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 two 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.

Content is about the specific topics we’ll address in this course, like “the matrix regression equation” or “inference in multiple logistic regression.”

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 if so, 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, 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 core topic. You can think of them as quizzes if that makes you happy. Or don’t, if it doesn’t. These Assessments are graded as demonstrating one of four levels:

  • 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.

Note that ESPN or Check/X are the only actual “grades” on these assignments. In certain places on Moodle or Gradescope, you may be able to see a numerical score, but those numbers don’t mean anything independently – they’re just arbitrary values because the system makes me enter a number. The letter is what counts!

The nice thing about Target Assessments, as opposed to “regular” quizzes, is this: you can almost always retry them, almost whenever you’re ready. In fact, I fully expect you to retry some Assessments over the course of the semester. Every week, you’ll have the opportunity to make up to two ish attempts at Assessments for any available module – including all the past modules. In order to re-attempt an Assessment, though, you’ll have to send me a short reflection about your previous attempt: what went wrong, and why it’s going to be better this time :)

“Final” Project: Arguably the coolest part of this course is the data project, in which you find and analyze a dataset on a topic that interests you. You’ll work on parts of this project throughout the course (hence the air quotes on “final”), culminating in a presentation to your classmates. The project is graded on the ESPN scale with an extra category, Wow, for work that’s really impressive – beyond the expectations of this course. You’ll get lots more details about the project as we go on.

Final Check: This takes the place of the final exam. It’s similar to a Target Assessment, but longer, and it may address any topic from the semester.

Engagement is assessed based on Engagement Credits. You earn credits by demonstrating your statistical communication skills and your contribution to the community. Some ways to earn credits are:

  • Attending class and completing the in-class activity
  • Submitting pre-class questions
  • Contributing to discussions online
  • Submitting a practice problem for feedback
  • Submitting project components, and providing feedback on your peers’ project components

Each week, you’ll submit a log of your contributions so you can get credit for what you’ve been up to. See below for how those activities translate into credit.

A.5.2 Engagement credit details

There’s a lot of numbers flying around here, but if you’d prefer to skip it, think of it this way. As long as you:

  • submit project components and give feedback to your peers as assigned
  • do the pre-class questions
  • attend class and do the activities
  • try a practice problem each week
  • make two or three substantive discussion posts every week
  • …but take a week or so off at some point

…you’ll be fine. 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.

Another way to think of this is: if you do all the “automatically scheduled stuff” that you get assignment notifications for (pre-class questions, class/activity, practice problems, project components), you only need to do 2 discussion posts per week to reach the A threshold. If you miss out on any of the regular stuff (forget to do the pre-class questions, miss a day of class, etc.) you can do extra discussion posting to compensate.

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. Coming to class doesn’t count if you sleep the whole time; “lol same” doesn’t count as a substantive discussion post. (But saying something in a discussion 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 whatever is needed from ICA 2
Substantive discussion post (up to 4 in a week*) 1
Submit one or more practice problems (up to 1 point each week) 1
Submit project component on time 2
Provide peer feedback on time 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.

Tracking engagement

In order to make sure you get credit for all the great stuff you do, you’ll need to let the TAs know about it! You should post a log of your engagement each week in the appropriate Moodle assignment. Many people find it’s easiest to track your own engagement in the online spreadsheet, then share the link with the TAs each week – 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!)

The key thing to remember about engagement tracking is that you’ll need to include links to each discussion post for which you want credit, so the TAs can read them. We’ve got systems in place that allow them to see your pre-class questions and attendance record, but they can’t go wading through all of the forums to try and find your posts! Again, 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 either :)

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 attempt timing: I expect that you will do at least one Target Assessment attempt in a typical week. Generally, we’ll leave some time blocked off for this, though you do not have to do your Assessment during that specific time block.
    • There isn’t necessarily a fixed time block for re-attempts; you can pick your own time block of the appropriate length.
    • If you just don’t feel up to attempting an Assessment in some week, that’s okay; you don’t have to get an extension from me (though if this happens repeatedly I might follow up with you about it). But remember, you can’t do more than two attempts in a week – so it is a really good idea to “keep pace” at least with your initial attempts for each module.
    • 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 12, go for it!
  • 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 one extra Assessment attempt (so three in a week, instead of two)
    • retry an Assessment that earned an N (see below)
    • get engagement credits for 4 extra discussion 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 3 is the maximum number of Assessment attempts per 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.
    • On weeks that contain days off, you can still attempt Assessments as usual (up to two, or three with a boost). But I may not be checking for re-attempt requests over breaks, so make sure to get that arranged well in advance.

A.5.4 Actual numbers

Base Grades

Here’s my philosophy of what grades mean:

  • A C student could get by in the next Stats course they take, with hard work and getting help when needed. So the student has demonstrated a basic familiarity with the core topics of this course, some familiarity with non-core topics, 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 and non-core topics, but there are major gaps; they’ve done minimal work on statistical communication.
  • A B student can do everything a C student can do, plus extra. They’ve shown stronger mastery of the core topics, more grasp of non-core topics, and solid statistical communication skills.
  • An A student can do everything a B student can do, plus extra. They’ve shown a solid grasp of all the core topics and most of the non-core topics. They’ve consistently demonstrated an ability to contribute to the statistical dialogue to boost their learning and that of their classmates.

Here’s how that translates into the assessments above:

Category Base D Base C Base B Base A
Target Assessments 7 Satisfactory 3 Excellent + 6 Satisfactory 7 Excellent + 3 Satisfactory 10 Excellent + 1 Satisfactory
Engagement Credits 100+ 130+ 145+ 160+
Project P or better S or better S or better E or better

Those “Satisfactory” marks mean “S or better,” by the way. If you have 11 modules at Excellent level and skip one module, that still meets the A threshold for Target Assessments, even though technically you don’t have any 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 rowing – you have to train both arms. And don’t skip leg day!

Again, there are multiple types of thinking that are really central to this course – mastering core concepts, getting familiar with more advanced topics, working on statistical communication, and applying everything to your own data. So you have to reach a base grade threshold in all of the categories in order to attain that base grade. (But see modifications, below.)

A note about the project: You will see from the table above that the project is a Big Deal. That’s true for a reason: the project is the part of this course that is closest to what you will do when practicing statistics in the real world. You are combining your skills with content and communication, and stepping out of textbook examples into real data.

That said: please don’t let this stress you out too much! You will be working on the project throughout the entire semester; you will submit components of it for feedback from instructors and peers; you will have plenty of time to retry, polish, and improve those components. The project might be the most important assessment in the course (and arguably the most interesting), but it is not meant to be the most intimidating. In all my years teaching stat courses with projects, at all different levels, I have almost never seen a student perform worse on the project than on other forms of assessment. Usually students do better on the project, because they’re more invested in the analysis!

Modifications to Base Grades

Grades also, you may recall, have these pluses and minuses attached to them. (So finicky!) Your base grade is modified based mainly on the Final Check, with a couple of other potential bonuses.

The Final Check is a snapshot of your mastery at the end of the course. It’s quite similar in content and format to the Target Assessments, but it’s longer, and reflects all of the topics we’ll have studied. You’ll get more details about the Final Check later on.

There are two other bonuses that can apply:

  • The threshold-mismatch bonus (please let me know if you think of a better name for this):
    • If you reach different thresholds in the different categories, by default your base grade is the lowest one. But if 2 out of 3 are higher than that, you can add 1/3 letter. So B/A/A works out to a B+.
  • The extra engagement bonus (again, still looking for a cooler name):
    • If you really bring it on engagement, earning 180 or more credits over the semester, I consider that to reflect a greater depth of learning and contribution to our community; you can add 1/3 letter to your base grade. This stacks with the threshold-mismatch bonus – so that B/A/A could become an A- with sufficient engagement.

See below for a note on the grade “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 Wednesday, November 10 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.

A gloomy moment: Note that the project and Final Check are still very important if you are taking the course Ungraded. In order to pass the course, your project must be at least at the P level, and you must reach the D threshold for Target Assessments – and your Final Check 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 Assessments on all the modules; you could earn enough Engagement credits even if you do nothing for a week or so. (I don’t recommend it, but you could.) There are no specific deadlines, except what’s necessary to make sure your classmates have a good experience (pre-class questions and project component feedback). 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 especially at a time like this, 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.