2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Best Practices for Using Standards-based Grading in Engineering Courses

Presented at Tips of the Trade: Best Practices, Expanded Advice, and Strategies for Implementable Course Improvement

Assessment of student achievement using a grading system is a major task required of engineering educators. Most higher education institutions use a traditional, summative score-­based grading system that relies on educators to assign an end ­of semester letter grade representative of student achievement in the course. The default is to assign student grades by tabulating scores from multiple assignments, summing assignment scores, and determining a final course grade based on a predetermined scale. Such an approach inherently fails to meet the conditions of sound assessment of student learning because the resulting final course grades only display how well students performed on completing separate assignments rather than how well they learned specific course objectives. It cannot then be assumed that all students who receive the same final grade have mastered the same content. An alternative approach is to directly measure the quality of students’ proficiency toward well­ defined course outcomes through a learning outcomes ­based approach, heretofore referred to as standards ­based grading (SBG).

This paper assesses the use of SBG by six instructors at different institutions to identify best practices for integration. Five components were identified as keys to successful implementation:
1. Establish learning outcomes for a course prior to creating course activities/assignments, i.e., backwards course design
2. Develop a clear set of broad learning outcomes that can be used to develop specific sub­outcomes or objectives to be measured
3. Avoid courses where the learning outcomes cannot be summed into a manageable number
4. Utilize a simple 3 to 5 point scale with rubrics that clearly explain to students how to be successful on a given assignment
5. Provide detailed feedback on assignments to continually make students aware of their achievement level toward each course learning outcome

A number of barriers and obstacles were also identified by the instructors that must be overcome. These included faculty, student, and administrative push back to change, confusion toward a smaller, unfamiliar grading scale, difficult integration with course management software (e.g., Blackboard and Canvas), consistency across instructors in multi­section courses, increased initial faculty workload, and fit with certain engineering courses.

Perceived benefits of effective implementation of SBG for students by the six faculty participants included opportunities for students to self­-evaluate/assess, fail early to address weaknesses in order to ultimately succeed, recognize intended course outcomes throughout the course, and improve study and learning habits.

  1. Dr. Matthew Siniawski Loyola Marymount University [biography]
  2. Dr. Sara A. Atwood Elizabethtown College [biography]
  3. Prof. Heidi A. Diefes-Dux Orcid 16x16http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3635-1825 Purdue University, West Lafayette (College of Engineering) [biography]
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