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Revolutionizing Grading: Implications on Power, Agency, and Equity

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Bridging Content and Context in the Classroom

Tagged Divisions

Equity and Culture & Social Justice in Education

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Paper Authors


Melissa Ellen Ko Stanford University

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Dr. Melissa Ko comes to the engineering disciplines with a unique background in computational cancer biology research, discipline-based educational research, and teaching roles across multiple institutions and audiences. Melissa Ko earned an S.B. in biology from MIT and a PhD in cancer biology from Stanford University. Her graduate research developed novel computational pipelines to visualize single-cell high-dimensional data and infer patterns of change from snapshots collected across time. After transitioning to an education-focused career track, Melissa taught at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, and Foothill College. These engagements have included courses within and outside the major, aimed at undergraduates at all years, high school students, and working adults. Melissa is now the Science and Engineering Education Fellow (SEEF) for the Bioengineering department, where she works on broader educational research projects and curricular change. Her work includes trying to better understand and support student development as ethical and quantitative thinkers. Through work with Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Melissa has also developed diversity and inclusion content for instructors of in-person, online, and hybrid format classes. Melissa continues to serve as a teaching consultant with CTL and focuses on projects relating to equity.

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Even as we integrate inclusive teaching strategies and course design, the philosophy and implementation of grading continues to be a large source of inequity in higher education. Grades signal to students whether they belong within a course or degree major and dictate access to academic and career opportunities. Consequently, even in a classroom where the instructor shares decision-making power with students, grading ultimately becomes a place where instructors exercise complete power and students exhibit little agency. While efforts have focused on closing the “achievement gap” through teaching practice, the negative impact of grading on students, especially those with marginalized identities, suggests that we must interrogate how the way that we assess students could also contribute to this gap. Innovative approaches to grading have been explored in other settings, yet science and engineering disciplines often rigidly assess student performance through what they consider to be objectively designed and evaluated tasks. This practice and its underlying assumptions have historically done little to help, if not exacerbated existing inequities for students from marginalized identity groups. In this paper, we review the inequities around current practices in grading that motivate the need to change, as well as introduce several frameworks of alternative grading (e.g. contract grading, mastery grading, ungrading). In so doing, we will consider different perspectives on the purpose of grading and what we aim to evaluate in our students through their work. We will examine the importance of merit from the instructor’s view and how different interpretations of this ideal affect our students. This paper will also discuss barriers real or perceived to changing how we grade, and propose some strategies for instructors who wish to limit the effects of bias, increase a sense of agency, and ultimately empower students.

Ko, M. E. (2021, July), Revolutionizing Grading: Implications on Power, Agency, and Equity Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37687

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