Binary Grading and the Culture of Cheating

gradechangeConfession: I have rewarded cheating in my classes over the last several years with the structure of my grading system. I did it by placing too much value on the assignments that were merely “practice” for the topic at hand. These assignments include things like a problem set from a chemistry chapter or a study guide handout for an Anatomy topic. The problem was that I based my grading system around a 10 point scale where daily work would usually get 10 points, primarily graded for completion in the interest of time and wanting to have a life outside of teaching. I would give the occasional test or quiz that might be worth 30 -50 points, depending on the length of the test.  Where this led, though, was to a serious imbalance in the source of the points towards a student’s final grade, since there were far more daily assignments than tests.  If students kept up with the small daily assignments, they could rack up plenty of points to pass my class.  I could give examples of many students over the past several years who would bomb the tests and quizzes but manage to pass a class with at least a D, if not a C.

So why is this promoting cheating? You can see it already, right? If the major source of points in a final grade is determined by completion grades, all a student needs to do is complete the assignments, no matter whether it involves their thoughts and work or someone else’s. It becomes simple then, in the cost-benefit analysis that students run in their heads, as we all do, to see that the easiest way to pass a class is to latch on to your neighbor who knows what they are doing and borrow their work.  Cheating generates completed assignments full of mostly correct answers that on a quick skim by the teacher will be translated into points in the gradebook.

Now there certainly is a place for completion grades, say at the elementary levels where teachers are trying to instill work habits in students and so reward them for simply turning something in. But at the high school level? I’m not so sure.  I totally get that there are some classes in high school where the teacher feels it is necessary for classroom management to have the students be “busy” all the time so that behavioral problems do not arise. I’ve been there myself, sadly.  But this year I teach 4 preps, all of which are either concurrent college credit or AP, so the classroom environments are pretty conducive to learning.  So why wasn’t learning happening? I still was enabling this pervasive culture of cheating with my lame grading system.

That’s why I decided to institute a grading system this semester that I described to the students as “Binary Grading” both for the nature of the system and the fact that we are now in a binary year. Simply put, binary grading gives either a grade of 1 for completion or grade of 0 for shoddy work or something not turned in at all. I still give a lot of the same daily practice assignments that I did before, but they are now only worth a tenth as much. More importantly, though,  I have started giving out the answer keys to many assignments. The goal is for the daily assignments to be learning tools rather than assessment tools.  The problem with the old system was that too much of a student’s grade was determined by assignments that did not reflect actual learning. Now the final grade will be made up of mostly tests, quizzes, and projects that do reflect on an individual student’s actual learning because those assessments will be given higher point values appropriate to their difficulty.

Why not do away with points per assignment altogether? I’d love to someday figure out how to work some sort of mastery learning model with standard-based grades into my assessment scheme, but I’m not there yet.  In the meantime I feel that I still need to inform parents of what is happening in my classes each day in my online gradebook. To that end, students and parents (and the athletic director) will be able to see both whether students are keeping up their daily studying (the 1’s or 0’s) and how they translate those activities into actual learning (the overall grade).

Does this binary grading thing work? We just finished our first week of school with this system in place so its really too early to tell.  But I can tell you that several students who may have been copiers before have approached me for tips on how to better study for the quizzes.

Imagine that, actually having to learn to earn the grade.

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