Grade Addiction

Confession time:

As a recovering grade addict, I have thought a lot about the effects of grades on my life.  The terror of getting a grade worse than an A during my middle and high school years was enough to affect many of my decisions about what extra-curricular activities I chose, what classes I took, and how I spent my free time.  At the time, I liked to think that I had it all under control and that grades didn’t matter.  But they did.  So much so that I still remember the deep anger I felt toward one of my math teachers who, during my senior year, granted me the only B I had received in my whole young life.  I blamed him for so much, much more than was necessary, and even worse I would not forgive myself for being such a failure.

It wasn’t until a few years later during my undergraduate degree that I finally started to loosen my grip (just slightly) on the “straight A” ideal.  Before you get the idea that I was going rogue and not caring at all about grades, just know that that wasn’t the case.  The grade addiction ran deep, and I still cared.  I still fought for those A’s as much as before.  But I started to recognize that a grade wasn’t a reflection on my worth or my identity.  I began to realize that I had foolishly thought that the definition of who I was required some statement on my intelligence and that my intelligence was clearly linked to my GPA.  It occurred to me that I needed to reject this line of thinking.  I started to take things in stride, and a grade less than an A had less power over me than it did before.  I won’t lie, it still stung, but I guess I cared more about how far I had come and all the people I had interacted with when I wasn’t studying.  It was a small step, but a necessary one.

Now as I am preparing to become an educator in higher education, I wonder what to do about grading in my future courses.  I still feel the lingering affects of grade addiction, and it is hard to let go.  I alone cannot completely eradicate grades from the university system, and I will likely have to submit grades at the end of each semester as always.  But what can I do to ease the pressure of grades on students?  What can I do to help them have their eyes on the adventure of learning rather than the hurdle of the GPA?

For one thing, I can remember a few key lessons from interesting studies.  First: Dan Pink has summarized many scientific studies about motivation in his TED talk, “The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.”  These studies showed that when offered some external reward or punishment for a simple mechanical task, people performed better.  However, when these same rewards or punishments were offered on a creative or cognitive task, performance WORSENED.  You have probably felt this way before.  Dan Pink says that what we need to succeed in our creative endeavors are 1) autonomy, 2) mastery, and 3) purpose.  If I can find a way to incorporate these three things into the classroom, I think that the students will feel more joy in learning than fear of grades.

Another thing I would like to incorporate is something from the experience of an English teacher, Jeff Robbins, as told in Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades.”  This teacher decided that the best way to remove grades from his classroom was to offer comments to all of his students on their work, write short notes about their progress in his own gradebook, and then sit down with them at the end of the semester to collectively discuss what they learned and, at the end of the conversation, their final grade.  What I love about this approach is the way the instructor sits down with the students and focuses on individual improvement and learning.  I also think that giving meaningful feedback on the students’ work is essential to encouraging progress.

To wrap up this post, I want to leave you with two quotes–one that I found to be very meaningful and one that I thought was a bit cheeky.  First, from Alfie Kohn:

“Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks.  They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly — not because they’re ‘unmotivated’ but because they’re rational.  They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.”

The last quote I have is something funny I found from Katie Hendrickson’s summary of assessment in Finland. I’ve heard a lot of people praising Finland for their educational system, including my sister who lived there for over a year, so I figured I would jump on the bandwagon for a minute :).  In their system, they do not frequently administer “high-stakes” testing, though when the international assessments come every couple of years, students from Finland tend to do very well.  Why?  Well, as one principal put it:

“Some testing is thus ultimately necessary…if only to prove that regular testing is not.”


Reading the section called “Google the Error” in Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of Learning hit home for me. A man named Allen had learned many different computer programming languages through what may be called trial-and-error-and-Google.  He would write up a script, try to run it, and when it crashed, he googled the error message for some ideas.

When I started my PhD program, my research project was to pick up where one student left off and keep going with it.  The previous student had done basically everything in Python–an object-oriented programming language.  There were dozens of Python scripts that I needed to use for my work and I had only one brief prior exposure to Python.  I knew that I had to learn how to write in Python and the task was very daunting to me.  I have never considered myself to be even a kindergarten-level programmer, even though I did ok in my undergraduate Computational Skills class where I learned basic programming.  So how did I learn Python?

I Googled it.

I would look over a script that the previous student wrote, try to figure it out, and then Google hundreds of things that were about as understandable as Chinese to me (and please note… I don’t know Chinese).  I won’t sugar-coat this… it was EXTREMELY frustrating and difficult at first until I could figure out the structure and the lingo. There were many days that the word “Python” came out of my mouth almost as a curse. Now I am much more proficient in Python and I actually enjoy all of the neat things that I can do with this programming language.  I have even voluntarily used it on a few homework assignments where Python was not part of the class at all.  Who would have guessed it?

Now I wonder how I can capture this learning style in more traditional classes within my discipline: civil engineering.  As a future professor, I wonder how I can help the students do a little more trial-and-error-and-Google learning.  Honestly, when I look back on my learning experiences, learning from my mistakes has been one of the most enduring and memorable methods.  Though sometimes painful or uncomfortable (as previously described), it can turn a tough subject into a strength that may end up being your new side hobby.  Like Python is for me.

Entertainment vs. Enlightenment

If your professor stood in front of your class and said “my purpose during the course of this semester is to set your mind on fire,” what would you envision the semester looking like in that moment?  An enlightening and motivational speech every day in the classroom?  A fiery debate in every class?  Or maybe your grades going up in flames?…

Whatever you imagined, it may or may not have been what the professor intended.  What I think Mark Carnes intended when he wrote “Setting Students Minds on Fire” was that he wants his class to be driven by the students and the students to be passionate about the topic.  He began his article by saying that a high percentage (perhaps close to 50%) of students who enroll in college do not finish.  Some attribute the cause to lack of funds, but Carnes argues that it is lack of motivation… basically, classes are boring.  If the experiences that students have in the classroom lead to motivation and passion for their education, then they will likely find a way to finish.

Now please bear with me while I interject a brief comment here on the distinction between classes that are “entertaining” and classes that are “enlightening” or “motivational.”  If you think that college is meant to be 100% entertaining, then you will be sorely disappointed.  College is not meant to be that way.  As with every other thing we commit to in life, even our dream jobs, there is always a bit of drudgery that we have to get through to get to the good stuff we enjoy.

However, I think we can certainly deliver classes that are enlightening and motivational on a regular basis.  As Carnes discusses in his article, we can involve students in quests or games that involve their problem-solving skills.  We can provide context and deep meaning to what they are learning so that they will apply those concepts to their own lives.  Think about what you could do in your own classrooms and in your disciplines that could genuinely interest the students in the material.

While you are doing that: remember to carefully tread the line between entertaining and enlightening.  I think some of you will agree that you have had professors give lectures in which they were obviously trying to merely entertain you and keep you awake during the class.  Did you leave those classes feeling motivated?  Feeling excited about the things you are learning?  Feeling like you couldn’t wait to talk to your roommate about what you were discovering during that class?  Probably not.  But maybe a few of you have been in classes that really got you thinking about the material and how it applied to your life.  How did that class make you feel?  How did it affect the rest of your semester/career/life?  How would you describe your experience?  I know how I might describe a few of those rare experiences:

My mind was set on fire.

We are ALL cut out for learning

“So, what’s all the hype about Baby George?” I wondered as I left GEDI training (aka Contemporary Pedagogy) on Wednesday night.  Our professor had sounded so disappointed that we couldn’t watch a TED talk titled “What Baby George Taught Me About Learning.”  Intrigued, I watched it after I got home from class:

I really enjoyed this TED talk, especially when he highlights how we should see the different strengths that students have.  He points out that we often hear people saying “well, some kids just aren’t cut out for school,”  and yet what that basically means is “well, some kids just aren’t cut out for learning.”  Isn’t that a bit of a ridiculous claim?  Everyone can learn, but not everyone learns in the same way.

During my own experiences in teaching, I have often wondered how to reach a large class of students with a wide variety of learning styles, concerns, challenges at home, and goals for life.  I desperately want to inspire and mentor students through their educational experiences, but how am I supposed to do that when I am given a room full of strangers to get to know in just a few weeks?  How am I supposed to do that within current academic restrictions (e.g. grades, strict policies, departmental cultures)?

I hope that during this semester I will be able to find creative ways to meet the challenges of teaching in university settings.  Perhaps I will even learn how to better use technology in the classroom and Networked Learning to improve the educational atmosphere of my future classrooms.

No matter how far-out or inventive or mundane the solutions I come up with during this semester, I hope to remember this phrase from the Baby George video: our educational journey is less about learning “how to make a living” and more about learning “how to build a life worth living.”