My grading system (which I adapted from Mark Hammond and Kelly O’Shea) deems some concepts as core, which means if you can’t demonstrate mastery of one of these concepts by the time to report grades, you have to fail. And I don’t care how many partial differential equations with dirichlet boundary conditions you can solve. Here’s how I rationalize it: one of my essential skills is knowing the difference between a vector and a scalar. And this is critical, because when your friend has had it with life, and is standing on the edge of a building, you really need to be able to say “please take 1 step in the backward direction,” Instead of “Just take a step.” Or, it’s like understanding the difference between right and left for a hand surgeon. He might be able to do the best median nerve dissection you’ve ever seen, but if you’re on the table, and he says, “Now let me see, the left hand makes a L, right, or is that the Right hand?”, you’d probably get up and walk out of the OR.

Really cool random interjection—I just discovered from this awesome  NYT article on how language shapes the brain, some languages don’t have the concept of left and right. They only have ordinal (N,S,E,W) directions, so your “right hand” when you are looking north, is the “hand that east of your body” and crazily, you can take adults raised in this culture, put them in a foreign place they’ve never seen before, spin them around 20 times, and they can point north. The brain is awesome. Language is awesome.

When we discuss it like this, kids get it, nod, and think it makes sense. Then they want to imagine the hypothetical student with 3’s on everything, and 2.5 on the essential topic, and they have a hard time thinking that student should fail, but then I say “hand surgeon” and they snap back, but I also remind them, this hypothetical hand surgeon and student don’t exist. They’d have to be willfully stupid to learn everything in the course and not figure out the difference between a vector and a scalar.

But that means nothing when you are the student who forgot units on a A-level problem, and got dinged with a 2. And as I’ve established, my students are pretty fixed mindset, Grades are the thing—for some, the only thing. Though they are working on it.

So knowing all this, you would think the most stupid move I could make would be to take a student and get him to really internalize the fact that technically he isn’t passing yet. But that’s what I did. Hall of Fame of Dumb Ideas (HOFODI).

I decided to use the 3rd weekly feedback (when kids have taken a total of two mini-assessments and one assessment on CVPM) to have them survey where they are in terms of grades. Of course, I thought these are the best scores I’ve ever seen on this stuff this early in the year, and I told them that when I gave back the assessments a week ago. But, I wanted them to begin to think about the things they still need to improve, (“I don’t want them to be surprised” I said). So I dashed of this webassign assignment that had them walk through the process of tallying up their grades, and determining where, at this ridiculously early point in the year, their grade would be. (I wasn’t even thinking that if I get a kid thinking technically he’s failing for not understanding the difference between scalar and vector,  that he might begin to think he might be ruled academically ineligible). Dumb dumb dumb.

So here’s some of the scorching feedback I got in webassign:

Me: Based on this information, determine what your grade would be right now, at this ridiculously early point in time.

Student:

 65-I think this is ridiculous! How can you fail me for having a 2.5 on two concepts? I don’t care if I sound like I am on the stress track or have a fixed mindset. Grades matter, they simply matter. I understand that you want us to know all of the basics, but to fail us in the entire course for a 2.5 on an A concept is extreme. I really want you to give us a chance to come into backwork and explain our understanding before you fail us. If you are to grade us in such an abstract way, I think you need to make sure we have the basics down pat. I am not trying to be rude, but I am strongly opinionated about this.

And this reminds me of why I really like these weekly feedbacks in webassign, hard as they can be to face, especially when I know class is on the wrong trajectory, and have to read 40 students hinting at the same thing. Asking these questions every week really helps me to get to know my students, helps them to open up and share with me, and helps us both to diffuse small issues that come up before they become big problems.

Of course, this still leaves my bigger question un-resloved: If I plan to stick with this grading method, and can make it fair–so that a kid doesn’t suddenly fail for missing a vector sign on the last test (he could always reassess this in 20 seconds), how do I help kids who really only want to know their grades focus not on what their grade is now, but what they can do to get to the grade they want.