Point No Better Alternative
by Ruth Scodel
Counterpoint What Ever Happened to Learning?
by E.D. Rothman
I hate grading, and I’m sure many other professors do too. It trivializes the effort students put into their work by representing a whole semester of thought and effort with one crude letter. Strengths and weaknesses differ greatly from student to student, and are incomparable. I cannot grade without imagining the disappointments, and sometimes complaints, that will ensue. Nonetheless, I grade with genuine belief.
When we look at graduate applications in the Classical Studies department, we divide them into two groups based on GPA. The whole committee reads the group with stronger grades, while one or two colleagues check the lower-ranked group for applicants who are more promising than their grades suggest. There are a few of these, but not many. Grades are the best guide for us to determine which students deserve to be admitted to our program.
Once we have used grades to make the first cut, we look at the applicants holistically. We explore what strong grades may mean—a hard worker, love of the field, talent with languages, or broader intellectual curiosity. The grades themselves don’t tell us these things, but they imply that it's worth our time to look. This is how almost every such program works, and this process tells us why grades are useful.
Though we have recommendations and a writing sample, grades are the essential filter. Narrative evaluations may tell us more than grades do, but there would be no way to rank them and they would make our process much slower. Portfolios are essential in evaluating students for a program in, for example, graphic design, looking for evidence of a particular skill. Otherwise, portfolios are hard to evaluate (how much editing by others went into a particular work?), and take more time than we have.
Grades are, inarguably, a very crude measure of what a student has learned in a particular course. There is a significant margin of error, and at their best they don't tell very much about a student. They don't distinguish between students who enrolled in a course that included material they were familiar with and students who were pushing themselves to their limits. They also don't distinguish students who found the material difficult from those who were irresponsible and didn't study. There are faults to the grading system, but there is no better alternative.
We need the grading system because our society tries to be a meritocracy, and meritocracies are better than the practical (utopian) alternatives. High school grades are the best predictor of success in college, and without them disadvantaged students would be even more disadvantaged.
We need a ranking system for admissions to law schools or medical schools. Consider, for example, what would happen if all our big universities started giving students narrative evaluations or having them create portfolios. The admissions staff already has a mountain of material to evaluate, and does not have the time to sift through narratives or portfolios. Without grades, they would just rely more on LSAT and MCAT scores, forcing the score of this one test to determine their admission.
Grades look more objective than they really are, and that is a problem. Even in courses with exams that strictly test facts and have very clear rules of evaluation, there is inevitable subjectivity in evaluating lab reports, for example. It is not clear, however, that any other form of evaluation would be better. Portfolios don't pretend to be objective, but they are almost impossible to compare, and narrative evaluations are too often bland and unhelpful.
Of course, single grades are not very informative. GPA's typically are. There is no significant difference between an applicant with a 3.8 and one with a 3.7, but there is a large difference between 3.9 students and 3.5, and between 3.5 and 3.1. Patterns among fields are also significant—a student who is getting B-'s in science courses and A's in history needs to rethink being premed.
Even though we all hate them, grades have their merits, even at the level of the individual course. Most faculty do want to be fair. The very crudeness of the letter-grade system forces us to think about how one B+ compares to the next. It is much easier to evade that kind of responsibility when you are writing a narrative; you can easily let your feelings about individual students influence what you write (this is one of the problems that make writing recommendations very difficult). Whether we are grading exams, papers, or a whole course, almost all of us look at our outcomes and try to make sure that we haven't been unfair. We can't always be sure that we have succeeded, but we are doing our best, and letter grades help.
Grades lead to grade-grubbing and unnecessary competition. They are very, very far from perfect as an incentive or an evaluation. But before we give them up, we should be careful that we don't create more problems than we solve, in the less-than-utopian reality in which we actually operate.
Some of my students ask more questions about grades than about the subject I teach: statistics. “Are we responsible for this material? If my grade isn’t good should I drop this class? Should I do this assignment even if it won’t count towards my grade?”
The aim of education should be to help students learn the material and for them to enjoy doing so. After a few minutes in a kindergarten class, even a skeptic would see the natural desire to learn. Unfortunately, the older student often loses this intrinsic desire. We should eliminate these silly A’s, B’s and C’s and instead focus the exhausting effort of grading on actually helping students learn.
If the only purpose of an education is achieving a certain score, a grading system may seem sensible. However, the real world is not based on such an alphabetical quest. As a graduate, you will solve real problems, and a teacher—the authority figure who ranks students—will not be present.
A teacher’s authority in determining grades has seemingly beneficial results but can actually undermine educational opportunities. With knowledge comes responsibility. Jacob Bronowski, a champion of the scientific study, suggests that this responsibility is “to challenge the established view and not sit idly by while others define the world for you.” If the person evaluating you is also the person you challenge, then a clear conflict exists. We are creating yes men and yes women in the classroom and subsequently in the work force.
Extrinsic rewards establish a clear goal. Assigned grades based on tests or papers provide incentives to achieve such goals. But W. Edward Deming, a quality expert, reminds us to ask, “By what method is the goal to be achieved?” For instance, students may limit course selection to those classes which offer a higher chance for them to get an A. For others, there is such a great incentive to achieve a higher grade that they cheat. Generally, incentives lead to short-term thinking; deep understanding is sacrificed by an emphasis on memorization.
Limiting the number of A’s causes wasteful competition, discouraging cooperative learning. Those identified as losers in the competition will have reduced joy in learning and will establish lower expectations for themselves. Among so-called winners, we reinforce undesirable actions such as cramming for exams instead than actually internalizing the material. Competing students are unlikely to loan notebooks, provide insights or allow others to read their work.
Another fault of the grading system is that one cannot separate the student’s contribution from the teacher’s contribution to the score. A grade does not reflect how one will do in a future system. Reflected in the label “teacher’s pet,” the interaction between the teacher and the student is not small; students who learn to function in the system can perform better than students of comparable ability and effort who are not so focused on grade games.
How should teachers provide useful feedback? The feedback must acknowledge that our interest is in helping each student, not determining if one student is “better” than another. The feedback should be provided early and continuously. We must provide students with principles to be mastered. When a student demonstrates mastery, we will provide additional principles to master. At any point in time, the number of principles mastered can be high for some students and lower for others. However, like a dissertation, the size or number mastered would not be the primary factor in the deciding when the student can graduate. While most students may finish college in four years, others may need five. We want students to learn to question, to apply what they have learned to new situations, and to teach what they have learned to others. These abilities are far more beneficial in the long-term than the accumulation of facts.
Because students learn in different ways and at different speeds, teachers should focus on providing options and methods of learning appropriate to each student. The student’s responsibility will be to learn how to become an aggressive scholar in his or her own area of study. Everyone should be an A student in their specific expertise.
A student excited with the desire to teach others what he or she has learned could prepare an electronic portfolio, for instance, that would include mastered material. This modern electronic portfolio would provide potential employers and professional school admissions offices with examples of applications that he or she deemed important to describe. This skill set would be informative of his or her ability to move from a student who is potentially smart to an able leader who can communicate effectively.
Ranking students with grades creates an alternative purpose for education and therefore inhibits learning. Grades record what has happened rather than identify what could happen. They do not measure an individual’s contribution to the learning process. The alternative is clear: when a student demonstrates mastery, an A should be recorded. Otherwise, we need not assign a letter.
About the Issue
Point author: Ruth Scodelis the D.R. Shackleton Bailey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Latin and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies.
Counterpoint author: E.D. Rothman is a professor of Statistics and Director of the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research.
Edited by: Debbie Sherman and Leslie Horwitz
Cover by: Jill Brandwein