Why Political Scientists Should Embrace Multi-Method Grading

Stefan Kehlenbach, PhD candidate, University of California, Riverside.

As political scientists, we are trained to understand and utilize a wide range of methodologies in our own personal research. In both our graduate training and in our work at large, we use a vast array of different methodologies in our search for knowledge. We use not just surveys, but also interviews, experiments, field work, archival research, case studies and others when we seek to understand the world. And yet when it comes to teaching our students, our methodological worldview is much smaller. There is much to gain from embracing a more multi-method approach to grading and assessing our students.

Why should I consider moving away from traditional (quantitative) grading metrics?

Multi-method grading allows both you and your students to focus on teaching and learning, rather than on specific assessments.

Research shows that students who focus on their specific grades have less interest in what they are learning and have a reduced quality of thinking (Kohn 2011). By instead focusing on the material itself and the types of learning you want to encourage in your classroom, you can increase student interest and improve the quality of your instruction. It is also freeing and much more fun to not have to worry about teaching to a particular test or assessment and instead dig into the material with students!

It also supports social justice. Research has shown that implicit biases can have long-term impacts on student potential, especially as these biases are often found in traditional grading structures (Chemaly 2015; Lavy and Sand 2015). Working to develop a more diverse and open educational structure requires us to grapple with and overcome these impacts. Developing alternative mechanisms for grading student work can help promote equity in the classroom.

What does multi-method grading mean? What does it look like?

It primarily means getting away from strictly quantitative grades or grading all things according to a point-based system where students are assigned a numerical grade from one to 100. Now, this does not mean that we need to get rid of grading schemas altogether or that we need to abolish the letter-grade system. Is simply means we should take a more holistic approach to our teaching styles; one that more accurately reflects our wide-ranging methodological tendencies.

One of the ways I undertake this is by using student self-reflections. I encourage my students to reflect back on the work they did, the knowledge they gained and the things they were excited about. This helps turn the learning environment from a strictly quantitative structure into a more discursive one. By bringing students into the act of learning, we can have them more fully participate in the process and then evaluate them accordingly.

In my class, students complete a weekly self-evaluation going over that week’s work. I ask them about what they did, as well as what they were excited about and where they thought they fell short. Students are constantly reflecting on the actual active learning that they’re doing. At the end of every major assignment or at the end of the class, they fill out an additional self-assessment where they review their work and review the comments that I’ve made on their work, and then assign themselves a grade.

This is designed around my personal research style, which takes a more interpretive form, but it could easily be adapted to fit other methodologies. Students could work together to complete projects, and then continue that work in evaluating and discussing the work that each group did, simulating conference presentations. If your research relies on structured interviews, perhaps students could work on independent research and then interview each other about the work they completed. This would allow students to learn both the course material and the research methodology. Think about how your research methods could be brought into the classroom. We use our research methods to learn things, how can our students do the same?

Is it more work?

It depends. If you are currently only running multiple-choice tests that are automatically graded by machine (or graduate student labor), then it will require some additional work to transition the class to a new format. But utilizing alternative grading strategies can save time on the back end. Having students engage in self-assessment, eliminating “busy work” and providing meaningful feedback in the form of direct comments or dialogue, can be much quicker to develop and more rewarding than traditional, quantitative grading metrics. How often have you agonized over an essay or a test, wondering if it deserves an 85 or an 86?

What will my students think?

Grades provoke anxiety. This is a simple fact. How many times have we gotten panicked emails from students wondering what they can do to eke out a few extra points on an assignment or paper? Change is anxiety inducing as well, especially when students have been habituated to a certain form of grading and classroom interaction. Our goal should be to not increase the stress of the classroom, with the recognition that we will probably never be able to create a stress-free learning environment, as much as we may want to. Jesse Stommel asks us to “start by trusting students” and engaging in an honest an open dialogue with them, to see their fears, and to work with them (“Ungrading: An FAQ” 2020; “Forget Grades and Turnitin. Start Trusting Students.” 2019). The biggest fear for most students is having the rug pulled out from under them. Working to build up this trust, and showing them that you are not going to violate this trust, goes a long way.

What resources are available?

I have provided a set of resources here, including sample syllabus language and a set of example self-assessments and self-evaluations. The digital pedagogy lab (https://www.digitalpedagogylab.com) is also an invaluable resource.

Chemaly, Soraya. 2015. “All Teachers Should Be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases.” Time. February 15, 2015. https://time.com/3705454/teachers-biases-girls-education/.

“Forget Grades and Turnitin. Start Trusting Students.” 2019. CHE. October 27, 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/forget-grades-and-turnitin-start-trusting-students/.

Kohn, Alfie. 2011. “The Case Against Grades.” Alfie Kohn (blog). November 2, 2011. https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/.

Lavy, Victor, and Edith Sand. 2015. “On The Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps: Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers’ Stereotypical Biases.” w20909. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w20909.

“Ungrading: An FAQ.” 2020. Jesse Stommel. February 6, 2020. https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-faq/.

Stefan Kehlenbach is a PhD candidate in Political Theory at UC Riverside. His research focuses on how technology impacts society. His dissertation analyzes big data as a new form of technologic and social rationality. He also teaches at a number of Community Colleges in Southern California.

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