to fairness,” he says.
DO steer students toward additional resources as needed
It should come as no surprise that Raskin does not deduct points for grammatical errors on papers, since teaching grammar is not a learning objective. “Some students have had explicit training in grammar and others have not,” explains Raskin. “Grading on grammar means I’m rewarding students for their cultural capital, which puts some students at a disadvantage from the get-go.”
But Raskin does not believe in ignoring grammatical errors, either. “I tell them that the content was great, but I want them to work on formatting or mechanics, then I give them the contact information for the writing center,” Raskin says. “I believe my role is, in part, to help direct resources to the students who most need them.”