[Smt-talk] criterion-referenced grading

Kris Shaffer kshaffer at csuniv.edu
Tue Mar 13 09:56:21 PDT 2012

Thanks for your thoughts!

First, regarding the 4-point scale, I make it clear to the students that they are not percentages, and they do not get averaged as such. A preponderance of 3s is a C, half 3s and half 4s is a B, and a preponderance of 4s is an A. While many students mix 3s and 4s, or 2s and 3s (so far), few have all 3s. Part of that is that students don't have equal mastery of all topics—and that's important to know when prepping and to reflect when grading. The ones who will end up with all 3s are those who had a mix of 2s and 3s late in the term and pull their 2s up at the end. The fact that most students have uneven knowledge and that some of my categories are really easy (notation software) or covered early and built on continually (functional bass) mean that most passing students have at least a few 4s.

As a result, I am finding this system pushing students away from C, towards B (for those who get it all, but get it late) or D (for those students who don't get some of it). (C or better is required to take the next level at CSU.) And when formerly C students have a D on their midterm report, they can see the specific categories that need addressing, and several of them have already fixed those problems in the last three weeks. In fact, I posted a projected midterm letter grade a week before midterm grades were due, and several students took advantage of that week to redo a few assignments and prep hard for their sight-singing exam. That work actually brought two students with a D up to B+ in that week.

Second, so far no matter what I do, I always have a few students at CSU who don't show up and don't turn in work. We have an automatic FA grade (failure for absences) for someone who misses 25% of class meetings (3 tardies count as an absence), and most of those students who half-heartedly take the course FA. For the few that show up frequently enough but don't turn in homework, I decided (along with my chair) not to penalize them. If they know the material (they have to demonstrate that sufficiently—and with a dozen-ish categories, that's not a trivial amount of work to do) and are sufficiently ready to take the next course in the sequence, it doesn't do anyone any good to make them take it again. In any case, assigning zeroes and reduced grades to missing and late homework and factoring that into the final grade did not prevent student laziness last semester, but it did mean grades of C or B in the end for people who had B or A knowledge by the end.

Lastly, I think we do have a difference in philosophy from what you said in your last paragraph. If a student works hard but doesn't get the material, I am setting them up to fail the next course in the sequence if I give them a B or C because of their effort and let them continue. I'm not comfortable doing that. Further, if a large enough chunk of the class are in that category, the next course in the sequence is severely hindered. And while weighing later assignments more than earlier can address some of the concerns about assessing final results, I've always found that it takes too much number juggling (which I've never got exactly right—and which probably should be different for each student), and that that number juggling was simply an attempt on my part to match the results of a criterion-referenced system while using another system. It also led my students to focus on numbers and formulas, rather than mastery of knowledge and skills, and when I wasn't succumbing to that myself, I was fighting it in them. The closest I've got to that this term with the criterion-referenced system is repeating my explanations about what constitutes passing knowledge in given categories. I'd much rather talk about what they need to know than what numbers they need to get to pass the class.

I'm sympathetic with the desire to reward effort, but it really is important to make sure the students have what they need to succeed in the next semester before we let them go on. And as I mentioned in the original post, this system keeps me honest as well, and focuses my energy on the topics where the class (those doing the work, anyway) are struggling most.  However, a compromise may be possible if weighted averages are not calculated for each assignment type (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.) but for each course objective category (sight-singing, dictation, transcription, etc.; or pitch, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation, etc.). That way, when a student asks how to bring up their average, we can say "bring up your counterpoint average" rather than "score an A on the next three homework assignments, whatever they are." It would also make it clear to the instructor which topics need the most attention class-wide.

Thanks for your thoughts and questions. It's helpful for me as I'm thinking things through for the future, and hopefully for others as well.

Kris Shaffer, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
Charleston Southern University
twitter: @krisshaffer

PS If you comment on the blog posts, then folks on and off the SMT list can follow the discussion. (Though I'm happy to reply to you here!)

On Mar 13, 2012, at 11:48 AM, Brian Hoffman wrote:

> While I like this in principle, it leaves me with a couple of questions based on the type of students I've encountered:  
> 1. With a point system out of 4, a student's options for passing are 75% or 100%.  It seems as though this has the potential of taking traditional B students and making them C students through the type of math you're trying to avoid. (E.g., a student that would get a lot of 83s in traditional grading would not likely be strong enough to deserve the highest 4/4 mastery of an area. So, lots of 3/4's takes that B down to a C).
> 2. If you are mostly concerned with a student's level at the end of the course (which makes sense), how do you treat the student that doesn't come to class very often or turn in assignments, but at the end of the semester is able to exhibit a passing (or higher) ability in each of the categories?  
> For better or worse, I have always tried to favor the effort categories (homework/attendance) slightly over the performance categories (midterm/final) so that a student that shows up every day and does his/her homework consistently can get a high C/low B despite comprehension problems. Alternately, a student that has the ability to not do much work but still do very well on tests is penalized for not doing the full work required of the class. I accommodate positive changes in performance by weighting later assessments more than earlier ones. 
> Thank you for sharing this,
> Brian Hoffman, Ph.D. 
> Adjunct faculty,
> Miami, OH
> Xavier
> On Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 8:37 PM, Kris Shaffer <kshaffer at csuniv.edu> wrote:
> Dear Colleagues,
> I've incorporated a form of criterion-referenced grading this semester for my theory and aural skills courses, and so far it seems to be an improvement from the traditional weighted-average approach. I wrote a blog post about what we're doing and things I've observed as a result. If you're interested in reading about what we're doing at CSU, or have experiences (positive or negative) with criterion-referenced grading, please visit the post and consider leaving a comment: http://kris.shaffermusic.com/wordpress/criterion-referenced-grading/.
> I'm anxious to hear from others who have tried criterion-referenced grading, or some aspects of it, in music courses. Everything I've been able to find to read about it so far has been from other fields. (Though a couple aspects of what I've instituted were inspired by the way things were done when I was studying music at Lawrence and Yale.)
> Best,
> Kris Shaffer, Ph.D.
> Assistant Professor of Music Theory
> Charleston Southern University
> http://kris.shaffermusic.com
> twitter: @krisshaffer
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