Profs. allow classes to set own grades

by Kaitlin Bell | 5/10/02 5:00am

Dissatisfied with the traditional, quantitative method of grading, two Dartmouth religion professors are allowing their students to help determine their own grades, pleasing students in their classes but raising eyebrows elsewhere.

Professors Darryl Caterine and Christopher Jocks, who also teaches Native American studies, said that experimenting with alternative grading policies is part of a larger plan to involve students more directly in teaching and learning.

Students in their courses, Religion 12 and Religion 52, said they favored the idea of setting their own grades, but administrators disagreed, saying that grading should be the responsibility of the professor.

Caterine said that he and Jocks are close friends and often share teaching strategies with each other. Caterine added that he conceived of this policy in hopes of encouraging students to contemplate what they find interesting in the course material instead of memorizing information they think will be on a test.

Dean of the Faculty Jamshed Bharucha and religion department Chair Ronald M. Green advocated that professors grade student work themselves, but stressed that Dartmouth allows professors to set their own grading policies as long as they adhere to some basic guidelines in the Student Handbook. Bharucha and Green also said that they are not unconditionally opposed to opening the grading process to student input.

Caterine -- who received the Student Assembly's "Profiles in Excellence" teaching award earlier this term -- and Jocks said they were concerned that those unfamiliar with their educational philosophies might misperceive their experimental policies as an attempt to shirk the time-consuming task of grading.

Administrators, students and even Caterine himself said that the possibility for abuse of such a trusting policy exists, especially given the nature of the course, entitled, "Religion and Society in America."

"It's really easy to think that you're an expert on the topic just because you were born here," Caterine said.

Green doubted that students would be able to objectively assess their own performance in the class. "Everybody always has a high opinion of themselves -- everybody is always above average," he said.

However, both Caterine and his students claimed that the level of commitment and intellectual curiosity among Religion 12 students makes abuse unlikely.

Caterine spoke to The Dartmouth at length about his theories of pedagogy, but Jocks declined to comment, stating in an email, "I don't think any of us want to attract a lot of attention for what we're doing, not yet anyway." He said that the verdict on how the course will be graded is "absolutely a work in progress."

Similarly mindful of a potential negative reaction from the administration, Caterine abandoned his plan of letting his Religion 12 students determine their own grades. Instead, he has decided to require a final paper, which he will grade himself.

Originally, Caterine planned to have his students write weekly three to five-page papers, which he would grade. He then scrapped those plans in favor of requiring weekly multiple choice quizzes and ungraded reading responses.

Later determining that multiple choice quizzes weren't effective teaching tools, Caterine decided to allow his students to base their grades on how well they thought they performed on weekly ungraded reading responses and how much they felt they gained from the course.

This was part of an "educational exercise" designed, he said, to get the class to think more critically. But he also told the class that he did not want to have to grade roughly 50 papers.

"I wanted to make a really dramatic statement," said Caterine, who is leaving Dartmouth at the end of the spring. "To say that this stuff matters whether I'm here or not. What better way to get that across than to say 'you don't have to please me at all'?"

But being contacted by The Dartmouth "set off alarm bells," Caterine said, reminding him of experiences at other colleges where administrators reprimanded him for his unconventional teaching methods.

Letting students choose their grades is "a very subjective approach to grading," with several potential downfalls, said Native American studies department Chair Colin Calloway.

Doing so could "place the student in a position where they may either be tempted to give themselves a higher grade than they merit or a lower grade than they merit by bending over backwards to not over-grade," he said.

Calloway added that he was unaware of Jocks' allowing his students to do this and was reluctant to dismiss any policy that might be part of a "well thought out philosophy of education."

Caterine maintained that letting students grade themselves would not have undermined the rigor of the class or deprived students of his input.

"To lift the stricture of a grade is not to change the structure of a course," he said, adding that students were more eager to discuss course topics outside of class after he announced that he would not be grading them.

Several students said that they felt more comfortable talking in class once they knew Caterine was not grading class participation. Hansell Bourdon '02 and Tim Vipond '05 said that they also started reading more carefully.

"Before, I was often tempted to gloss over stuff and only study what I knew would be on the test," said Bourdon, who is also enrolled in Jocks' class.

But the students said that although they trusted themselves to critically assess their work in the class, not everyone could be expected to remain so impartial.

Despite giving up his original plan, Caterine remains staunchly critical of using letter grades to assess the quality of students' work.

"Ultimately, what I want to affect as a teacher -- growth in critical awareness -- can't be measured," he said. "Attempts to quantify the humanities will be the death of it."