Give grades at the start of the semester and not at the end?

Just to try and liven things up a bit and as an experiment, I thought of starting the semester with one of my university classes by giving all students an 85/100 High Distinction right of the bat. I am eternally worried and unimpressed with grading at university level. Is there a way around it?  They then have to defend it and have to sign a learning contract saying how they will make up missed work to maintain their 85. The mark could go up or down from 85. Is this feasible? We are supposed to be concentrating on the learning process and not grades, so I have no particular attachment to grades per se. I had previously discussed the idea with students last semester and they were intrigued,but unsure, as I was. While I was meditating on this, I read one of Susan Brookhart’s books on assessment: http://www.ascd.org/Publications/ascd-authors/susan-brookhart.aspx

Thoroughly impressed, I dashed off an email to her seeking her opinion on my idea. She replied that there are no shortcuts around this. The best way to manage grades is to make sure assignments/assessments are properly matched to intended learning outcomes and make sure that you have clearly specified criteria for good quality work and expected performance levels, and then grade. Giving students a high mark from the start which they must defend, while nicely utopian, assumes too much: they may know a lot of stuff already, but giving them a high mark right from the start, which they must defend, is not a valid measure of where they are out. In addition, students will be at different stages of knowledge. High Distinction is okay as a statement of where you want them to be at the end of the semester, but the best way to achieve that is to provide opportunities for them to learn and assessments that reflect that. Making up for missing work doesn’t test for quality, it’s just making up for missing work – it misconstrues the process.

Susan went on to say that some university professors use learning contracts linked to level of achievement students want to attain. This can build in student responsibility and commitment: “for example, to get an A you might need to do a complex, advanced task at an acceptable level, while to get a B you might do a less complex task at an acceptable level, but it still should be about work quality that indicates learning quality. Not about contracting for points and for turning in work”.

Oh well, back to the drawing board. Still, it’s good to test these ideas with experts like Susan. Thanks Sue!

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