Rethinking Grades and Learning

Is learning fundamentally a flow or a stock? Is learning about improving your skills and knowledge or about being skilled and knowledgeable? I ask these questions because often it appears to me that we’re grading what students know more than what they’ve learned. Bright students get good grades. Students who write well, complete A papers. Grading is an exercise in sorting based on what students know, which may have little correspondence with what students have learned on an assignment or in a course. I’ve encountered many students who, at least in lower level courses, didn’t have to learn anything to get good grades. What a shame, or is it a sham from the perspective of education?

This creates a contradiction for me or at least a discomfort: Our objective as teachers is to help students learn, to help them improve their thinking and understanding. But we grade not on their learning in the sense of improvement, but rather on what they know.

Okay, so be it. Let grades be an indication, an estimate, of what a student knows or is able to do at a point in time. But let’s not pretend that grades measure learning.

So where does that take us? Actually, quite a distance. It reminds me that teaching should focus on learning and not grades, that teaching is a craft while grading is a mere administrative function, and that grading provides only a poor incentive for learning. What does this mean in terms of one’s teaching? I will explain.

I asserted that grading is a poor incentive for learning. What do I mean by that? After all, economists argue that people respond in predictable ways to incentives. Rewarding students with a good grade for learning, or punishing them with a poor grade for not learning should encourage students to do what is necessary to learn more. But what is necessary? Grading is a blunt object for teaching. The signal to noise ratio is quite low. Grades less than A tell students that what they did wasn’t right, or wasn’t completely right. But grading, the way it is often done, provides little direct information about how to perform better. (A grade of A is almost as bad: telling students they are “completely right”, as if that is possible in the real world.) By contrast, I suspect that carefully thought-out, formative assessment can be a strong tool for enhancing learning. At least that’s my hypothesis. As Christopher Miller, President of St. Johns College, said today in a panel presentation, “Assessment should be an integral part of learning itself.”

Over the last ten days, I’ve reviewed two sets of student papers. Both were non-traditional assignments: one was the first meta assignment in my intro course, which I blogged about the other day, where students reflect on what was important in the previous topic, but more importantly, why it was important. The second assignment was the first major essay in my first year seminar on globalization. For this assignment, I asked students to identify, explain and justify what they see as the most important questions that need to be answered about globalization. I asked why the questions identified were important, and who they were important to.

For both of these assignments, I read and responded to their papers, but I didn’t grade them. I didn’t sort the papers (students?) and label them A, B or C. Rather, my responses were guided by the Inquiry Method, which says not to provide answers to students, but only to respond with additional questions, that is questions that lead students to think more deeply.

I must say I found this approach difficult. I have been training for more 25 years to sort, categorize,and label assignments (students?). It’s harder and it takes a bit longer, but it is opening my eyes to a new way of viewing teaching. Instead of reading a student’s paper and looking for what it lacks and what I can deduct points for, I start from “zero” and look for what I can suggest to improve the paper. What is the limit in the deductive approach? You can knock a student’s grade down to zero. What is the limit to this new approach? There is none. Students can improve without limit. In the first year seminar, I’m allowing encouraging students to revise their work as many times as they wish until the end of the semester. With each revision, I’ll give them additional feedback. When is an assignment done? When the student is convinced they have nothing more to add or when I have nothing more to suggest. I haven’t gotten rid of grading (which comes at the end); I’ve just put it into the back seat in favor of regular formative assessment.

This approach implies a very different view of teaching and learning, one where an instructor treats each student as engaged in a personal and in some ways unique journey towards education. Putting it another way, one must accept students’ abilities where they are and strive to help them improve. Each of them. Contrast this with the one size fits all method of the industrial model of education.

Can this approach be scaled? At one level that’s a question from the industrial model, though I admit it can be legitimate from the perspective of an institution or a school system. It may be possible to do something approximating this approach with the tools of Web2.0, but that remains to be seen. The question for me is whether I do it with a class size of 35, since that is the general limit in my courses.

I think I can, said the Little Engine that Could.

This entry was posted in First Year Seminar, Teaching and Learning, The Experiment, University 2.0, What is Education?. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rethinking Grades and Learning

  1. Laura says:

    I do the same thing with my students’ writing. In fact, the writing part of the class is only 20% of their grade, given in a final portfolio. Participation–in the blog and in class–is 60% of their grade. I want them to come to class and think and ask questions and work in groups. I want them to do the same on the blog.

    I am meeting with my students’ right now to go over their first papers. I read them. I don’t really write on them. I ask each one of them what they would do on their paper to improve it. So far, the answers I’ve gotten are great. They already know. I ask them why questions. Why did you think to put this here or that there? Or what do you think would support this claim here, which I think is interesting and believe in my gut?

    It is hard and it’s hard to resist the temptation to say, you need to expand here or cut there or rearrange there. And it’s hard for them when I say, you can revise or not, now or later and whenever you do, I’ll give you feedback. They want a grade. And I won’t give it to them. 🙂

    I’m also having them, beginning at midterm, do a lot of self-evaluation. I think it’s important to constantly look back over your work and see where you’ve come and think about where you want to be and whether you’re on the right track to get there.

    I’m really enjoying your reflections here. It’s giving me lots of ideas and confirms a lot of what I believe teaching and learning should be.

  2. Gene says:

    Thanks for continuing to post about the changes that you’re making in your classes and the responses you’re getting. In my experience, very few teachers are willing to share the detailed thinking that goes into shaping their classes, and we’re all richer for being able to follow your journey.

    In my classes, I use learning contracts that allow students to decide if they want to work for either an A or B. Once we agree on the products required, my role becomes one doing everything in my power to help them achieve that goal. I make suggestions, ask questions, and try to lead them to additional resources. Many students don’t like the process, and they try to push me back into the role of sorting and classifying.

    Ulimately I have to submit a grade to the registrar’s office, but that’s administration, not teaching.

  3. Steve says:

    Why would someone choose less than an A? And why should a teacher accept that choice?

    As a student, I almost never thought about grades and my objective was always to learn the most I could which I assumed would translate into getting the best grade I could. I admit I wasn’t very strategic in my thinking.

    So why would a student choose to learn less than they could?

  4. Debra says:

    So why would a student choose to learn less than they could?

    Why shouldn’t they be allowed to learn exactly the amount that they want to about a subject? That’s what the B does — especially in the context of multiple courses, and having only so much time. The B means, “I am interested in this topic, but don’t have the time to learn all that I can about it, but perhaps as much as I want to know about it” (don’t we all do that when we make choices about what to read, present, and do research on?)

    I definitely accept the choice of a B (or a C for that matter — only a handful of students every pick that choice when offered). it allows me to see just how much that student wants to commit to this semester. I am noticing this semester that the students who picked “B” are mothers, people will full time jobs, or students who are overcommitted — and they almost seem to relish the opportunity to do this.

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