S3xE1: Alternative Grading with Brett Wortzman and Kevin Lin
In a two-part episode series, we talk with Kevin Lin and Brett Wortzman from the University of Washington about alternative grading practices. In this episode, we focus on the purposes and goals of grading and discuss different types of grading systems. We dig into the philosophy of Kevin and Brett’s grading approach, how it can work in very large courses, and how to get buy-in from students on an unfamiliar system. Kevin mentions the importance of focusing on equity and defining what exactly that means, and Brett emphasizes that grading should align with the course’s learning outcomes. We close by thinking about what we can hope to gain by implementing a new grading system and who our choices impact. Be sure to listen to part two as well!
Edited by Brett Wortzman
You can also download this episode directly.
Kristin [00:00] Hello and welcome to the CS-Ed Podcast, a podcast where we talk about teaching computer science with computer science educators. We’ve decided to start something new. Rather than a season with a clear number of episodes, we’ve picked the theme and we’ll run with it until we run out. This season’s theme is “What’s Next?”, where we focus on how we’ve rethought our teaching since COVID-19 came and upended everything. I am your host Kristin Stephens-Martinez, a professor at the practice at Duke University, and this is actually the first of two episodes with two guests. We’re going to talk about alternative grading, and the topic is just too big to fit into a single episode, so we’ve got not only two guests, but two episodes. With me are Brett Wortzman and Kevin Lin. And so how about Brett? You can introduce yourself first.
Brett [00:50] Hi, Kristin. My name is Brett Wortzman. I use he/him pronouns. I’m an assistant teaching professor at the Allen School at the University of Washington in Seattle. My primary focus is on teaching our large CS1 course CSE 142, that has anywhere between 400 and 1,000 students per quarter, depending on the quarter. I’m also involved in a lot of our CS teacher training, CS pedagogy, and kind of practical CS education efforts that we’re just starting to develop here.
Kristin [01:19] Cool. Kevin, how about you?
Kevin [01:21] Hi, my name is Kevin Lin. I’m also an assistant teaching professor in the Allen School, together with Brett. And my interests are thinking about instructional innovation in the follow-up course to what Brett just mentioned, teaching. So I have taught CSE 143 before, as well as some of the follow-up courses to that. You can think of it as like basic data structures as well as data programming, so thinking about data science courses and machine learning courses as well. My interests are focused mostly around thinking about how can we actually design our classrooms so that they’re more supportive of our diverse students. And what does it actually mean to create classroom spaces that not only just enable students to be in the classroom, but also to allow them to really to thrive?
Kristin [02:00] Cool. So that kind of in some ways can segway straight into our topic which is alternative grading, and I thought since this is going to be two episodes, the first episode will focus more on the why, and in the second episode, we’ll focus more on the nuts and bolts and how all of it works, because we’ve got to first convince you this is a good idea before we can go into actually how to do it. If anyone has thought about alternative grading at all, they’ve probably come across a lot of different definitions and words in terms of what this means. And so I thought we would start with mastery grading, which I’m learning now from Kevin is more people are advocating for the word alternative gradings. So what is mastery grading versus alternative grading and all of those terms. What do they all mean, Kevin?
Kevin [02:54] To keep the answers short, the idea of mastery grading is to have grades represent what students know by the end of a course. You can compare that to traditional grading where you might have exams or assessments that happen periodically. And those exams or assessments, they are in some sense final at the time in which students take it, compared to the mastery grading system, we would instead look at what these students know at the end of the course, and that might not necessarily be entirely incompatible with exams and whatnot. But it does kind of complicate that picture because if you have work that is assessed throughout the quarter, how does that then fit into the final grade is an important question to ask and one that a lot of mastery-based grading systems will look at.
Kristin [03:32] So, the thing about mastery grading that I want to emphasize is that it’s really about what does the student know by the end of the semester. Because I think most people would just say, well, of course, that’s what grades are for. Like, that’s what grade means. But my episode with Grading for Equity really made me realize: oh, no, that is not what grades mean right now, because grades also have your homework in there. But we know students don’t necessarily get perfect scores on homeworks, and homeworks are not about measuring if a student has mastered the material. Homework is usually about, let me give you something to practice on, so that then on the exam, which is where I actually checked you, did you master this thing, you will do well on that. So I think that’s one of the nuances I want to make sure about mastery grading. But tell me, is there a reason why people are trying to get us to call it alternative grading instead of mastery grading?
Kevin [04:28] Yeah, and I feel like one of the conversations that’s been very much rising to the surface increasingly is to ask the question of what exactly do our words mean when we say them? I mean, I feel like there’s a conversation around the issue with what does it mean to master something and what are the connotations behind that. And that is kind of what’s driving that conversation as I see it. And I think it’s important to recognize that dynamic in terms of what we actually want these words that we use to represent. And is it also in some sense limiting because this mastery-based grading system is not the only kind of alternative grading system.
If you’ve ever heard of contract grading or other kinds of grading systems, they’re not necessarily mastery based. And there’s even more ideas such as ungraded, that’s also been very popular, especially in the past couple of years, that looks at how can we actually have a conversation with students to be able to have them as part of the grade determining factors. This idea of alternative grading tries to be an umbrella for all the different ways that we might do grading that are not based on the traditional assumptions that have been passed down for the past one hundred or so years.
Kristin [05:32] Yes, so one of the things that I learned about mastery grading is mastery grading is very much an umbrella term. And it’s actually the terms you want to look up to understand how to do it is things like competency-based grading, capability-based grading, proficiency, specification grading like all of these kinds of more terms. So, one of the things that I wonder when I hear about these terms is like, is it scalable? Like when I first read about some of these things, it was very much like, oh, this is a lot of work. Specification grading is like you’re defining exactly what specifications they’re supposed to pass. And as a computer scientist, we know what a specification is because that’s a specific term in our world. But it’s very qualitative in measuring it because they’re like, did the student have good code style? Did the student do this? And it’s also supposed to be pass/fail, so. I think one of the things that I’d like to know from Brett, since I know that you’re teaching more of the larger the CS1 class is, is it scalable? Like, Brett, tell me, why did you do it for CS1.
Brett [06:41] Well, the short answer is because I teach CS1 and this is something I wanted to do, and so it was an easy way to do it. But more to your point, you know, someone once said to me, scale is inherently equity eroding. And that line has stuck with me for years here because it really kind of gets at the problems we have when we start to teach at scale, where we have to take shortcuts, because if we scale the workload per student linearly, then we very quickly get to a point where it’s untenable, even with large core staffs, like when I teach 1,000 students, I have 50 to 55 TAs, plus some additional support staff or part-time TAs or other people. So I’m basically running a medium-sized company when I teach this large course and we still have workload problems we have to be aware of. So like dealing with keeping up with workload both for me as an individual instructor and for my TAs and absolutely for anybody who isn’t as fortunate as I am to be able to have 55 TAs when I teach 1,000 students is a very important thing.
But I think, you know, it is scalable. You’re going to have to make compromises. And the key is to be very deliberate in the compromises we make and make sure that the compromises we make are focused in the areas that we are comfortable making changes and giving things up and then being very transparent with our students about why we’ve made these choices and that sometimes they are purely the result of scale. So one thing I have started telling my students every quarter is in an ideal world, I would assess you, the student, I would assess your mastery, your understanding. At the scale that we work, I simply can’t do that. The way we directly assess mastery is probably through something like an oral exam or through a conversation, some sort of synchronous one on one or very few to one interaction where we can really dig in on the student’s understanding of things. And that’s just not feasible at this size, even with an army of TAs. So what we have to do is we have to assess the student’s work as a proxy for their mastery or their understanding, and that comes with certain tradeoffs. It means that there are many different reasons where the work and the underlying mastery might be misaligned, where the work might not be a true representation of the student’s mastery. And so what we do is, number one, I try to be very transparent with students about this and make it clear to them upfront, your work might not directly reflect your mastery. It is your responsibility to do everything you can to make your work as clear a reflection of your mastery as you can. And it is my responsibility to give you the resources and the structure necessary to make that possible. It’s not going to be perfect, but we can do the best we can with it.
And then the second thing we do, and going with that responsibility that I as the instructor and the rest of my course staff has, is we make sure that there are no systems or structures or rules that are going to get in the way of students making their work be the best reflection of their mastery as we can. And again, we can’t eliminate all of them, but we can remove as many of those barriers as possible. You know, Kevin talked about with mastery grading, it’s about mastery at the end of the course. So we get to the mechanics. We’ll talk about resubmission as being a key part of our system here. And that’s about making sure that the fact that a student had a particularly busy week, or a student had an unexpected emergency pop up, or a student had their computer die, or any of these myriad things that always affect all of us in life and that would impact a student’s ability to put forth their best work does not have a major impact on their grade because we allow them to produce work that reflects their mastery in spite of all those interruptions. So I really try to think about it in terms of framing it with that work as a proxy for mastery and realizing that that’s imperfect, but then working to remove or limit as many of those imperfections as we can.
Kristin [10:47] There’s two things I wanted to kind of ask you about from what you just said. The first is, I think it’s interesting and important that you do student buy-in. You spend the extra time to convince the students that what you’re doing makes sense. And I’m wondering, how much do they believe you? And how much effort you have to go into to get them to believe you? Because I’m sure some of them are never going to believe you. But like, how many are you able to, like, get there? And how much effort does it take to get the students there?
Brett [11:25] So we’re working on collecting some data on this. We’ve asked some questions, Kevin and I and a couple other instructors have run versions of our system for three quarters now across several different courses. So we’re starting to get to a volume of data that we can actually work with. So far, based on the results we’ve looked at in a very kind of informal, anecdotal sort of way, it looks like we largely have buy-in? But it’s also not clear yet, what that buy-in looks like. So for example, we have very clear data that indicates students understand and appreciate the concept of resubmissions, which is kind of obvious, right? Students like the chance to get another opportunity at their work if they mess something up. That’s not terribly surprising, but it’s good to see that it’s there. We also are seeing some data and our responses and our evaluations that indicate all the time we’ve spent talking about we’re focused on mastery, this is not an optimization problem, we really want this to be a learning process, learning is ongoing, you’re not going to get it right the first time, all of these principles that we embed in this system that we build these systems on. There seems to be evidence that for at least a decent majority of our students that’s getting through. And in their responses, they’re saying things that are grounded in those same sort of principles. And so it seems like at minimum, we’ve convinced them enough to echo back to us the things that we have told them, we believe. We’re starting to do some more like directed interviews and one on one conversations to get a sense of whether this is deeply ingrained in the students or whether we still need to go there.
So, we’re getting there. It seems pretty good. There are certainly some students who don’t get it. And one of the things that always comes up, particularly around the end of the quarter, which we just dealt with, we just ended our spring quarter last week. So we’re kind of dealing with the fallout from this right now. There is a subset of students who at the end of the term, they look back and they decide that if we had used a more traditional grading system, they would have gotten a better grade. And therefore, our grading system is wrong or unfair or other such things. And so one of the things that I’m spending a lot of time thinking about going forward for next year is any grading system is going to be more advantageous for certain subsets of students and less advantageous for other subsets of students. And that our key is trying to think critically about which students we are advantaging and disadvantaging and why and making sure we’re OK with that.
And so one of the things I’m thinking about is how can we communicate this better to students and get them to understand that this is a better system, we think, because it is more equitable, it gives you more agency over your final grade. It is more challenging for a lot of students to understand because it’s unfamiliar. Students call it opaque. I think it is no more opaque than any previous grading system. It’s just that they don’t know how to work with it yet, which like fair, we have the responsibility of teaching them and training them and helping them understand how to evaluate their own progress in the system. And we have work to do there. But we want to try to do that communication more upfront, to try to head off the emails at the end of the quarter. And there are always e-mails at the end of the quarter complaining about grades. Nothing we can do will ever get rid of that except to give everybody a 4.0. But we can try to make sure that we’re being as clear as possible upfront about what we’re doing and why and how. So at least students can’t claim to be surprised. They may be unhappy and they may need some help understanding why we went with this system rather than another one. But at least they can’t claim to be caught off guard that this is how it ended up working out.
Kevin [15:05] Something that, Brett, you brought up earlier that really resonated with me, that was a concern that was kind of bubbling in my heart as we’re having this conversation, was this attention to student demographics and who are we actually serving when we make a change and thinking very carefully about who are we designing for basically in our classrooms? And I think something that’s been coming to mind for me is that grading is just one component of a set of practices that you might consider your pedagogy, like how do you teach? And for myself, I feel like I’ve been learning that in order to make that conversation more productive with students. We really have to also face the elephant in the room, which is how have students been educated all throughout their lives and what do those assumptions about grades and the ways that the grades have motivated or shaped their experience as students. How has that been harmful in a lot of ways? And I think that really requires us to contend with the history behind grades, the purposes of grades that has been used historically. You can sort out who has more economic value to society, and we still have these kind of narratives around producing students for the purpose of economic value.
Kristin [16:17] So you’ve both mentioned equity, and I agree the equity is important, but I think, imagine, well, I don’t even have to imagine this. I’m tired. This is a lot of work if I make this transition. And I believe you that equity is important and this is more equitable. But can you give me more concrete evidence that, yes, this is more equitable? Have I asked too hard of a question?
Kevin [16:44] Well, I mean, I think it is a question of how do you, like what evidence do you accept and what does that look like? And what are your sources of truth when you posed that question?
Kristin [16:54] Yeah, and I guess in some ways that is true, that is kind of an unfair question. So I think one way to think about it is, what is my goal as a teacher? Me personally, my goal as a teacher is to teach as many people that want to learn computer science, computer science. For anyone who wants to learn it, including those who don’t know they want to know it. But once they experience it, they’re like, this is what I want to do, like this is what I want to know. I want to teach all of them.
Kevin [17:22] Hmmm, that’s really interesting. Actually, I feel like I have a slightly different take, which is that I am actually trying to design computer science education for students who are not already in my classroom, the students who are not even on our radars because they’re taking American ethnic studies. They’re taking all these other courses that are much more diverse and broad than how we’ve already kind of construed ourselves and computer science to focus on this narrow strip of particular topics that historically we’ve deemed as has been important. Because I think thinking about who participates in computer science is such an important question that, and this is maybe almost kind of sidestepping your original question of thinking about evidence. But I feel like, you know, for my overall goals to think about how can we even change the culture of computing and the question of who takes computing, because it’s so deeply, you know, designing for the equity practices that we have here, it’s tricky because it’s like, you know, we can certainly talk to the people who are already taking our courses. But being at UW, most of our students are still from the majority dominant groups in computer science. And I think there’s a question of who do you listen to that we’ve been talking about, too, about how do we design these practices? How do we think about them? How do we evaluate them? And those are big questions that are going to be tied to who is involved in this project that we’re undertaking. So I could totally sidestep your question, but I think there’s a bigger set of questions around that.
Kristin [18:44] I think it partially reveals probably some of my biases because here at Duke our CS1, 50 percent or more of the students are not intending to be majors when they take the class. They’re not even intending to be minors. They’re just like, “Oh, seems interesting, so I’ll take it”, or like “this is required for this other major.” And then on top of that, like my road to computer science was I feel like very much luck and a fluke because my parents moved from one state to another and the first state required three and a half years of PE and the second state only required half a year. And I was like, what should I do with this extra class period? And I was privileged to be at a new high school that had computer science like full three-course sequence of computer science. And so I’ll try this. I like programming the VCR. That was literally my my reasoning. I like programming the VCR. This might be fun and I never looked back and, like, pure luck that I am here. And so to me, the idea that someone would love computer science but it’s not on their radar is a tragedy. And so I think our views are compatible, Kevin, in the sense of like I also want to create a class that that person would at least by chance would show up and like it here. Though I haven’t gone far enough to think about, like, how do I get that person where computer science is not even on the radar into my classroom, like I haven’t gotten there yet. Like, my goal for us is to make it, I would like it to be enjoyable for them here before I actually try and get them into the classroom. That doesn’t answer the equity question, though.
Brett [20:24] Well, I think you’ve got the right order of operations there, Kristin. Like, I agree that let’s make sure the students that are in our classroom are having a good experience because it would be counterproductive for us to focus on… recruitment is the word I’m going to use. I don’t love that is the word for this, but close enough like it would be dangerous and in fact, counterproductive for us to focus on recruitment while we still have toxic classroom environments because we’re going to go out there to all of these minoritized or marginalized or underserved populations and we’re going to say: computer science is great, we have this place for you, we would love for you to be part of it, come join us and you’ll see how wonderful it is. And they come to our classes and they have an absolutely miserable experience. And that’s not only is that going to turn off those students, it’s going to turn off all of their friends and siblings and family members and community members and basically everybody they know who they go back to and talk about. “Yeah, they told me to come take CS, but I hated it. And so I’m never doing it again. And I really wouldn’t do it if I were you either.” So I think it’s absolutely right to focus on the positive, inclusive, welcoming classroom environment first before you focus on getting different populations of students into that classroom.
And I think that’s where, kind of what we’re coming from here is we’re trying to create an environment where a student’s ability to succeed is not predicated on things that ought not be predicated on. And it’s certainly not predicated on whoever else happens to be in the classroom. And so, you know, we have a similar sort of thing that you described. We give, I might have this number wrong, but I want to say we give something like 400 undergraduate degrees a year in computer science. So that’s about, you know, multiply that by four-ish, 1,600-ish is about the size of our major. We have about 2,500 to 3,000 students take CS1 every year. The sheer math dictates that the overwhelming majority of those students are not our majors. Some of them are going to change their minds because of the course we teach, and that’s great. That’s one of the things we want, is to give those students the opportunity to say, yeah, this was awesome and now I would like to do more of it, can I try to apply to the major, please? But a bunch of them are here for one course or two courses, and then they’re going to go off to whatever else they’re doing.
And so one angle of equity, not the only one and not even necessarily the most important one, but one angle of equity is are we serving all of those students equally well? And this is something we’ve talked about more broadly in our design of our intro courses than just the grading system, but we can’t be designing our intro course because we have this unified intro course, which we deeply believe in. We don’t believe in a separate intro for majors and non-majors, because once we’ve committed to do that unified intro course, we can’t be treating it as this is the first course in the major and so everything we do is about what’s going on in the major and the rest of you’re welcome to come along for the ride, but we’re not here for you. That would be irresponsible. That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. So all of the things we do, including this sort of grading system, are about if you’re in the major or you’re trying to be in the major and you’ve got three years of high school programming experience like you had, Kristin, and this is review for you or this is getting used to the way we do things at UW or whatever else, then great, you’re set up for success. We want to make sure that we continue to have you set up for success. We don’t want to ignore you and expect you’re going to be fine on your own. We want to serve you, but we don’t want to serve you to the exclusion of the student who has never programmed before, whose entire experience with computers is checking email on the computer at the library once a week, and took this class because it’s a pre-req for some other major they want to be in or because their friends told them it would be fun or because their parents or advisors told them that it’s good to have a little bit of programming as a skill, regardless of what you’re going to do, or whatever else we need to make sure that we’re serving those students are also able to succeed. The way I like to think of it is previous experience should matter, but should not be necessary.
Kristin [24:39] So, how does alternative grading help? I feel like in some ways, we’re part talking around the topic and we’re part like preaching to the choir, to each other, so we don’t need to say it. But like, I want to get concrete for the sake of whoever is listening has a concrete example to hold on to.
Brett [25:00] So this will get a little bit into the mechanics of the system, which I know we want to talk about next time, so I’ll try not to go too deep. But there are a bunch of different elements to our grading system, and any of these could be adopted piece by piece. You know, things like resubmissions, allowing students to resubmit their work to learn from their feedback helps because it removes that outside burden of you must learn this by this particular moment because I have decided this is the moment I’m going to test you on it. And so, you know, if we teach for loops in week three of our course, and we give the exam or the quiz or the programing assignment, for us it’s a programming assignment, at the end of week three that is supposed to test your ability to learn for loops or your ability to use for loops. Some number of students are going to do well on that because they were able to process and master for loops in that one week and the third week of the course that we’ve given them, some number of students will not have mastered that yet. But in week five, they’ll have figured it out. They needed a little more time for any number of reasons because their brains just work a little differently because they were having a really stressful week, the week we taught for loops and they just weren’t able to devote the attention to it because, you know, they have responsibilities at home or outside of school that limit the amount of time per week they can spend. And they’ll get it after the same 30 hours of practice that everybody else does, but their 30 hours of practice have to be spread across four weeks instead of being spread across two weeks because of the way their life, whatever, like any number of these things. And so resubmissions allow us to reward that student just as much as we rewarded the student who got it on the first week. Because at the end of the day, when you’re coming off the end of the course, who cares how long it took you to get it? You’ve got it. You know, you can write code using for loops. Why should you be penalized because it took you a little bit longer to get there?
Kristin [27:05] That’s one of the things that I keep wondering about because, like, OK, this is a lot of work, like transitioning the syllabus to do all of this. Like, is this worth it? And to me, I think listening to both of you talking, I think one of the things that got to me, especially your example of like, this student just needed another week, gets at the equity part. And it also reminds me about how the point of alternate grading, especially when we’re calling it mastery grading, is that the letter grade the student has at the end of semester is telling you their total level of mastery, not what they knew at week three. It’s not a mixed number signal. It’s a single signal of this is how much a student knows. And I don’t know if any of your colleagues have said this to you, but I have had colleagues tell me like my grade is supposed to mean both what the students mastered and how good the student is at all the soft skills of getting things in on time because the real world cares about you getting things in on time. What would you say to that?
Brett [28:04] I mean, I’d tell them to go listen to your episode with Joe Feldman first and get their opinions on that. I mean, Feldman has some really good ideas, there’s another scholar that I like named Thomas Gusky, who talks a little bit about grading systems. And his big thing is if your grades are going to signal different things, you should have separate grades for each of them. Stop trying to summarize a whole bunch of different things in a single result. But more broadly, I’d say. So, first of all, if you’re assessing soft skills and I’m making air quotes here, right. If you’re assessing soft skills like timeliness or things like that, you should be explicit about that in your syllabus and you should have actual grading policies around it. And you should make that one of your learning objectives. One of the learning objectives from my course is the ability to turn things in on time. I have never seen a syllabus that has that as one of the learning objectives.
Kristin [28:59] I was just thinking like as soon as you write that down as a learning objective in a syllabus, hopefully you would realize that is not a good idea.
Brett [29:08] Yeah, right. Like it’s not actually that anybody wants to assess students on their ability to turn things in on time. It’s an excuse we use to, I think it’s a retroactive excuse we use to justify grading systems that are either artifacts of this long history that Kevin alluded to before, that we have just not taken the time to critically examine, or exist to deal with workload problems for the core staff, which is a very real problem and absolutely should be dealt with. But then be upfront that that’s what you’re doing. Students won’t like it and there are equity problems with that. But at least we’re owning what we’re doing there and now we’re having the right conversation. We’re no longer pretending that turning things in on time is some vital life skill, which, by the way, other people have made this argument. This is not my unique argument, but in the real world, if you’re going to be late with something, you go to your boss and you say, hey, boss, I’m sorry, something came up. I’m going to be a day or two late with this. The overwhelming majority of the time, they go, OK, great, just get it done and let me know how I can help. So this notion that deadlines are sacred is a little bit overblown to begin with, in my opinion.
Kristin [30:21] Yeah, the thing that I usually say in response to that is, well, if you think of the class that’s required before your class, what do you want that letter grade to mean? And odds are good that person is not going to say: I want that grade to mean both what the student knows and how good they are at turning things in on time. And I’m like, no, you want it to tell you what the student knows, and that’s all you want.
All right. I want to make sure we have time for the second episode. But is there something else that you’d like to say about why it’s worth the effort? Or any other advice or thoughts?
Brett [31:02] You know, whether or not whether or not it’s worth it, I think it’s really important for us as educators to evaluate our reasons for things. And so thinking about what you said, Kristin, a few minutes ago, about what should grades mean, what should grades be signaling, what are they used for? And you can’t decide whether a particular grading system is right or is worth it until you’ve decided what grades mean to you and what you want your grades to mean. And so making sure that you examine that in the context of your particular institution where you may or may not have full control over what grades mean, and there may or may not be rules and requirements that you have to follow. But examining what you think grades should be for is going to be hugely important to decide whether a particular grading system, this one or any other one, is valuable or meaningful or the right choice. And then the other thing I’ll say, and this is related to what came up in your episode on flipped classrooms, I’ll do another plug, Kristin, for you, is you don’t have to do it all at once. So we made a bunch of changes all at once because we worked on them over the summer. But it was a lot. And we had some things that we wanted to do that we didn’t do yet that we’re maybe going to do in the future. There are various elements of this that you can implement one at a time and then gradually build up so you’re not taking on all the work at one time. There are tradeoffs if you don’t, you know, each of the choices we’ve made has a reason for it. And if you don’t adopt that choice, then you’re not getting what we believe to be the benefits of that particular choice. But that’s OK. It can still be a net positive for students, even if it’s not as much of a net positive as going whole hog might have been. So if it seems overwhelming, do it bit by bit.
Kristin [32:44] Anything you’d like to add, Kevin?
Kevin [32:46] I keep on going back to the cultural perspective that I’ve been bringing up over and over again, and the thing that comes to mind about that is that, specifically the context about what does it mean to change your grading system, to look at different alternatives? I think what that does is that it opens up doors to different kinds of questions you might ask about, not only about your other grading practices like Brett was mentioning, but also thinking about, you know, what could I do to ask those bigger questions about culture and the ways in which my class is embodying certain kinds of assumptions about how computing or what computing really is. And I think about it in the context of grades specifically as opening the door to different kinds of assessment ideas, like, for example, in the traditional grading scheme that I grew up in, that I honestly thrived in as well, as part of the reason why I’m here as a professor even is all those kind of privileges and advantages that I had as a student going through the system.
But reflecting on that experience and thinking about what else could computing look like if we looked at these different kinds of alternative grading systems? Well, that could enable more creativity, because now if you’re not bound to this idea of, I have to have an exam or I have to have an exam for the midterm or exam for the final, maybe I could have other things in there that could provide some sense of what students know. That kind of opens the door to these different ideas about, well, maybe I could allow creativity, maybe I could let students choose. And I feel like that conversation about, that we were talking about earlier, thinking specifically about equity, about who chooses to participate even in computer science. I mean, I think there’s an assumption there that Brett was bringing up earlier about when we’re designing our systems, they’re designed with an assumed persona, I think, and that assumed persona, do we actually want our future students, the students who may not even be in our classrooms today, do we think that they’ll actually buy into that persona? Or will they give up themselves? Will they throw away their identities so they can fit into this computing norm? I think that’s the bigger challenge for us as educators. And I think what alternative getting opens up is this opportunity to look at more work that enables students to be themselves through computing rather than be what we’ve designed them to be.
Kristin [34:52] Awesome. Well, since this is our first of two episodes, I’m going to save my per episode questions for the second part, but I do think it’s worth doing a TLDL (Too Long, Didn’t Listen) for this part of the episode. So before we take a break and then do part two, what would you say is the most important thing you’d want our listeners to get out of our conversation?
Brett [35:12] I’d say that, it’s important in all things to question why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them, and in many cases you’ll find that, yes, what we’ve been doing works for certain reasons. It was the right choice and it still is the right choice. But in many cases, you’ll find it isn’t any more. So for grading, that looks like not just assuming that the way we’ve always done grades is the right way to do grades, but also not throwing it out just because it’s the way we’ve always done it. Really thinking about what the advantages and disadvantages of the system that you’re currently working in are, and then for any changes you might make, what the advantages and disadvantages there are, and thinking about who you’re going to serve better with any change and making sure that’s the group that you want to serve better.
Kristin [36:03] How about you, Kevin?
Kevin [27:38] One thing I kept on coming back to is that question of computing culture and what we want them to be. And I feel like one of the things that inspires me to do my work and to come into work every day, to be excited and to think about what I can do for computing in my classroom and also beyond it is to think of this question of, what do I want the computing culture to look like, and can it be more expansive, more broad, more diverse than what it already is? And I think one of the things that alternative grading systems afford is that opportunity to start to explore that journey. So, certainly not the only way to begin that conversation, but it is one that I think is very powerful and opens some of those doors.
Kristin [36:40] And with that, I hope you listen to part two when it comes out. I’m Kristin Stephens-Martinez and my guest for this two-part episode are Brett Wortzman and Kevin Lin, and this is the CS-Ed Podcast produced with help from Amarachi Anakaraonye. And remember, teaching computer science is more than just knowing computer science. And I hope you found something useful for your teaching today.