Too Many Graded Assignments

Over the past few years I’ve added more and more graded activities to my classes than ever before. In a 2006 section of early music history, there were 8 total graded items on the syllabus (participation, one presentation, two quizzes, two short papers, a midterm exam, and a final exam; the final exam was worth 40% of the final grade). My 2011 section of early music history had 24 graded items (participation, 12 reflections posted to the online discussion forum, 4 quizzes, 2 tests, 2 short papers, a presentation, a midterm exam, and a final exam; the final exam was worth 20% of the final grade). My recent music theory classes had daily assignments and sight singing recordings, my music history classes had regular discussion forum postings and listening quizzes, and my world music classes had frequent vocabulary and map quizzes. My intention to increase the number of graded activities during the course of the semester was understandable: students were engaged with the material on a daily basis; I could monitor whether students were keeping up with the content; and I could assure the grade-obsessed students that their poor performance on one quiz would have minimal impact on their final average.

In light of some recent findings on student learning, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, I’ve becoming more critical of this trend. Grades, which we need to remember from time to time, are a score of performance and not always an adequate indicator of learning and the lasting impact of a course. If students can amass 60% of their final grade from low impact/low challenge activities that can be completed the night before, will they be prepared for sustained projects? How can we encourage students to conduct self-guided, regular learning habits when we prompt them with dozens of assignments? Will students be successful after graduation with few high-stake assessment measures?

One approach may be to require regular learning activities, but grade them only sporadically. I’ve applied this approach through surprise (i.e. “pop”) quizzes that permit notes (but not textbooks) or through written reflections, so that students are encouraged to read chapters regularly. Imagine an online discussion forum or quiz for each class meeting that are graded on a few random days during the semester.

Another approach is to tie a variety of learning activities toward one big “performance” in a flipped classroom. The Reacting to the Past (RTTP) gaming model inspires students to self-guide themselves through reading, writing, and problem solving exercises outside of class in order to “win.” Student performance in the classroom is assessed, but the variety of learning measures leading up to the performance are not graded.

A third approach that comes to mind is what I call “participatory homework” in my music theory classes. In addition to a handful of homework assignments that students submit in Finale, daily exercises from the workbook or Moodle are tied to attendance. Students are present in class if they have completed the preliminary work.

A gradual shift toward numerous graded assignments resembles trends in K-12 education, easing the transition to a collegiate learning environment. The intent is good; an aggregate of numerous, low-stake assessments will help more students receive passing grades. But will this lead to success in the future? Life and a competitive global marketplace will have numerous high-stake challenges. Will higher passing and graduation rates attest to the impact of an institution on student learning and post-graduation success? I suppose that depends on who answers.

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