During the Spring semester, Cathy Davidson decided to implement grading practices fit for a new era: she left the evaluations of students to their peers.

Davidson, Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English, sought to create an evaluation system for her course, ISIS 120S: “Your Brain on the Internet,” that reflected how the Information Age has changed the ways people interact and communicate.

The grading policy combined peer evaluations with a point system, which consisted of a set of detailed requirements for each grade. Students created and signed a contract outlining requirements at the onset of the semester. Assignments were not deemed complete until the two student leaders—which rotated weekly—deemed them satisfactory.

“In [past] course evaluations, two outstanding students pointed out that we had talked at length about how grading and assessment were late 19th- and early 20th-century conventions designed to be as efficient as the assembly line,” Davidson wrote in an e-mail. “The course had focused on customizing thinking enabled by the open structure of the World Wide Web, but had stopped short of proposing a new method of evaluation for the digital age. When the best students are brave enough to offer a challenge, a good teacher pays attention.”

Zach Lerner, Trinity ’10, said he appreciated that Davidson’s grading system helped students reconsider the “standard” way of grading and facilitated class discussion.

Lacey Kim, Trinity ’10, added that she enjoyed the class so much she quickly stopped thinking of the course in terms of requirements.

“Frankly, needing to fulfill my ‘A’ contract in the class never really crossed my mind again after our discussion in the first class. I guess that’s just proof that I enjoyed her class that much,” Kim said.

Davidson’s experiment in education received both praise and criticism from members of the higher education community. Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, wrote a column in May for Inside Higher Ed titled “Why Grading is Part of My Job” that considered the importance of professors’ evaluation. Grading is a necessary way to differentiate between students, such as when recent graduates are applying for medical school or for a job.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Scott Jaschik, an editor at Inside Higher Ed said he did not want the article to come off as overly critical of Davidson because he believes experimentation in education is worthwhile. The specific system that Davidson used, however, resulted in almost all of the students earning A’s, which makes all of the students’ work to appear to be at the same level. According to the column, 15 of 16 students in Davidson’s course received A’s at the semester’s end, which makes distinguishing the quality of work between students difficult.

Davidson said she understands the criticism but still believes in the merit of her experiment. If 15 out of 16 students do A-level work, Davidson said she sees no reason not to recognize that effort.

“If I set ‘excellence’ as the bar for an A, why is it a problem if everyone works very hard and gets over that bar?” Davidson wrote. “If I were training a basketball team to win the NCAA [tournament], let’s say, my bar would be winning that championship. It would not be creating a bell curve of my best and worst players.”

At Duke a number of faculty members who had heard about her experiment—including professors of engineering and computer science—told Davidson they liked her ideas.

“Interestingly, I heard positive comments from lots of people in engineering who said they work very hard to teach their students how to work together toward achieving a difficult goal,” Davidson wrote. “I also heard from computer scientists, which makes sense, since the Internet, the World Wide Web, Mosaic, Mozilla, Apache, many of the features of Twitter and so forth were developed by collective excellence, crowdsourcing expertise.”

Davidson said that in her lengthy career as an educator, she has become familiar with both the uses of grading and its misuses. Teaching a course allows her to put those ideas into practice.

“It is important for someone like me, at a superb school like Duke and with my experience as a traditional academic, to push the boundaries of education so we can develop a much better system. Right now, we’re training students for our past, not for their future.”             

“Why Grading is Part of My Job”A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Leonard Cassuto wrote his column, “Why Grading is Part of My Job,” for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The column appeared in Inside Higher Ed. The article also incorrectly attributed The Chronicle's interview with Scott Jaschik to Cassuto. The Chronicle regrets these errors, they have been corrected in this article.