Is the Purpose of Teaching Student Learning or Student Grading?

Brief Remarks for the UMW “Faculty Conversation,” May 11, 2016 

Is the purpose of teaching student learning or student grading? I don’t believe that you can have it both ways. That is, grading, at least the way it’s commonly done, inhibits student learning. This is not merely my idea. David Brooks wrote a piece in the NYT about this, saying

“We all know why it exists, but the grade-point average is one of the more destructive elements in American education.

In life we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the  GPA system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.“

Think about that.  Does anyone who’s taught for any length of time disagree on this point?

The “F” grade, in particular, is an artifact of the current focus on teacher as grader, rather than teacher as learning-facilitator. It’s also an artifact of the system where students don’t want to be in the class. Even the “good” students more often than not see (most) classes as things they have to take, rather than things they want to take, or things they have a real reason to take.

Contrast this with the real world: In the real world (or for adult learners), there is a real purpose in learning something. If the learner doesn’t achieve mastery in some period of time, they keep at it until they do. What about those who are time constrained? They either need to work smarter or take longer. If they really need to learn something, they will find a way.

Only in school do we give students fake assignments where the answer is already known so the task is to identify the one specific answer. If you get something else, you are WRONG. But I digress.

Let’s take a lesson from writing teachers. No one writes a perfect paper on the first draft! Rather, good writing teachers understand that writing well is a process; that it takes multiple attempts to improve, to get it right.

Suppose you read a student paper, and put an A on it. How will the student react? How will they probably feel? They will feel great, successful. What’s the likelihood that the student will want to improve the paper?   Answer: zero.

Suppose you read another student paper, and put an F on it (with no comments). How will the student react/feel? This student will likely be upset, possibly angry, possibly bewildered. How will the F help the student become a better writer? By itself, it won’t.

Suppose you put an F on that paper AND you write comments to explain the grade. If you allow the student to revise the paper, he or she will likely try to fix the problems you identified. If they do, will you give them an A? Probably not, because a good writing teacher won’t identify everything that’s wrong with an F paper, they won’t cover the paper in red ink, rather, they will just focus on the highest level flaws.

Notice what’s going on here: The student is trying to satisfy the teacher, rather than themselves.

Suppose you read the paper, write the comments and omit the grade. How will the student react: Not upset, not angry; hopefully just interested in improving.

More and more, I am attracted to Mastery Learning. Don’t worry! I’m not using it in all of my courses, just some of them. Mastery Learning is a binary system: Either you’ve learned the content sufficiently to use it. Or you haven’t yet.

In other words, Mastery Learning is something like a pass/fail system, except that failure doesn’t mean the student is a failure (though I think we often treat it that way).  Rather, the alternative to Mastery is “Not Yet,” as in “the student hasn’t mastered it yet.” This is not just semantics!

Think about the artificiality of term lengths. What is sacrosanct about a 14 week term? Why don’t we recognize/accept that students learn at different speeds? A senior colleague once told me that speed and intelligence are highly correlated, so the student who completes the test first tends to score the highest. As a slow learner, someone who likes to chew while thinking, I don’t agree and I’d like to see the literature on it. Why not extend the length of time for students that need it?

Imagine, if instead of the current system, students were trained to see learning as a process, taking work, but ultimately leading to success.

Imagine that students were trained to expect to make mistakes along the way, that mistakes were not signs of failure, of hopelessness, but rather just steps towards learning.

Imagine if we taught students to evaluate their own work, rather than deferring to the authorities to do it for them.

Just imagine.


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2 Responses to Is the Purpose of Teaching Student Learning or Student Grading?

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    Just imagine… and then do it! It works: really! At least for writing classes, I cannot imagine going back to giving grades on papers. Instead: just feedback. I’ve done this for over 10 years now, and I’m very happy with how it goes, the students are happy, we’re all happy. My institution still requires a grade, yes, so I let the students do that, tallying up their work week by week, while my job is just to give feedback on their work and also help with time management, encouraging them to find the right work habits to help them grow as writers and also as readers. Anyway, I’ve written up some information about how all that works for me here: … and the writing process is feedback/revision oriented; that’s here:
    I’m glad to answer any questions, and I hope you will continue to write about this. The more we can free ourselves from the power of grades, the more we can focus on real growth and learning. That’s been my experience anyway… and especially when it comes to the teaching of writing, we are all growing all the time; it’s never done. THE POWER OF YET: growth mindset is an educational approach that really appeals to me in general, and for teaching writing, it’s ideal. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Getting away from Grades | Beth's Blog

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