Real Experiments with Grading Mathematics


[ On an unrelated note I see someone’s been going through and grading my essays. I thank you, whoever you are; I’ll take any stars I can get. And I’m also delighted to be near to my 9,500th page view; I’ll try to find something neat to do for either 9,999 or 10,000, whichever feels like the better number. ]

As a math major I staggered through a yearlong course in Real Analysis. My impression is this is the reaction most math majors have to it, as it’s the course in which you study why it is that Calculus works, so it’s everything that’s baffling about Calculus only moreso. I’d be interested to know what courses math majors consider their most crushingly difficult; I’d think only Abstract Algebra could rival Real Analysis for the position.

While I didn’t fail, I did have to re-take Real Analysis in graduate school, since you can’t go on to many other important courses without mastering it. Remarkably, courses that sound like they should be harder — Complex Analysis, Functional Analysis and their like — often feel easier. Possibly this is because the most important tricks to studying these fields are all introduced in Real Analysis so that by the fourth semester around the techniques are comfortably familiar. Or Functional Analysis really is easier than Real Analysis.

The second time around went quite well, possibly because a class really is easier the second time around (I don’t have the experience in re-taking classes to compare it to) or possibly because I clicked better with the professor, Dr Harry McLaughlin at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Besides giving what I think might be the best homework assignment I ever received, he also used a grading scheme that I really responded to well, and that I’m sorry I haven’t been able to effectively employ when I’ve taught courses.

His concept — I believe he used it for all his classes, but certainly he put it to use in Real Analysis — came from as I remember it his being bored with the routine of grading weekly homeworks and monthly exams and a big final. Instead, students could put together a portfolio, showing their mastery of different parts of the course’s topics. The grade for the course was what he judged your mastery of the subject was, based on the breadth and depth of your portfolio work.

Any slightly different way of running class is a source of anxiety, and he did some steps to keep it from being too terrifying a departure. First is that you could turn in a portfolio for a review as you liked mid-course and he’d say what he felt was missing or inadequate or which needed reworking. I believe his official policy was that you could turn it in as often as you liked for review, though I wonder what he would do for the most grade-grabby students, the ones who wrestle obsessively for every half-point on every assignment, and who might turn in portfolio revisions on an hourly basis. Maybe he had a rule about doing at most one review a week per student or something like that.

The other is that he still gave out homework assignments and offered exams, and if you wanted you could have them graded as in a normal course, with the portfolio grade being what the traditional course grade would be. So if you were just too afraid to try this portfolio scheme you could just pretend the whole thing was one of those odd jokes professors will offer and not worry.

I really liked this system and was sorry I didn’t have the chance to take more courses from him. The course work felt easier, no doubt partly because there was no particular need to do homework at the last minute or cram for an exam, and if you just couldn’t get around to one assignment you didn’t need to fear a specific and immediate grade penalty. Or at least the penalty as you estimated it was something you could make up by thinking about the material and working on a similar breadth of work to the assignments and exams offered.

I regret that I haven’t had the courage to try this system on a course I was teaching, although I have tried a couple of non-traditional grading schemes. I’m always interested in hearing of more, though, in case I do get back into teaching and feel secure enough to try something odd.

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