Project Based Grading

by Jan 25, 2018Article, Business0 comments

Conforming to a traditional grading system in a project based curriculum is one of the biggest instructional challenges in teaching entrepreneurship authentically.

The Challenge

In the real world, there are no report cards. The notion of a “C+” doesn’t really exist to an insurance adjuster. Your product of work is either good enough, or it’s not. Which incidentally means you’re either good enough or you’re fired. So how do we, as educators, implement authentic learning experiences in our instruction while realizing that at the end of the day, the product of our students’ work must still be translated into one of 5 letter grades?

After teaching a heavily project based curriculum, in the area of entrepreneurship, for a while, I’ve gathered some of my thoughts on how to approach project based grading by chunking things into three main categories and one small subcategory:

Uphold Tradition

It’s easy to get caught in the fervor and rhetoric of “innovative teaching practices” and fall into the trap of thinking that traditional pedagogical strategies are somehow bad, but it’s important to remember that the “traditional system” has produced just about every modern success story, so clearly some aspect of it has worked just fine. The ability to recite vocab or pull from rote memorization certainly doesn’t directly correlate to future successes, but to suggest that there is zero correlation is likely incorrect. More importantly, by the time students get to high school, they (and their parents) are used to the grading game. To abandon it completely can lead to tricky situations later on.

Roughly one third of student grades fall under the umbrella of “traditional assessment.” Each unit of study, I give a traditional multiple choice exam of 25 questions. The exam is centered around vocab and concepts from our instruction. It also happens to be cumulative such that questions on exam two feature concepts from unit one. I issue the exam in class, and usually review the answers with my students the following session. As one might suspect, this is neither innovative or particularly interesting, but it holds students accountable to the content to a reasonable degree, reinforces vocabulary that is pertinent to understanding, and offers a mark in the gradebook that “make sense” to all parties involved.

Here’s where I do things a little differently: I offer my students half credit recovery for the questions they get wrong in the form of a take home exam after we review the answers.

Much of the criticism centered around testing in schools these days has to do with the accompanying stress and anxiety that it produces. I’ve found that half credit recovery helps reduce the above while mitigating the opportunity to game the system if one were able to recover full credit.

Habits Of Work

The next category of grade, which also constitutes roughly one third of the overall grade, is borrowed from the woodshop teacher at my school. He explained to me that his class centers around building one or two projects per semester (a nightstand or a bookshelf for example), and that to wait until the end of the term to issue a single grade upon completion of the project would fail to indicate to the student how they are doing throughout the term. To address this, he issues a relatively low stakes weekly habits of work grade that individually doesn’t impact the overall grade too much, but cumulatively yields a significant impact.

As the name suggests the grade is based on the student’s habits of work or to put it differently the student’s participation, productivity, and contribution to lesson objectives.

In many ways, the grading structure of a woods class is a better fit for an entrepreneurship class than say that of social studies or math. Each week I issue a “Habits of Work” grade to each student. The grade is out of five points and initially is similar to my woodshop teaching colleague based on participation, productivity, and contribution. This weekly grade offers a great talking point for you to have with students in the beginning weeks of the first semester. The question, “What grade do you think you deserve?” is a wonderful prompt that may help you help your students realize what they should be doing differently or perhaps more of.

Once my students enter into teams, I stop being the sole proprietor of grades. Instead, the Habits of Work grade becomes a peer assessment. On the last day of each week, with five to ten minutes remaining in class, my students conference with each other and have a conversation about who deserves what grade. Since the grade is only out of five points, I’ve found that my students tend to be honest and fair with each other as a three or four out of five will never make or break a classmate’s overall grade, but the corresponding percentage and letter grade will offer incentive to pick up the slack.

In my class, each team uses a project management tool called Basecamp to assign project tasks and set due dates. The tool’s to-do list is ideally suited for holding team members accountable for what they say they’re going to do. In addition to being really useful, this also offers a far more objective means by which peers can guide their habits of work conversations. If a team member says they’re going to do something by a certain date and does it, it’s easy to issue a five out of five. If they don’t, it becomes much easier to defend the issuing of a lower grade.

Linked below is the rubric my students use to guide their Habits of Work peer assessment conversations:

One final note: I use the rubric to inform the grades I give. If a team issues a zero to a member, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to issue that grade to that student. Such a grade may be a sign that the team isn’t working well together, and that I may need to intervene in some other way.

Presentations

The final large category of grade, which also represents a third or so of the semester one grade, falls under the broad umbrella of “Presentations.”

Elevator Pitches

In Unit 1, students learn how to deliver elevator pitches. I try to avoid putting students on the spot this early in the year, so instead of delivering their pitches at the front of the class in front of their peers, they video record themselves with their Chromebooks or mobile devices and submit their videos exclusively to me via Google Classroom. This seems to lower the anxiety of speaking publicly while affording me the opportunity to issue a presentation grade based on a rubric that I adapted from a lesson on elevator pitching from the University of California Davis :

This also allows the students to be reflective as they are able to watch back their performances and identify areas for improvement. It is especially fun to have the students watch back their performances much later in the semester, as their presentation skills will have greatly improved. In many cases, their business ideas will have evolved into something nearly unrecognizable from when they first pitched which is also enjoyable.

After Unit 1 and throughout the school year, each student is responsible for delivering a solo elevator pitch in front of the entire class on days when a guest speaker (or instructional coach) is present. Half of the class completes this in semester one. The other half does so in semester two. I use the same rubric I previously mentioned for this elevator pitch.

I’ve found this particular activity to induce a fair amount of anxiety in some students, but nearly every subsequent presentation becomes noticeably better. There’s simply no better way to get better at public speaking than by public speaking. I don’t tell my students this, but I don’t grade these too strictly. The experience of pitching in front of a group is really what this assignment is about, not hitting every beat of an elevator pitch flawlessly. This activity has the added bonus of offering visitors to your class the opportunity to contextualize their presentations by better understanding what each team is hoping to accomplish.

Mentor Match Pitching

At the beginning of Unit 2, I conduct Mentor Matching. I do this by having each team pitch their business idea to a panel that is comprised of the mentors who have agreed to work with our student teams. I actually don’t issue a grade for this presentation, but I think it merits attention as it relates so closely to the other activities mentioned in this section of writing. This presentation affords the mentors the opportunity to learn about the teams so that they can form opinions about which teams they think they could best support.

After the presentations, I facilitate a round of “mentor speed dating” in which each mentor meets with each team to share a brief conversation. After the short meetings, the mentors submit their top three pairing requests to me as do the teams. I then make my mentor matches based on mutual requests.

Sharebacks

At the end of each unit my student teams complete a graded group shareback. I tell my students that I grade these presentations based on the entire team’s performance, but that I reserve the right to issue certain members more or fewer points as I see appropriate.

Each shareback should represent the evolution of a team’s progress rather than a separate presentation that stands in isolation. Ideally, the sharebacks build on top of the elevator pitches and work to strengthen and enhance the minimum viable product and funding pitch events that will take place later on. It can be difficult to strike the right balance in terms of what the nature of a shareback presentation should be, but a good way to think about it is as part pitch and part status update. Teams should share more about their learning and challenges during a shareback presentation compared to what they might share in a presentation to a group of prospective investors—in short the presentations should be polished but the subject matter may reveal some of the dirt that goes into the business formation process that you’d omit from an investor pitch. I make sure to include plenty of time for questions and comments and make the point value of this grade roughly three times that of a typical habits of work grade to emphasize its relative importance.

Pitch Events

I structure the sequence of my instruction such that each semester culminates with a high stakes pitch event. In the first semester, that entails the Minimum Viable Product pitch in which the student teams pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges. The judges use the rubric linked below to assess the teams and offer verbal feedback as they see fit. I’ve found that it helps to offer some guidance to the panel with regard to what type of feedback would be useful at this stage in the process. Most of the panelists will have no idea what you’ve coverer so far in class and may be inclined to go down paths familiar to them and their expertise. Don’t prevent this entirely, but be careful not to consume the entirety of Q&A time with discussions related to legal matters that you haven’t yet introduced to your students.

When you examine the rubric, you may notice that the lowest point value is a three instead of a zero. Non-teachers don’t always draw the connection between assigned point value and letter grade. This seems to address that issue. I have yet to find a major discrepancy between my personal opinions of the teams and the average grade of all of the panelists’ feedback.

As the MVP and Funding Pitch grades are the largest individual presentation scores, I’ve found it helpful to offer models of what quality slide decks and presentations look like. The following two links offer just that:

Homework

The final broad category of work in my grading is “Homework.” I almost omitted this from my writing altogether, because it represents such a small percentage of my students’ overall grade, but I decided to leave it in because at the end of the day, we’re still dealing with adolescents. I have yet to find a better way to ensure that an entire class of students returns a parent signed form than by threatening them all with zeros. I wish this weren’t the case, and I know this flies in the face of “21st Century” instructional practice, but by golly, what else can you do?

Final Thoughts

Throughout the year, keep note of what works and what doesn’t. Scrap that which doesn’t and double down on what does. Be a practitioner of the Build > Measure > Learn feedback loop, and iterate to improve the grading portion of your instructional practice. Know that it won’t be perfect right out of the gate, but it should get better over time. My suggestions above are just that: suggestions. Every teacher will have to make adjustments to their grading that are specific to their school, community, and students, but the broad categories and specific assignment implementations that I have thus far outlined should offer a firm ground upon which you can build meaningful student feedback.

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