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.”

Davidson said the peer-review system teaches students responsibility, credibility, judgment, honesty, and how to offer and receive constructive criticism–something she said is becoming more important in a time of social media.

“I want students to learn that their evaluation has a real impact in the world, and so to really think about what an evaluation means,” she said. “And I think one of the problems with the internet is that it feels anonymous and fast–you can just say anything and there are no repercussions. In this system, there are real repercussions.”

And those repercussions could be social as well as academic. If a student judges all of his or her peers unsatisfactorily, it’s likely that his or her peers won’t judge the student’s own work as being satisfactory.

“That’s when you start understanding how you collaborate. The whole point of this is I’m saying we’re in a new era of collaboration. That’s what the internet is. And we don’t have anything in our school systems, in our methods of testing, or in our methods of evaluation that teaches students to be responsible collaborators,” she said. “You can’t collaborate unless you evaluate people’s work, give feedback, and take feedback. We don’t teach that skill.”

Some other educators don’t believe Davidson’s approach will give the type of results that she is hoping for.

Clarence Wyatt, a history professor at Centre College in Kentucky, said that while he agreed with many of Davidson’s concerns about the traditional grading process, he thinks her approach has some problems.

“The idea of peer involvement isn’t new, and while it can be valuable in the proper circumstances–for example, when it’s just one part of an overall package of evaluation–[Davidson] seems to set a pretty low bar,” Wyatt said. “Just turn the work in and get an A? She says that the current process reduces learning to a mercenary process? This isn’t any better–in fact, it’s worse. And she says it teaches responsibility to the students? Where’s the responsibility of the instructor?”

Although he doesn’t believe crowdsourcing would be beneficial in his school of sixth through 12th graders, Ronnie Stewart, headmaster at York Prep School in Manhattan, said he can see it potentially working at the university level.

“It’s all about the teacher. If a teacher can control [his or her] classroom,” crowdsourcing grades could work, he said.

Davidson said the blog about her class has received a lot of attention, and she’s gotten many comments from people who think she’s just trying to get out of grading, but she described many of those comments as being thoughtless.

In fact, the class’s first assignment will be for Davidson’s students to read her blogs on the course and all of the commentary that came from it.

“Dozens of comments are just each person being snarkier than the last, and after five comments [in one thread] you can tell that the person hasn’t even read the original post, they’re just riffing off of the comments,” she said. “That’s what this class is about–the consequences of writing that snarky comment.”


“How to Crowdsource Grading”

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