The National Science Foundation recently awarded Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Matthew Siniawski, Ph.D. and three colleagues a grant to study alternative grading systems in higher education. The two-year, $248,893 grant will allow the multi-institutional team to develop alternative grading systems and measure the value of those systems.
Most institutes of higher education use a traditional, summative score-based grading system. However an alternative system known as standards-based grading (SBG) is being used increasingly in K-12 education. Siniawski and others suggest college students could also benefit from an SBG system.
Siniawski became interested in alternative grading systems a few years ago while seeing his 10-year-old daughter’s report card. A documentary on education, called “A Race to Nowhere,” shown on the Loyola Marymount University campus, spurred him to try an SBG system in his own engineering design classes.
“Grading systems have remained unchanged in the U.S. for decades,” he notes. “With traditional grading systems, at the end of the course, students just get a grade. But there is a lot more feedback about learning that grading systems can provide.”
In 2011, Siniawski created his own SBG system that provided students with specific objectives for learning and personalized feedback at regular intervals. Overall, the goal of an SBG system is to emphasize learning and continuous improvements, not the final course grade.
“The students were very open to it,” he says. “They really appreciated the clear and transparent feedback. They knew exactly what they were being graded on. With traditional grading, sometimes it’s unclear what’s being graded. Is it their knowledge? Their performance?”
Siniawski joined with colleagues at three other institutions—Arizona State University, Elizabethtown College, and Purdue University—who were also interested in the topic to write a grant proposal. The investigators will use the grant to conduct workshops to train instructors on SBG systems and to publish articles to “get the word out.” They will hold a workshop in June at the American Society for Engineering Education conference and will also present results at the meeting on their experience thus far.
“We’re going to create a mentoring atmosphere to help instructors adapt the system for their individual courses,” he says. “I would like to see more widespread openness to implementation of this different grading method. We believe in this system. We’ve seen the benefits of it, and we’d like to continue to promote it.”