A.5 Grades and Other Inconveniences

As it turns out, I have to produce a grade for your work in this course. Given that, I want to be sure that the grade reflects something useful: the level to which you showed mastery of the content and skills that this course is about.

Things I don’t want this grade to reflect:

  • whether you had a bad day during midterms
  • whether a particular concept took a little longer to master
  • whether I decided a particular question was worth 3 points or 4 points

To this end, this course will be using a method called proficiency grading or standards-based grading. This sounds very fancy but what it comes down to is this: focusing not on a single test, or particular questions, or points (or half-points) – but on what you have demonstrated that you can do.

Your grade comes from three main components:

Engagement is about “statistician skills,” including communicating statistical concepts and results to others, asking questions about their work, and working together to produce knowledge. Engagement involves being a part of the community we’re building in this course – which is important in itself, improves your and your classmates’ learning of content, and prepares you to join the broader statistical community.

Concepts are specific key ideas and topics. See more details.

Skills are mostly about how you apply these concepts to actual problems. See more details.

Honestly, though, it can’t be more ridiculous than “My average is 89.4 so that’s a B+, but if I’d lost one point on that quiz back in Week 2 instead of two points, my average would be an 89.5 which rounds to 90 which is A-.”

I realize that this system may be new to you, and it may feel difficult to navigate at first. I’m happy to talk with you about all of this stuff – how you’re doing, pacing and scheduling, whether you’re on track to achieve your target grade, and what you might want to focus on next.

A.5.1 Assessments

Content is assessed primarily using Assessments. These are short, time-limited, solo activities that address a specific set of concepts. You can think of them as quizzes if that makes you happy. Or don’t, if it doesn’t. Typically, Assessments will be in oral format: you and I will have a one-on-one conversation where we talk about the module’s concepts. See here for more details on how this works.

On Assessments, your goal is to demonstrate two levels of understanding: Level 1 is more about a basic grasp of the topic, while Level 2 is about being able to use the concepts and integrate them with an application and your larger understanding. Each level is graded as demonstrating one of four proficiency categories:

  • Excellent work shows a complete grasp of the topic or skill. Answers and reasoning are communicated clearly.
    • Excellent work can contain minor errors that aren’t relevant. For example, an arithmetic error isn’t a problem in itself (this is not an arithmetic class, thank goodness). But it would be a problem if your statistical knowledge should have told you that the answer didn’t make sense, like if you calculated a probability to be less than zero.
  • Satisfactory work shows a solid grasp of the core of the topic or skill, with some smaller gaps or errors.
  • Progressing work shows a partial grasp of the topic or skill, but with some gaps that are pretty fundamental. It might be hard to understand the reasoning or the results.
  • Non-assessable work doesn’t provide enough information to assess understanding. It might have significant omissions or so many errors that it doesn’t make sense to address each one of them.

The nice thing about Target Assessments, as opposed to “regular” quizzes, is this: you can almost always retry them. In fact, I fully expect you to retry some Assessments over the course of the semester. Generally, there will be a new Assessment every two weeks, and time set aside for retakes on the “off weeks” in between. In order to re-attempt an Assessment, you’ll request it via Google Form – including a reflection about your previous attempt: what went wrong, and why it’s going to be better this time :)

Skill proficiency is assessed through Projects. Not every project uses every skill; you can see a spreadsheet of which skills are relevant to each project here (and use it to track your progress!). Your proficiency with each skill is measured on the same ESPN scale as Concept Checks.

While you can’t resubmit projects, you’ll notice that skills tend to crop up more than once. So if you’re not happy with your achievement on a skill on Project 1, for example, you have another chance to demonstrate that skill on a later project.

A.5.2 Engagement credits

Engagement – helping to build a statistical community – is a vital part of the course. It’s assessed based on Engagement Credits. You earn credits by demonstrating your statistical communication skills and your contribution to the community.

The discussion below gets pretty detailed, but if you’d prefer to skip it, think of it this way. Standard engagement means you at least:

  • pull your own weight on group projects
  • do the pre-class questions
  • attend class and post your wrap-up comments
  • attempt practice problems each week
  • …but take a couple of days off at some point.

Do this and you’ll be fine: your engagement will not affect your grade. The rest of the rules and numbers are just there to provide additional flexibility, and reflect engagement that’s much stronger (or less strong) than that standard.

With that in mind, here’s the details:

Activities and credits

Here’s a table of the things that earn engagement credits. A point to note here is that most of these activities affect other people. Engagement isn’t just about you and your learning – it’s about how you contribute to the experiences of your classmates.

To earn credit, each activity has to be a respectable effort. Attending class doesn’t count if you sleep the whole time; “lol same” doesn’t count as a substantive Topic Conversation post. (But saying something in a post that turns out to be incorrect is fine – being engaged doesn’t mean always being right!)

Activity Credits
Complete pre-class questions 1
Attend class AND submit wrap-up comment 2
Post to a Topic Conversation (up to 4 in a week*) 1
Submit practice problems on time (honest effort) 4
Submit practice problems up to 1 week late 2

There may also be special activities during the semester that could earn you engagement credits; I’ll announce them if any come up.

*That is, you can earn up to 4 of these credits in a week, for 4 substantive posts. You can also spend a boost to earn credit for additional posts.

Effects on course grades

Your engagement credit total is translated into a general engagement level, which then modifies your course grade (or doesn’t). Like Assessments and Projects, engagement is measured on an ESPN scale, although I think the acronym makes more sense as “Excellent/Standard/Partial/Not involved” in this case. The level is determined by the total number of credits you earn over the course of the semester.

The exact numbers are:

Level Credits Grade Effect
Excellent 120+ Add 1/3 letter
Standard 100-119 No effect
Partial 70-99 Subtract 1/3 letter
Nope below 70 Prof’s discretion

In addition, Excellent and Standard engagement require you to be a positive contributor when you’re working with other people on projects. I’ll base this assessment on my observations of your team, on your self-assessment, and on comments from your teammates.

“Standard” requires that you be a normal contributor to the group – respectful, inclusive, do the stuff you said you’d do (working out any necessary changes with your teammates). “Excellent” requires that you bring it; in addition to the above, you should be paying extra attention to prompt and responsive communication, helping the team function smoothly, ways you can help make space for your teammates’ contributions, etc.

A shorthand way to remember the engagement-level thresholds is:

  • Standard engagement is doing all the “standard stuff” (class activities and wrap-up comments, PQs, projects, practice problems), except you completely peace out for a week (missing classes and the practice problems)
  • Excellent engagement is Standard engagement, plus two Topic Conversation posts each week (and you do all of the practice problem sets, though you can still miss a few classes)
  • Partial engagement is Standard engagement, except you miss a couple of weeks instead of just one
  • “Nope” is…less engaged than that.
    • This generally translates into a larger subtraction from the course grade. But there are sometimes special circumstances, which is why it says “Prof’s discretion” – I decide what to do in these cases individually.
    • Again, if you find yourself in such circumstances, please talk to me or a dean! We are here to help you get back on track, even if your goals have changed.

Of course, most folks don’t find themselves in one of those specific scenarios :) It’s more likely that you’d, say, forget to do the PQs or miss a day of class, turn in some practice problems late, do a couple of Topic Conversation posts because you have a question about something…it’s flexible, which means it can be complicated. That’s why I suggest:

Tracking engagement

The TAs/graders for this course have the job of keeping track of your engagement. This is not an easy task, especially when folks do lots of Topic Conversation posts or turn things in late. So I strongly recommend that you also track your own engagement, so that you can confirm your official totals and contact the TAs if you think anything is off.

Many people find it’s easiest to track your own engagement in the online spreadsheet, then share the link with the TAs as needed – this means you’ll also be able to see your engagement progress at a glance, and won’t have to wait for the TAs to post points on Moodle. But other folks prefer simply to create a text file each week listing all their accomplishments. (I recommend adding to it each time you do something, so you don’t have to go digging through your history at the end of the week!)

When you do your engagement tracking, be sure to include links to each discussion post for which you want credit. That way, if the TA misses one, you can just send the link, and the TA can easily find and confirm it. The easiest way for you to manage this is just to record the permalink to each of your posts right when you post it, so you don’t have to wade through all of the forums to find them later :)

A.5.3 Fine Print

There are a few extra rules that govern this system, both to make things more flexible for you and to keep the general workload under control.

  • Assessment timing: Usually, there’s a new Assessment about every two weeks.
    • You have a regularly scheduled Assessment time slot each week. In new-Assessment weeks, I’ll assume that you will show up at this time; you don’t have to do any extra contact or sign up for an appointment.
    • In retake weeks, you still have priority access to your spot, but I will not automatically assume you’re using it – you have to request a retake. See below!
    • If your regularly scheduled slot falls on a school break, or a day when I’m at a conference or something, I’ll contact you to find an alternate time for that week.
    • Similarly, if you have a conflict with your usual time slot in a particular week, contact me as soon as possible to let me know!
  • Assessment retakes: Unless you’re in a special circumstance, you do these (if you choose) in the “off weeks” when there’s no new Assessment.
    • To obtain a retake, you first have to reflect on how things went the previous time! What were the issues? How have you improved your understanding in those areas?
      • Your reflection doesn’t have to be a big long essay – it can be a few bullet points. But it must be thoughtful and specific, not just “I didn’t do well last time but now I studied more.” Your job is to convince me that the retake is going to go better! If your reflection is too short or vague, I’ll ask you to resubmit it; you can’t do the retake until this is complete.
    • To schedule a retake, fill out the retake request form online. This is where you write your reflection about your previous attempt…and tell me which Assessment you want to retake, since I’m not psychic :) You must fill out the request form at least 24 hours before your time slot, so that I have time to prepare!
    • There is no limit on how late you can attempt an Assessment for a particular module. If you want to go back and re-attempt the Assessment for module 2 in week 11, go for it!
    • There is no official limit on how often you can retake an Assessment (except that you only get a limited number of retakes in total). Of course, your reflections should get even more specific and thoughtful if you’re re-attempting something multiple times :)
  • Boosts: These are tokens you can spend to “break the rules.” You get 2 for the semester. If you’re spending a boost on something, tell me you’re doing so, so I don’t think there’s a clerical error. You can use boosts to:
    • do an extra Assessment attempt
    • retry an Assessment that earned an N (see below)
    • get engagement credits for 4 extra Topic Conversation posts
      • You can spread these posts over multiple weeks if you like. By spending one boost, you could earn credit for 8 posts in a single week instead of 4, or earn credit for 5 posts/week for four weeks.
    • You can use only one boost of each type in a given week – so you attempt at most 2 Assessments in a week, and 8 is the maximum number of discussion-post credits. You can use one boost for an Assessment attempt and another boost for engagement credit in the same week, though.
  • Non-assessable retry rule: By default, you cannot retry an Assessment if your first attempt was N (Non-assessable). The idea here is that you don’t attempt an Assessment “cold”: first, make sure you have a basic understanding of the topic, for example by doing a practice problem. But if something goes wrong, you can still spend a boost to retry an Assessment with an N.
  • No-class days: It’s very important to me that you (and, I hope, I) will feel able to take actual time off during college breaks and no-class days; but I also understand that some folks really like to get work done during those breaks. So there are a few adjustments to keep in mind:
    • Of course, we won’t have class during breaks!
    • If we have a class session following a break, there will generally be pre-class reading/questions for it as usual. But I’ll try and keep this as minimal as possible, and make it available early, so that you do not have to do work over the break if you don’t want to.
    • My appointment availability and email-checking times will be reduced over breaks and days off.
    • If an Assessment (or retake time) falls during a week with days off, you can schedule your appointment as usual. If you want to use a boost to do a second attempt during such a week, contact me directly: I may have limited time slots available and it’s important to make sure everyone has a chance to do their regularly scheduled Assessment.
    • Mountain Day: If Mountain Day falls during a class day, we’ll adjust the schedule accordingly. If it doesn’t, great! If you have an Assessment or other appointment scheduled for Mountain Day, we’ll reschedule for later. (If this pushes your Assessment into the next week, don’t worry: it won’t cost you a boost.)
    • November break: There’s no Assessment or retake scheduled for this week (Week 12, 11/21 - 11/25). If you want to use a boost to do an Assessment this week, contact me by the end of Week 10 (11/11) to make sure we can find a time.
    • Last week of classes: Bizarrely, our last class is on a Monday. This is a scheduled retake week, and yes, you can also use a boost this week. We’ll talk more about end-of-semester logistics as we get closer.

A.5.4 Actual numbers

Base Grades

Here’s my philosophy of what grades mean:

  • A C student could get by in a follow-up course to this one, with hard work and getting help when needed. You wouldn’t necessarily hire them to do this stuff, but if it were part of their job, they’d at least know what to do next. So the student has demonstrated a basic familiarity with the core concepts of this course, some experience with applying them, and some practice with statistical communication.
    • A D student hasn’t shown the level of mastery of a C student. They’ve demonstrated familiarity with some core topics, but there are major gaps; they’ve demonstrated minimal command of applying the concepts.
  • A B student can do everything a C student can do, plus extra. They’ve shown stronger mastery of the core concepts, a wider range of applied skills, and solid statistical communication.
  • An A student can do everything a B student can do, plus extra. They’ve shown a solid grasp of (almost) all the core concepts and how to apply them. They’ve consistently demonstrated an ability to contribute to statistical dialogue, both as a “consultant” and as a classmate, to boost their learning and that of their peers.

Here’s how that translates into Assessments/modules and skills/projects. Remember that there are 6 Assessments and 8 skills – you don’t have to be perfect!

Category Base D Base C Base B Base A
Assessments: Level 1 1 E + 4 S 3 E + 2 S 5 E + 1 S 6 E
Assessments: Level 2 3 S 3 S 3 E + 2 S 4 E + 2 S
Skills 4 S 2 E + 3 S 3 E + 3 S 6 E + 1 S

Those “Satisfactory” marks mean “S or better”, by the way. If you have 5 E’s and 1 S for Level 2 questions, that still meets the A threshold for Level 2, even though technically you don’t have two S’s :)

If you’d like an analogy, consider weight training. You can do (the statistical equivalent of) one-arm bicep curls with free weights in class. But in the real world, you’ll be doing two-arm bicep curls with a bar. You have to train both arms!

Also, in this metaphor, engagement is leg day.

Note that both conceptual and applied thinking are really central to this course – you can’t just do one or the other. So you have to reach a base grade threshold in all of the categories to achieve that grade. (But see modifications, below.)

Modifications to Base Grades

Grades also, you may recall, have these pluses and minuses attached to them. (So fancy!) Your base grade is modified based mainly on your level of engagement.

The default level of engagement (Satisfactory) means there is no modification to your course grade – you get whatever base grade you earned based on Target Assessments and the projects. Excellent-level engagement raises your course grade by 1/3 letter; Partial-level engagement lowers it by 1/3 letter. Engagement that doesn’t reach the Partial threshold may have a larger impact on your course grade.

There’s also a threshold-mismatch bonus (please let me know if you think of a better name for this). If you reach different thresholds in different base-grade categories, by default your base grade is the lowest one. But provided your engagement is Excellent or Standard, you can add 1/3 letter to that. And yes, this stacks with the 1/3 letter for Excellent engagement. So if you achieved the thresholds A/A/B for level 1/level 2/skills, with Standard engagement, you’d have a B+; and with Excellent engagement, it would be an A-.

A.5.5 Special cases

Ungraded option

This course is available to take on an Ungraded (credit/no credit) basis, if you are not a Math or Stat major. See the registrar’s rules on this here: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/registrar/ungraded. If you take the course on an Ungraded basis, you can’t count it toward your distributional requirements. You have until Thursday, November 17 to ask the registrar to switch your grading basis (or switch it back if you change your mind).

If you’re debating whether to take the class Ungraded, I’m always happy to talk with you about it (though you do not have to get my permission, or even inform me!). I will not Judge You for taking the course Ungraded; there are lots of reasons why this can be a good idea, and ultimately it’s about what is right for you as a person and a student.

If you’ve never taken a course Ungraded before, please note that you are the one who makes that happen! You can tell me about your decision if you want, but I don’t and can’t do anything to make it official. You have to edit your registration via the form on the registrar’s website.

I do not do anything different internally if you’re taking the course Ungraded (again, I may not even know about it). I calculate your grade in the usual way; a D- or higher counts as Credit, anything else is No Credit. One nice thing about our assessment system is that you can gauge your own progress based on the concepts and skills you’ve mastered; but I also encourage you to chat with me about how you’re doing, especially if you plan to go on to another Stat course.

Note that all of the course components still matter if you are taking the course Ungraded. In order to pass the course, you must reach the D threshold for Level 1, Level 2, and skills – and your engagement must be, well, good enough not to drag that down too far.

As always, if you find yourself in extenuating circumstances, I urge you to talk to me or a dean or both. Depending on the situation, we can talk about options like work flexibility, alternative assessments, withdrawing from the course, etc.

A.5.6 Flexibility and exceptions

I’ve done my best to build as much flexibility as possible into the structure of the course. If you look at the threshold values for base grades, you’ll see that even if you are targeting an A in the course, you don’t need to have Excellent proficiency on all the modules or skills; you could reach Standard engagement even if you miss a whole week and don’t do any extra posting to catch up. (I don’t recommend it, but you could.) You have access to boosts that allow you to shift part of your workload earlier or later, or get an extra chance at a challenging task. My goal is to make it so that you can deal with other things that come up, work ahead, catch up, spend more time on topics that challenge you, and so on, without having to come ask me for exemptions and extensions – a process that’s stressful for you, and extra paperwork for everybody.

That said: stuff happens. Sometimes big stuff happens. If big stuff happens to you, good or bad – if you are in a situation that’s going to strain things beyond the flexibility built into the course – please talk to me about it. This includes but is not limited to concussions, physical or mental health issues, personal loss, unexpected accessibility concerns, being asked to serve on the Nobel Prize Committee – anything major, or anything that may affect you for more than two weeks or so. You don’t have to share personal details with me, and you can start by talking to a dean if you’d prefer. Again, I want you to succeed in this course, and I will work with you to find a solution that helps you do that while handling whatever is going on.

And on the flip side: flexibility is powerful, but it’s possible to have too much of it. If you know that you work better with more structure (or if you discover this about yourself during the semester!), I can work with you on building one. We can also talk about other ways to handle scheduling, pacing (working ahead or catching up), and balancing this course with your other responsibilities.