Instructor to outsource grading … to students

Some educators offered harsh criticism of the crowdsourcing grading method.
Some educators offered harsh criticism of the crowdsourcing grading method.

Cathy Davidson hopes to teach her students the importance of personal responsibility, especially in a Web 2.0 culture, by letting students grade each other in her “This is Your Brain on the Internet” course being offered at Duke University this winter.

Davidson’s approach is an innovative and somewhat controversial application of “crowdsourcing,” the 21st-century idea of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employer or organization and outsourcing them to a community at large, often making use of Web 2.0 tools and applications to do so. Her approach has drawn both interest and criticism since she first announced it earlier this year.

As an educator who is returning to teaching after several years in administration, Davidson said she found grading to be a meaningless, superficial, and cynical way to evaluate learning–especially in a class on new modes of thinking in the digital era.

She said top-down grading by the professor turns learning into a competition among the students, where they try to complete the least amount of work possible or give the professor what he or she wants simply to get a good grade.

Davidson will be using a new point system in her class that will be supplemented by peer review and teacher commentary on students’ progress. The grading will be done by contract, with students who do all of the work receiving an A.

“If you do the assignment satisfactorily, you get the points. Add up the points, there’s your grade. Clear cut. No guesswork. No second-guessing ‘what the [professor] wants.’ No gaming the system. Clear cut. Student is responsible,” she wrote on a blog post on the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) web site.

The point system is determined through crowdsourcing, with students determining if their classmates have completed their work satisfactorily. If the work is deemed unsatisfactory by the student’s peers, he or she has the option to revise and resubmit. Davidson noted that every study about peer review shows that students work harder when they know they are being judged by their classmates.

“If you’re judging your peers one week and you’re being judged the next, you’re going to come up with a fairly coherent standard of grading,” she said, adding that the students who take her class are usually hard workers to begin with. “I know the students are going to work even harder, and again, study after study shows this: If students have to teach subject matter, they learn it better … and if they’re being evaluated by their peers, they work much harder than if they’re going to be evaluated by their teacher.”

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