“Gradating” Understanding in the Religious Studies Classroom

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Do you ever play the mental game where you have a conversation with a younger version of yourself? The big 3-0 has been a pretty seminal year for me goal wise, so I find myself thinking about my 18-year-old self quite a bit–reassuring him that, in the dozen intervening years, a lot of things have worked out just fine.

You will one day have a car. Yes, you will indeed marry her. You will get your PhD. You will become a professor.  

But as I enter midterm season, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I evaluate my students’ development. That’s when my 18-year-old self wakes me up by kicking in the door of my mind.

“What?! You grade stuff. Richard, you sell out.”

An artist by the handle,
An artist by the handle, “Redivius” designed this image. He notes “dynamic & static gradation creates different perspectives.”

If you knew me toward the end of high school or at the beginning of college, you might remember that I had some authority issues, especially when it came to teachers. I had respect for good teachers. But I could not stand–at least, what I deemed to be–ineffective ones. I hated the whole institution of grading because I wasn’t quite sure of the point. And even after having seen how the sausage is made, I’m still not sure that I’ve got a handle on it.

I know that grading is supposed to be a tool that teachers use to index student understanding. And ideally that index should provide students with a sense of what they’re getting or missing in a given course.

But are our grading tools really that fine-tuned? My 18-year-old self doesn’t think so. In his experience, grades equaled the number of correct answers over and against the total number of questions. Little effort on either end of the lectern was made to translate that ratio into a discussion of what a student understood versus what a student has yet to grasp.

I’ve met (and am now related) to enough educators to know that if you have a complaint about a pedagogical practice, it better come with some alternative.

Well, here it is. Instead of talking to students about grades, I’ve been talk with students about “gradation.” It’s a little cheese ball, but I can sleep better at night. Here’s how it works…

Gradated Understandings of Religion

At the end of the day, I want students to be familiar with ideas that might help them better think through the cultural and identity politics often (but not solely) associated with religion.

Now there are moments where I grade. For instance, I might quiz a student’s recall of concepts. Definitions of a discipline’s operational terms or an argument’s theses come to mind here. Can a student tell me what Russell T. McCutcheon says about insider and outsider perspectives in the study of religion? On this matter, I’m simply asking a student to relay information, and I am fairly comfortable saying that a student was able to transmit X% of the requested information.

But then there are those moments where I have a more difficult time with grading–for instance, when I want to assess skills or how students leverage concepts. When I ask students to deploy a discipline’s operational terms and his or her own theses to make sense of a problem, I use standards-based grading or gradating.

Put bluntly, I’m checking off whether a student has met this and that learning objective. Then I’m giving the student credit for enriching his or her understanding.

UnknownSo to build on the example from before, I might ask students to apply McCutcheon’s framework to the U.S. State Department’s media war with IS/ISIS/ISIL  and Secretary Kerry’s establishment of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives in 2013, a speech where Kerry said “… if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.

In this instance, students are invited to take the aforementioned understanding of McCutcheon’s framework one step further and show what they can do with that information. A student may find that the case study exemplifies the issues McCutcheon discusses. A student may find that the case study somehow problematizes McCutcheon’s framework. But what is of interest to me is that the student has thought through the issues in a way that demonstrates that certain learning objectives have been met.

Standards-Based Grading, Point by Point

If a student has met all the objectives on the first go, the student receives full credit (100), but if a student has yet to meet all the objectives, I tell him or her which ones were missed and the student gets another chance (usually within a week’s time) to meet that objective. The student may be asked to write a supplementary paragraph, do an alternative activity, rewrite the paper, or simply confer with me about the outstanding objective(s). The idea is to create an environment where students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and to get help when they can’t figure something out on their own.

If you’re wondering how I respond to students who choose not to reassess, the answer is that it depends on the weight of the assignment. Some assignments, such as weekly response papers, are weighted so low that they are all (100) or nothing (0). Other assignments, like lead seminar papers, are based upon a rubric that assigns point values to the different objectives. So if a student chooses not to reassess, they’re left with the number that’s on the rubric as well as a suggestion of how they could enrich their understanding. Note that the latter is the same suggestion I gave upon offering a chance to reassess. So by the time a student gets to a high-stakes assessment, like a midterm or final exam, they will have had a number of guided opportunities (both in and outside of class) to learn the material.

Both my 18-year-old and 30-year-old selves know that gradating really doesn’t actually change the power dynamics of the classroom. The teacher is still calling the shots. The teacher is still distilling the learning process into a number. But I want to believe that my younger self and my students would appreciate the chance for more learning–even if that appreciation doesn’t arrive for another twelve years.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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