A++ (Would Grade Again)

What’s a liberal arts, writing-focused nerd to do?

The readings for this week acknowledge a number of issues circling around the way we educate and assess that education after it occurs, up to and including the reality that we assess the things that we find valuable. By the wayside are other aspects of education (e.g. lifelong learning, professionalism, global context, etc). But one’s math ability and knowledge are not removed from these concepts (indeed, it seems quite the opposite) any more than lab report writing is removed from issues beyond the engineering context I’m currently grading in this semester.

I’m a GTA with a liberal arts/English background and I am not the lead instructor for the lab course I am grading for this semester. The lead instructor, an engineering professor, is present for my workshops, so I don’t want to rock the boat too much when I’m around to discuss writing lab reports. That is, I feel compelled to keep it basic and simple. In the 40 minutes I’m allotted for one writing workshop that’s supposed to impart on these students everything they need to know about about lab reporting writing, there’s a lot of ground to cover. We’re supposed to introduce the concept of science writing since this lab is their first major lab course in their engineering major and discuss how to write effective lab reports. And that’s it. The engineering instructor grades the technical aspects of the course. The grade I assign is averaged with his grade, and the student then has a graded lab report with technical engineering feedback and technical writing feedback.

With respect to assessment of student work and assigning grades, it’s hard to acknowledge that the system in place that I found so boring and ineffective as a child is still equally boring and ineffective (perhaps more so, seeing as we didn’t even know of the technologies that would eventually exist to distract us… or serve as tools, depending on your view) in 2017.

It certainly leaves me in a place where I wish I didn’t provide any grades, but instead could just give writing feedback. There are some who would argue writing assignments are better off within English departments where they belong, and I wouldn’t agree at all unless it meant we could somehow change up our grading system for our engineering communications program. But that’s not the case, and honestly I think in-house writing instruction is an amazing way to work with engineering students.

A Post Script

I’ve mulled over the next part of this long enough, so I have decided to include it since it highlights my agreement with the concept that our classes, however removed from current events, are not removed from social responsibility and political context. Specifically, with the Muslim ban weighing heavy on my mind, I found myself wanting to make clear to all my students that I am there to provide instruction (and grades too, for that matter) no matter where my students come from. I’m there for all of them, up to and including assessing them equally. Does that mean that I don’t have my own implicit biases to work against? No. I know this. But I’m trying.

In the end, I waited until the end of our class and made a simple enough statement:

“I just want you all to know that no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you think your inherent writing ability is, I am here to work with all of you. And if you’re worried in these complicated political times if that’s a political statement, please know that it is. It absolutely is.”

Yes, I wanted to be (a tiny bit) political to prove a point, with that point being that while I’m there to try and grade them all as individual writers, I’ll do everything in my power to be equal in the kinds of feedback I provide students and the treatment I give them as people. I’ll do everything I can to assess them fairly and accurately, whether it’s grading a memo or a lab report.

We have a lot of work to do.

Grades are bad

I totally agree with the statement, “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.” I always been a good student, and always aimed for the best, and I did work hard to do well in school. However, I remember suffering from much anxiety as test time came around. I was never a good test taker even though I felt I understood the material. As a result, my grades often suffered because the weight of how much the tests were worth in the overall grade. Furthermore, I have met some students that are not good at keeping up with busy work and completing assignments on time, but they are good at taking tests, especially standardized ones. I believe the education system should focus grades more so on a per student basis. Each student has a different learning style and grades do not necessarily reflect their level of intelligence and may often may them become uninterested in learning.

Thoughts on Assessment

I have read very carefully the reading material that was suggested, including the TED talk.

There is not much I can add with respect to the validity of the proposals brought forward. There is research evidence that supports that traditional business compensation schemes are not efficient. My personal experience, both in higher education and the job market, has also has been the same.

Subsequently, I agree with Alfie Kohn’s article and suggestions. However,  we have a system that despite its shortcomings works. We know it does because this is how we were all accepted in our respective graduate programs. Our GPA’s and standardized scores are a necessary, although not sufficient, condition to be considered as serious candidates.

Therefore the question that I ask is what do we replace this system with? Even though I do agree about its shortcomings, there has to be some form of measurable assessment ultimately. There are no easy answers to this question, but that does not mean we shouldn’t investigate and try to gradually change the way we assess our students.

One way to go is to create experimental schools with different forms of assessment, perhaps with no grading system at all. The parents could voluntarily send their children into such schools and we could monitor their individual progress.




“Grading for learning is like bombing for peace.”

This phrase really got my attention. It got my attention because the analogy it draws is so striking. Obviously, learning and peace are desirable outcomes. What might not be entirely obvious, except for those in the pedagogical know, is that grading hinders learning in the same way that bombing hinders peace. The analogy might even be saying something stronger, for in the same way that peace antithetical to war, grading is antithetical to learning.

I find this reasoning to be entirely rational. When the focus is on grading, as Alfie Kohn argues, the learning becomes ancillary; the important thing, as far as students are concerned, is to get a good grade. Like most problems in education, this is not something that can be easily addressed by individual educators. This is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. The correlation between grades and achievement is so deeply woven into the fabric of educational system that it would be fair to call this a cultural epidemic. Of course, there are many things that individual teachers can do to mitigate the damage, different forms of assessment, but unless the entire system is rethought, the gains will be minimal at best.

As an undergraduate, I didn’t receive grades. The school that I went to was modeled on the Oxford system where written evaluations took the place of grades. This kind of assessment made learning more exciting, and thus, incentivized the learning process. Granted, this kind of assessment is no practical, especially with the large classes that we are expected to teach. But there’s no doubt in my mind that this kind of assessment is to learning, what flower power is to peace.


Let’s Share The Carrot and Break The Stick!

The school environment shapes us by the processes of assessment, comments, and categorization. It is one of the fundamental turning machines, which develops and molds the way we think. We become our future selves with how we did during our education. In a way, this experience determines what we will have access to in a competitive environment. In this sense, it may be the biggest investment of our lives. The goal oriented approach to this process would focus on grades as an indicator of where we deserve to be; however, in practice grades would not help at all, but discovering how we learn and solve problem which is embedded in the learning process itself.

As a student, I have never been motivated by grades. On the contrary, I rather feel stressed about them. However, I was not aware of other ways that is not defined by the pressure of grading, since this process will presented whether I should be considered either a good, intelligent, hardworking student or an average student with a tendency to laziness. Students are in a constant fear of losing their position of being a good student or under the surveillance in terms of their worth. I believe the grade-oriented relationship between educators and students turns the learning experience into a mechanical set of performances, removing the excitement of learning and inflicting the stress of failure.

Grading is reductive in the sense that it imposes a scheme to assess the performances of the student, who have variety ways of learning and processing information. If so, why do we rely on standardized ways of assessing? I believe it is a rather makes the outcome simpler to translate in to our highly industrialized and data-oriented world. Unfortunately, it still the benchmark indicator of how one can contribute to the society. I agree with the following suggestion by Alfie Kohn:

“…our point of departure isn’t mostly about the grading, but about our desire for students to understand ideas from the inside out, or to get a kick out of playing with words and numbers, or to be in charge of their own learning, then we will likely end up elsewhere. We may come to see grading as a huge, noisy, fuel-guzzling, smoke-belching machine that constantly requires repairs and new parts, when what we should be doing is pulling the plug.”

The standardized ways of assessing can be beneficial for the educators to present a depiction of the outcome the students’ learning process; since they are considered to be some sort of measurement and an indicator of success, so that the educators can assess their own performance as well. Yet, how and by whom these standardized ways are created, namely the founding principles of definition of academic success, is taken for granted most of the time. In a world constantly changing and connecting more and more each day, I believe educators need to do better than employing uniform understanding of assessment and to focus on what we can do to minimize the impact of academic assessment on the learning process as Kohn suggests.

Week 4 – Assessment

A little louder for the people in the back… “ASSESSMENTS ARE OVERRATED!”

Assessments are central to how the education systems determines a students progress (or lack thereof). Assessments  also play a role in stifling a students ability to engage in intellectual work – the creative work that is done outside of the classroom but is informed by the in-class formal academic experience. As Lombardi suggest, “The type of assessment students know will be coming determines when they “tune in” to a lecture and when they “tune out.” Evidence from student diaries indicates that students spend less than 10 percent of their time on non-assessed academic work”. Thus, what is important is only characterized by what is graded.

While I do wholly agree with the resistance to assessments and grading, I wonder if some alternate system is truly achievable. How are we to truly measure students in a manner that is objective? Some suggest that teachers should write about a students progress and gaps in learning instead of offering grades. Realistically how many institutions of higher education are truly going to read write-ups? How does a professor truly know if a student is learning?

I think investing in alternative assessments are more productive – giving students the option to write a paper, complete involved projects, engage in applied work, or do some other extracurricular non-traditional assessment. In this way, students can apply what they know to something they are good at or interested in.

On a personal note, I was admitted to grad school NOT because of my grades, but because of the applied work that I had done outside of academia. I was able to take what I learned from class and leverage it in internships that reflected my true capabilities. It was through internships that I found confidence in discussing my discipline and its application to the real world.

Needless to suggest, assessments were not a true picture of my potential or my ability to do intellectual work. They were a picture of my inability to do monotonous memorization and reverberation learning. Once I figured this out about myself, I was able to approach my academic studies with a spirit of enjoyment; that what was important was actually NOT in the classroom. That the classroom just gave me the tools I needed to be successful in non-graded work. Being reaffirmed in intellectual capability is important for students – and BAD grades certainly do not get the job done in the Department of Encouragement and Affirmation.

Something Has Got To Give

Warning: the following post will come out as a jumble of thoughts and words. Prepare yourself.

I can’t even tell you how many classes that I have been a student of where the conversation has meandered over into the debate over the value of grades. Every time the feeling of the majority is that grades are bad and qualitative assessments are good, and yet I have never seen anybody (including the instructor) make efforts to move in that direction. This all sounds well and good. A healthier educational environment sounds great. Students that love to learn and are intrinsically motivated to do so sounds cool. I am a little hesitant in fully throwing out the grading system without some actual plan in place that is not the exception to the rule, but a lot of people are complaining for it.

I’m not calling anybody out. I think that I am so exasperated with the current environment (politically and academically), that I am hoping to eventually see a shift in the current. I hope to see my peers or instructors listen to their own opinions and take action.

This torch is once again picked up in Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades“. Overall, I understand Kohn’s points and where they come from, but some parts of me are frustrated. I have been feeling a shift in the students I see as schools shift to being gentler. Everybody gets a trophy. Don’t use red ink. Etc, etc, etc. As such, I have students walking in with a sense of entitlement that they have already earned an ‘A’ in the class just for being present. I wonder how students would take to being qualitatively graded. Right now, the studies mentioned feel like they are the exception to the rule. I hope they are not.

Either way, I think the focus needs to be on influencing students’ intrinsic motivation.The intrinsic motivation is an important, if not the most, important element to consider. Having students be intrinsically motivated is not only good for their education, but vital for their existences as well as our cultural existence as a whole.In Liu and Brandon’s book “Imagination First”, there is much discussion over the need to allow for imagination to thrive. Right now, it seems to be suffocating. Perhaps, if that feeling of intrinsic motivation is instilled in students from the get-go, imagination will become an abundant resource once more.

One side argument regarding pure qualitative grading: I know how much public elementary school teachers work. I know how much is demanded of them from their administration and government. I know what stress standardized testing has placed on them. If qualitative grading is enforced then something has got to give. Teachers are not paid or respected nearly enough as is to then expect them to adopt this qualitative grading model with ease. I think that most teachers who have “heard the call” would love to incorporate it, but like I said something would have to give somewhere else. Writing 30 qualitative grading reports on a semi-frequent basis is extremely demanding. Yes, maybe research has shown students benefit from this, but what about the teachers? They do not receive nearly enough support to enforce such a system at this point in time.For the most part, teachers want what is best for their students and to provide them with a “learning community”. That being said, that is a lot to just place on their shoulders. Reflecting back to last week’s Ted Talk by Ken Robinson, I think there needs to be more discussion regarding the government and administration’s role in curriculum planning and testing. If we want real change, we can’t just pester poor teachers to follow along with what we think is best for students. Something has got to give.

Reflections of Learning

Alfie Kohn makes the decades-old case against grades (and against tests, in his referenced posts) come alive by speaking to the very issues that trouble me and make me long for a different job.

I have spent years in pursuit of perfection in my grading, in designing tests that are more foolproof against cheating, and in crafting the perfect rubrics, the ones that make submissions easy for me to grade and put the blame on the student if they don’t like their grades.  Strangely, the ideal that drives this frenzy of constant activity is a quest for fairness and consistency.  I don’t like arbitrary assessments.  Being subjected to someone’s whim always made me angry, and I’m not going to do that to students.   So the rubric attempts to mute my opinion in the grading process and base the grades on a set of easily quantifiable and justifiable rules.   The rubric is an attempt to enforce consistency, but it cannot make grading fair.  The rubric is merely a proxy for whatever outcome is supposed to be assessed, much like grades are a proxy for the supposed degree of success or failure of students who took the course.

The problem here is that following rules is only one thing that future engineers need to learn.  It’s a big, important thing, but it’s not the only thing.  Sometimes, it’s better not to follow rules.  At times, making up new rules is the way forward.  Maybe sentences need to run on from time to time, do you get my point?  The rubric is not a good way to measure creativity, insight, or persistence, and why would we want to measure those things anyway?  A measurement is something that confines.  I want my future engineers to make mistakes and let their own experience, not my measurements, guide them.  The assessment tries so hard to be fair and consistent that it is necessarily arbitrary because it is blind to the important things.

As Kohn points out, students who value grades highly will tend to make safe choices.  My experience bears this out.  Furthermore, some of the best design work comes from “B” students (which is why B students rock!)  As part of the design assignment, I asked the students to write a reflection piece about why they chose that particular design and what they learned from it, and to include their review of the design software and recommendations for other users.  The “B” students often chose ambitious design objectives, and evidence of the quality of their learning is captured in the reflection writing.

“I chose to make a guitar because I really want to learn to play the guitar. I made the base of the guitar, starting out with 7 points and then with the spline tool I connected the points. The spline tool is what [creates] the round edges of the guitar.  After that, I mirrored the spline line about the centerline to make the guitar symmetrical.  Finally, I extruded the sketch.  To make the base hollow, I used the shell tool. I also used the shell tool to make the guitar three millimeters thick.  After I finished the base of the guitar I added the accessories on top. First, I made the hole by sketching a circle and extruding the opposite way. After that I added the part that holds the strings and the squiggly design on top with the spline tool. Lastly, I made the second part with the line and extrusion tool.”

  • – Mariam

Oh my gosh!  The students don’t need me to grade them; they can express the quality of their learning most eloquently with their own voices.

“While making this design, I learned a lot about how to dimension because I had to make the [guitar] symmetrical.  I also learned how to use most of the features in Creo, thus I can call myself a professional at using Creo.”

The type -“A” students tended not to submit the reflection piece. I suspect that they thought that they had satisfied the aim of the assignment with the technical drawing.  Maybe they considered the “extras” unimportant or something that I added so that students who could not master the software would be able to get some points for the assignment.

The reflection writing expressed the students’ challenges and struggles, and their gratification with a job well done.  I recall that the best learning experience I ever had was not graded.  When I told my English teacher why I believed that Lewis Carroll’s “Butcher” character in The Hunting of the Snark was a self-portrait of the author, he did not reward me with a grade at that moment.  The reward was my teacher’s admiration of my profound insight, and my belief that I figured out something that nobody has ever known before, except maybe Lewis Carroll.

If I let students assess themselves, then perhaps the grading outcomes would stop being upside-down, and hardworking, ambitious “B” students would not be relegated to second place.

Alfie Kohn has convinced me of the need to abandon traditional grading.  I have not yet assigned any grades in my digital class this semester.  Maybe it’s not too late to change this crazy game now, and shift my attention to encouraging and supporting actual learning.

(Limited) Imagination, You lost me at “Spellings,” and Riley’s Agency

This week’s readings on assessment, grading, and motivation offers an interesting study of politics and education. I’ll return to this in a moment, but in short, we find Kohn suggesting and Riley demonstrating the obligation of educators to challenge standards and structures that essentially remove the “liberal” from liberal education. On the other hand, we find Liu and Noppe-Brandon arguing to liberate imagination, even collective imagination, and yet seemingly oblivious to the social conditions that allow for some imaginations to be much more expansive and possible to realize than others.

Now Liu and Noppe-Brandon aren’t necessarily wrong in their argument and possibilities for imagination. They rightly challenge the myths that constrain imagination. And yet their own imagination seems oddly constrained within a dominant social and political order. They cite the 9/11 commission for instance, that found “the government failed to imagine that terrorists might strike at America in such a stunningly symbolic, asymmetrically powerful way.” But what about the imagination that would question the very motivations of the terrorists? Of course if the dominant rhetoric is because “they are radical Islam,” or they are simply evil, one doesn’t need to have any further imagination.

Liu and Noppe-Brandon also suggest that imagination trumps material conditions. They cite, for instance, J.K. Rowling’s imagination of “a world of wizards and limit-bending acts of magic when all around her was the harsh scarcity of welfare and single motherhood.” That’s all very well, indeed, especially for those of us who were privileged with a good education, a good family, a good community, or something else. But what about those individuals who have none of these, because the once-strong community and family they had were trashed by an economic order that has gutted and sent overseas the industries and jobs once found in these communities?  It feels so utterly empty, so patronizing, asking them to “think big” in the face of this despair. Can’t we do better?

And Lombardi… well honestly, she kinda lost me with her invocation of Margaret Spellings as the source of an education goal we should really pay attention to. For Spellings, apparently, her model of the students is solely as an (neoliberal) economic entity that is positioning themselves to be competitive in a global marketplace. And while she doesn’t say it directly, this will “Make America Great Again.” Lombardi seems mostly silent on any larger purposes of education… such as, hypothetically of course, preparing a citizenry to recognize and challenge a political regime that is eroding if not more directly tearing apart and undermining democratic institutions.

Riley, however, is really getting at something. She is a political agent, as she recognizes that engineering education, just like any education, can never be removed from politics. She is challenging the structures, standards, and leadership that would reduce engineering education to a technical skill, and deprive this education of ethics, and its political nature. For instance, she makes an important distinction between policy and politics: “By shifting to the term policy instead of political, ABET is shrinking the intended domain of action for engineers. Understanding the political contexts that give rise to engineering projects, and analyzing potential political implications is an essential professional capacity.” Similarly, she challenges what seems to be a minor change in ethics, to something that has quite significant implications: “Removing the professional context in which engineering ethics is necessarily practiced and replacing it with the word “principles” evokes personal morality (as in, “Does one, or doesn’t one, have principles?”).” Riley doesn’t just take engineering education as something that can be isolated from its larger social and political contexts. It is something that is inherently immersed in these contexts, and a responsible and ethical engineering education must not just have ethics or political education as something added in as an extra course or two. They must be integrated into engineering education, throughout the curriculum.

Intrinsic Incentives Free Great Minds

Whether the existing grading system is problematic has been a debatable topic for decades. Students get scores in a specific class. No matter this score is a number (1-100) or a letter (A-F), this will be used as the sole standard to assess the student’s performance. The score will play an important role in the student’s future life, such as college/graduate school admission, job application, and even the amount of money paid for car insurance. Therefore, the score can be the only thing the students care. In another word, students take a class for getting an A more than acquiring knowledge. For example, when a teacher tells the students that the content he/she is going to say will not show up in the test, most students will not pay attention to it. This situation simply deviates from the motivation where the education system was initially designed.

More and more people have been questioning whether the existing grading system is the best for assessing a student’s performance. No doubt it is to now the most efficient way. When I was in high school, there are more than 70 students in one class. The teacher usually is in charge of two or more classes. So giving a narrative feedback to each student is almost impossible for the teachers. Meanwhile, test scores are the only standard for the college entrance exams in China. So there are no incentives for both teachers and students to develop an alternative assessment tool to the existing grading system. Even in US, it is hard to completely eliminate the grading system. Giving a narrative to a student’s assignment is definitely increases the burden of teachers compared with simply giving out scores. Besides, there are not any promising assessment tools that work even close to the grading system.

Grading system limits the free exploration of knowledge and destroy great minds. With too much energy spent on earning more scores, less energy is left for the creative thinking. Students who get high test scores may not be the most creative ones who can change the world. Many of them devastatingly to pursue the scores in subjects they are not even interested. I personally oppose to any standardized test. The time I mostly regretted to spend on is that for preparing college entrance exam and GRE. I think they are totally a waste of time. The best way for me to learn is to follow my own heart and do the things in which I feel mostly interested. Like what Dan Pink expressed in his TED talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y&feature=youtu.be), the external incentives (rewards or scores) sometimes make detrimental effects on people’s performance on jobs that call for creativity. While the intrinsic incentives (motivation to learn or solve problems) are the keys to create and make a real difference.

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