Regent College is a transdenominational graduate school of theology founded in 1968. It was established with a primary goal and emphasis to provide theological education for the laity. It is affiliated with the University of British Columbia; further, the College has an intentional link with Carey Theological College, a school of the Baptist Union of Western Canada, an association that was entered into in the 1980s in order to enable Regent to offer the Master of Divinity.
But while the College offers the M.Div., its primary vision remains that of providing theological education for "the whole people of God." And this vision has always included a strong commitment to integration—both interdisciplinary integration, as evident in part in the number of faculty at the College whose area of expertise is other than that of a traditional theological faculty, and further the integration of heart and mind, of Christian piety and devotion with vigorous academic pursuits.
Beyond the connection through Carey Theological College to the Baptist Union of Western Canada, Regent also sustains links with other church bodies. But on the whole these are more informal associations. The school is truly multi-denominational.
Regent College is also an international school, drawing a large number of students from the United States, from Asia (notably Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan), Australia and Europe. The international character of the College is in turn matched by a high commitment to learning in community. This common life of the College is sustained by a variety of activities, most notably the weekly gathering for chapel and worship and the regular meeting of "community groups" that include both students and faculty.
Like many other theological schools Regent College is in a significant period of transition. With many of the early faculty coming into retirement, the College is bringing on new faculty at an unprecedented rate. Several new faculty joined the College in 1996 and 1997. Two more, including a new Dean, in 1998; three new faculty, including a new President, came on in 2000, and two more are scheduled for the Fall of 2002. With a few departures and retirements, this means a more than 50% turnover in the faculty in the space of six years. Consequently, this was and continues to be a critical time in which the College is reviewing its mission, identity and vision for theological education; and it is an ideal time to ask about the practices that enable us as a faculty to do our work well, and in a manner that is consistent with our mission.
Part of what complicated the discussion, for some faculty at least, was that the College has a strong tradition of courses in spiritual theology and the arts. And while these disciplines have well-established criteria for the evaluation of devotional and autobiographical assignments on the one hand and arts projects and thesis on the others, it seemed that a consensus had yet to emerge as to how these would be graded in a consistent fashion at Regent College.
Finally, another significant feature that shapes our context is the continued ambiguity about matters of governance. Regent College has grown significant, both in student numbers but also in the size of the faculty, and is only now considering what forms of governance would serve a faculty of this size well.
The Issue for Discussion
In the Fall of 1998 the Faculty discussed the opportunity created byThe Lexington Seminar, and a number of potential issues were raised that would each merit an extended discussion and review. However, there was one issue, at least at that time, was seemingly ever present in discussions among faculty, students and the academic staff, different dimensions of a problem: the issue of grades and grading. Long-term faculty raised this as a matter of ongoing concern, a nagging problem that had not been resolved. Newer faculty were perplexed about the meaning of grading at Regent College. And these faculty came from a variety of backgrounds—with two new faculty from Australia, two from the Canadian university system, others coming from peer theological schools, some from the U.S. and others from Canada, and two from British universities. And each seemingly brought a distinct perspective on the meaning of grading in the work of a faculty member, and the meaning of the grades themselves. Further, students were angry at what they perceived to be host of irregularities and confusion in the approach to grading they had experienced. And the academic staff were dismayed at what they saw to be negligence on the part of faculty when it came to the submission of grades for assignments and final marks for courses.
Consequently, the faculty chose to make the matter of grading and evaluation the focus of discussion.
Project Goals and Design
With this in mind, then, two goals were established for the project. The first was to respond intentionally to the presenting problem: to clarify the meaning of grading and evaluation at Regent College in light of our mission and philosophy of education, which would include clarification of the meaning of our grades, the kinds of assignments we would give, further clarification of the place of grading in the work of our faculty and, finally, the use of Teaching Assistants (particularly in grading).
However, we also recognized that we had a secondary goal, which in the end may prove to be as significant in our common life as the primary goal: to develop a model for faculty conversation around pressing or problematic (protracted) issues, in a way that enables us to think about these issues in light of our mission, in conversation with our peers within other theological schools, and in a manner that would enable us to be a learning community.
In other words, we certainly desired to address the problem of grading and evaluation effectively; we knew that we needed to make headway on this matter. But this project would also give us an opportunity to think about our work together—to tackle a project but then also think constructively together about how we did our work, how we resolved problems, and how this might shape and inform the way we do this kind of thing when we face other such issues.
In particular, we hoped to clarify the meaning of grading and evaluation within our educational mission, to give focused attention to the grading scale and build a consensus on the meaning of this scale, to clarify the place of grading within our course objectives on the one hand and the work of a faculty member on the other, and to agree together on the place of Teaching Assistants in the grading of assignments.
Implementation: Resources and Activities
As part of our project design, we indicated that we anticipated we would use a variety of resources to facilitate our discussion: facilitators for our faculty discussions; publications on the topic of grading and evaluation in higher education; and, the input from peers in other theological schools.
We made initial enquiries regarding potential facilitators. And in the end we were glad to be able to have a senior administrator from the University of British Columbia—the Dean for Graduate Studies—join us for an extended discussion of the matter of grading and evaluation in the graduate school of the university. Further, we provided faculty with copies of helpful resources, recent publications that addressed the issue of grading. Finally we also included in our project design the opportunity for faculty to visit other theological schools to discuss with Deans and faculty the issue we were facing. The thought, of course, was that we could learn from the experience of others.
Each of theses "resources" was valuable. However, it became clear early in the implementation of the project that our greatest need was good conversation. We needed time and space for leisured conversation about what mattered to us most when it came to grading, about our different convictions and approaches to teaching and particularly the use of assignments, and then, of course, to the craft of grading. If we were going to address this matter effectively it would be a matter of time together, probably more than one occasion, with focused conversation in which we were able to talk about what matters to us most, share our experience of grading, both the frustrations and the joys, challenge one another, learn together from the shared insights as faculty from different disciplines and backgrounds shared distinct perspectives on the matter at hand.
We began with two faculty discussions in connection with our regular long-range planning meetings. These gave us an opportunity to air the frustrations and diversity of perspectives that we brought to the discussion. Then, in September of 2000, we invited the faculty to come together for an extended retreat in a comfortable setting. Different faculty led different segments of the day, as we wrestled with different aspects of the problem.
We ate together and laughed plenty; but most of all, we gave concentrated attention to the issues, taking them on systematically and addressing them until a consensus emerged. We agreed in advance that this was not a formal business meeting of the faculty; that anything discussed or decided was "off the record" other than the final report coming out of the day. Any "decisions" would still need to go through normal faculty governance procedures for implementation.
Coming out of the day were a series of recommendations, suggestions and observations. Some of these were then raised for formal action at a subsequent faculty meeting. Some were sent to committee for debate and amendment, and some were sent to the Dean for action (i.e. matters that did not require formal faculty action).
Most fruitful from the day was a sense that together we had established a benchmark in our discussion and that some of the protracted problems around grading and evaluation that had eluded resolution in the past. We all had a sense that progress had been made, and that it had been an enjoyable day together.
Through this project, we realized again, as though anyone needed reminding, that we had tackled a theme or issue that was not going to be resolved easily. The complexity of the issue was evident in part by the fact that it was so difficult to break the matter down into manageable points for discussion. Discussion about the use of TA's on the one hand inevitably raised matters of faculty workload on the other; without fail, any discussion about grade inflation also brought to the surface diverse perspectives on the meaning of grades, the value of formal evaluation, and the formative significance of grades for our students. While this is not to say that this is an intractable problem with no possibility of resolution, this does highlight that this is an issue around which there will continue to be much ambiguity.
However, the following can be affirmed with confidence:
- First that we have been able to at least clarify the issue and agree on the problem, even if we have not agreed on how this problem will be resolved. Further, it has been evident that perhaps part of the resolution of the problem is faculty conversation about the problem. It would seem fair to say coming out of this experience that grading can never be taken for granted; it will always be a presenting issue or concern. Consequently what is needed is a regular review of grading and evaluation in a discussion that is not judgmental or problem oriented. We can assume that most faculty want to do this well, and merely need gentle reminders and suggestions along the way to enhance our capacity to be skilled in this aspect of our work.
- Further, we learned that we are not alone in this discussion. It was profitable to have members of our faculty involved in discussions with faculty and deans from other theological schools. On the one hand, this merely served to highlight the complexity of our problem; but it also gave us the benefit of ideas, experience, methods and approaches that others were using that could in turn be adapted to our context. In this regard it would be appropriate that at least once a year there be a review of the grading discussed with the faculty as a whole. But this needs to be complemented by a regular (perhaps every two or three years) workshop in which faculty are encouraged to be present and given the opportunity to explore approaches, methods and ideas about grading that they could implement in their own work as a teacher.
- It is clear from this exercise that the Dean needs to regularly monitor what is happening with the grading of assignments and communicate with faculty what is coming through in the regular review of how the faculty are doing their work in this regard. The faculty need a consistent, informative communique from the Dean that is non-threatening, but informative, that allows faculty to see (together) how they as a group are grading and how it reflects their overall commitments and values. Grade inflation is a perennial problem; and it is likely the case that the best check to this inflation is a regular discussion and review of the place of grading in the educational mission of the College and a review of the actual kinds of grades that are being given.
- One of the immediate benefits of this discussion was a decision by the Dean that we would begin formal training of TA's along with more emphasis with faculty about the appropriate use of TA's in grading. We could not assume that each faculty member would provide appropriate guidelines for their TA's when it comes to grading assignments that could be designated to a TA. Consequently, the Dean began a regular practice of meeting with all TA's who would be grading, at the beginning of each term, to review the approach to grading, the meaning of the grading scale, the matter of timeliness, confidentiality, and care that would be appropriate for this task. It should be noted that faculty did agree that the use of TA's in grading would be limited to assignments in which it could clearly be shown that the TA could perform this duty as well as a professor (and that the use of TA's in grading would be limited to these kinds of assignments).
- It was also clear through this discussion that one of our most vital needs is communication: not merely from the Dean to the faculty or within the faculty, but also from the faculty to the student body (as often as not through the Dean). Students arrive with all kinds of expectations and assumptions about grading. They view grading and evaluation that may be quite different from faculty assumptions. We need a regular forum with students, perhaps at the beginning of the term, in which students are given a brief review of the place of grading in the educational philosophy and vision of the College along with an outline of the meaning of the grading scale used by the College.
Finally, there is general agreement on the faculty that we can be more intentional in the way we foster our capacity to grade well. One way to cultivate this would be through an occasional workshop on grading in which faculty could talk about their experience of grading, and share resources and ideas across and within disciplines.
What We Learned
For some faculty grading and the evaluation of their students' work is a continual uphill battle, something that for them is burdensome from beginning to end. Partly this is the case because they wonder how they can live with a constant and what seems to them an impossible tension: that for their students they are an instructor and a coach, but then also, at the end of the line, a judge. Yet apart from this tension, faculty also struggle with knowing how to grade well. While perhaps thinking that grading is a necessary evil, they would at least like to do it effectively. Yet most instructors in higher education have never had formal training in teaching, let alone the art of grading and evaluation of student assignments. Naturally, the normal practice is to grade student work in much the same way that one experiences the grading of one's own work. But this necessarily means that for such faculty members, there is little if any theoretical rationale for grading the way they do.
Further, students struggle to make sense of grading. Many live constantly wondering if they are receiving fair assessment of their work, perplexed especially if they perceive grading to be subjective and arbitrary. Students are often perplexed (and often with good reason) why they received a particular grade. When faculty and students are less than clear about the basis for the grades that are allocated, it leaves both parties frustrated and burdened by this ever-present aspect of teaching and learning.
Our objective, as we sought to strengthen our approach to grading and evaluation, and identify a set of practices that would foster an equitable approach to grading that would foster good teaching and learning. Grading can be both formative and summative. While recognizing that grading inevitably demarcates students work, and ranks it in comparison with other students' work, grading should be, first and foremost, a formative, learning experience. Grading, in other words, is not merely a mechanism for assessing how much as student knows and has accomplished. It is not merely a ‘necessary evil' because for some odd reason we have to give grades. Rather, evaluation and grading are also an opportunity for a teacher to give students a mechanism for their own self-evaluation. As such, it the exercise of serves as a vehicle not only for learning during a particular assignment or course; it also becomes a means by which the student develops the capacity for life-long learning.
That is, grading is a summative evaluation procedure. It provides students with a benchmark evaluating their work in a particular discipline or with respect to a particular skill, a mark that helps them determine if their work is good work, as understood by a particular discipline or guild. It thus provides the necessary certification that a student has completed a particular course of study in a manner that qualifies them for further study in that discipline, or for employment that requires confidence that a particular subject matter has been mastered.
Yet, this is only a beginning. Grading is not merely a means to evaluate what has been learned; when it is done well, it also fosters learning. Thus the value of grading rubrics. While the subjective character of grading and assessment cannot be entirely overcome, the use of clearly articulated and explained rubrics can go a long way towards removing some of the mystery around grading. Indeed, the authors affirm the place of subjective professional judgment, a judgment that is necessarily personal. But at the same time, unavoidable subjectivity does not mean that there are no clear standard by which such a judgment is made. Through carefully articulated and explained rubrics, students will appreciate that these professional judgements are based on specific criteria, criteria that are accessible to the student as well.
A rubric is a guide, to both the faculty member and the student, for qualitative judgments about the student's work. It advises the student, in advance, of the criteria by which their work will be evaluated; and it provides the instructor with a mechanism for fostering and monitoring student learning and development. Explicit rubrics can help minimize the tension between coach and judge that so many faculty feel.
This means that we can evaluate very different kinds of assignments, whether they are within traditional academic disciplines or in the areas where Regent College and other schools have experienced some tension: in spiritual theology, the integration of the arts with theology and in the skill development necessary in the formation for ministry.
All this is but a reminder that good grading takes time. Grading is an art, and if we take the time to do it well, it can actually be rewarding and gratifying, something that is part of the learning process for the student, and thus an integral part of what it means to be a good teacher. But it takes time and this needs to be taken into account in the regular review of faculty workloads.
Most of all, we have learned and continue to foster a commitment to see grading itself is not the end, but a means to the end: effective teaching and learning.