Blog Post

From Duke Chronicle: Prof to Grade Students Based on Peer Evaluations

Prof to grade students based on peer evaluations

By: Lindsey Rupp


Cathy Davidson, Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English, wrote a blog post July 26 on the Web site she helped found, Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. But "How to Crowdsource Grading," the post Davidson thought no one would find interesting, has sparked several articles in national publications and a heated, largely virtual, debate about grading systems.

"I loved returning to teaching last year after several years in administration... except for the grading," Davidson wrote in her post. "It turns learning (which should be a deep pleasure, setting up for a lifetime of curiosity) into a crass competition.... That's the opposite of learning and curiosity, the opposite of everything I believe as a teacher, and is, quite frankly, a waste of my time and the students' time. There has to be a better way...."

In her post, Davidson outlined her course, "This is Your Brain on the Internet," a seminar she taught last year and will offer again in the Spring-with a twist. Davidson wrote that she will grade student assignments on a point system and use peer evaluation to assess the quality of those assignments. She got the idea from the Japanese emphasis on the role of the group to individual success in education, and from her experience with the course last year. She said she felt the traditional grading system did not fit with the class focus on new ways of thinking, learning and communicating last term.

Davidson's idea inspired articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and the (Raleigh) News & Observer. It also sparked many comments agreeing with and disparaging Davidson's ideas and methods from people connected with education at institutions ranging from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard University.

Michael Gustafson, assistant professor of the practice in the department of electrical and computer engineering, read Davidson's posts and an article about them in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said when reading some of the comments, he was surprised by how quickly people dismissed Davidson's ideas as a way for her to get out of grading.

"I think this will take her a greater amount of work than people give her credit for," he said. "Rather than preparing for a 75-minute lecture, you have to prepare for a 75-minute intelligent conversation with some of the most talented students in the country."

Davidson said she expected some resistance to her experiment and her ideas, adding that she listens to and learns from it-she even said she thanks "all the people out there who have been close-minded and made snarky comments," because she plans to assign the comments as her first assignment in her Spring course.

But Davidson, who was vice provost for interdisciplinary studies for eight years before she returned to teaching, has also been studying evaluation for many years. This Fall, she will publish a new book, "The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age."

Educational experimentation is not unheard of on campus. Gustafson said he thinks Davidson's experiment could work for her seminar class. Although he said he cannot use that model in his large lecture courses, he said Duke is a place where professors and the administration are willing to try new ways of teaching and assessing. Gustafson even conducted an experiment of his own-he began using undergraduates as teaching assistants several years ago with the backing of the administration, and the practice stuck.

"I've never felt a sense of being too constrained by history," he said. "There's an idea of wanting to learn from it, needing to know it, but not being paralyzed by precedents."

Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, said although Duke tries to encourage creativity in the classroom, especially from experienced professors like Davidson, deans also monitor the success of the experiments through their own system of evaluations like student course evaluations.

He added that the University already has a wide range of assessment methods-language course rubrics differ greatly from science course rubrics, for example-and that many professors already use either a point system or peer evaluation, which Davidson's experiment will use together.

"Is [Davidson's idea] something that could happen in the future? ...Maybe, but probably not," he said. "But who knows? Cathy Davidson is really on the cutting edge of new forms of learning, interactive forms and the like, so it may catch on. This really may be an effective way."

But Davidson says her goal is not to change the way every course at Duke is graded. Instead, she wants to assess her students' performance in a way that will best prepare them to responsibly engage in an increasingly participatory online culture using the different skills each student brings to the class.

"We are impoverished at teaching the skill of working together across our abilities," she wrote in an e-mail. "Collaboration is hugely coveted in the business world since a workforce has to have people of different skills, especially in the computer world, all working toward a goal together."

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