Rethinking Grading

Grades are learning incentives. Incentives are important, but testing as a means to incentivizing students, are not necessarily useful measures to induce creativity and spark imaginations (see Kohn, 2011; Dan Pink, TED Talk, Aug 25, 2009). Student assessment and evaluation for grading are often based on the subjective judgments, intertwined with various biases. I recognize that issues […]

Assessment of educational ability And Challenges

Assessment of educational ability to me should be a way to see if students are leaning. If that is the case, you move forward; if not you assist them by providing helps. This is to my view the best way to assess learning; it should not be a way of selecting best students, qualifying or disqualifying students to move at a higher level or a way of punishing them. Unfortunately, this is the most spread way assessment is done across the globe and it is more problematic in underdeveloped countries. I am even wondering if the way of assessing learning is not among the main factors that are holding some countries in Africa behind.

Is it possible to address this learning assessment approach and make it better for a better learning outcome?

To me it will be difficult because even in developed countries attribution of rewards based on good performance (weather it is about good grades or participation in class) is so rooted in education and all actors (educators, parents, students, leaders) even think that it is indispensable.

I think at younger age, when students just start school they barely know what they are there for.  But kids appreciate when they are praised. At school when we give a good answer for a question and teachers say “excellent” or “Good job”, etc we feel some joy, some pride. And the same reaction or feeling is noticed with good grade. At home parents are proud and some even show much more love and provide us with more presents than our siblings if we do well at school. These behaviors of teachers and parents motivate us as kids to work hard but which effect are those behaviors having on the students who did not do well. Never fully understood.

Growing up and being more mature our perception of grades or what motivate us to work for good grades can shift but still grades occupies a good place. For some being among the best is always a challenge while other just care about finishing their studies.

I have mentioned that assessing knowledge in the best way is more challenging for underdeveloped countries. The following are elements that one can face while willing to provide students with assistance after unsatisfactory results:

  1. Large number of students in the public schools in some places.
  2. Lack of material and human resources to provide assistance and support to the student in need.
  3. The fact of studying not because this is the field of study you want to focus on for what you want to do or become in the future but because of what can help you get a job and make money. It is not rare to hear mentor telling their mentee if you are choosing a field of study weather local studies or abroad choose a field that will allow you to get a job once back home. They do not hesitate to tell students “choose what can help you make money not what you want”. Even though this does not apply to everybody, it is a fact.

Thoughts on ranking, evaluating, and liking

From this week’s GEDI F18 blog prompts on assessment, I was most interested in Peter Elbow’s essay on forms of judgement: ranking, evaluating, and liking. I highlighted several of Elbow’s passages and found myself writing in the margins “YES! I can relate to that!” What resonated with me the most however, was his comment that ranking “is inaccurate or unreliable; it gives no substantive feedback; and it is harmful to the atmosphere for teaching and learning.” His example of grading unreliability – a single paper will receive the “full range of grades” from readers (based on research conducted in 1912!) – is extremely convincing.

Elbow also points out one of my major frustrations with grades – students tend to focus on the grade and ignore the feedback/evaluations. He says “I’m trying to get students to listen better to my evaluations—by uncoupling them from a grade.” I would argue in some cases that better “should” be deleted from the sentence, implying that students should simply listen to evaluations. I had a wonderful PhD adviser who told me to always include positive feedback on all of my student’s assignments. Before my students could submit their homework to a digital platform, I would often receive encouraging comments from them about my feedback. My comments made them feel good about their work and they looked forward to picking up their assignments. Last semester, however, I TA’d a lab where all of the assignments were submitted through Canvas. My issue with the digital platform is that a student can see their grade without going to their assignment. Therefore, students may not actually read the evaluations, especially if they are satisfied with their grade, and thus won’t benefit from the feedback.

I love that Elbow brakes down his grading into only two classifications, “Honors” and “Unsatisfactory.” From my limited teaching experience, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s easy to identify the good and the bad but ranking the students in the middle is ambiguous, time consuming, and I never feel good about doing it.

I also want to comment on Elbow’s statement that “many “A” students also end up doubting their true ability and feeling like frauds – because they have sold out on their own judgement and simply given teachers whatever yields an A.” I want to add to this that in other situations some “A” students might also feel that the quality of their work was unworthy of that A because they know that they did not put enough time, effort, or thought into an assignment, which is another issue with the grading/ranking form of assessment. In this situation, feedback is essential (e.g., maybe the quality of the writing was poor but the student hit on all of the major points of the assignment).

Elbow’s essay focuses on writing, thus I wonder how his ideas on evaluating and liking could be applied to the sciences. Would scientists ever embrace these ideas? Or do they prefer multiple choice assessments solely because they’re easy to grade and shy away from assignments that require more rigorous evaluation? While I was reading, I was trying to come up with some other forms of evaluating students in the sciences. My default was to still consider tests of knowledge without the stress of a grade, e.g., end-of-the-week, ungraded or bonus “quizzes” that are reviewed in class, or the replacement of mid-term exams with a semester-long project. I also pondered using participation “points” to encourage liking, e.g., participate by contributing to the course’s weekly folder an article related to the topic being discussed in class that week. Does anyone have another idea or comment on evaluating and liking in the sciences?

Abandon grades? Maybe the right reasons, but not the right time

Perhaps there is no doubt that the grading system is “inherently problematic” for most people in the modern society. However, from my personal experience, I think there are many problems although this assessment approach has many problems, it cannot be replaced right now. I disagree with Alfie Kohn’s statement that “Nor are grades a necessary part of schooling…we have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all”.
I can say that China is the most important country in the world to pay attention to the rating system, starting with the Imperial Examination System that appeared in the Tang Dynasty 1400 years ago. Since then, the selection of talents for the country through standardized tests has become the main purpose of education under Confucianism. However, the coin has two sides. On the one hand, the imperial examination system is considered to be rigid and lacking in creativity, which in turn leads to China’s scientific and economic development lags behind Europe in modern times; On the other hand, it promoted stability and social mobility. The poor, even the embarrassed, can change their destiny through hard study—the Confucius educational opinion of “instruction knows no class distinction” then became the mainstream value in China.
For modern China, traditional educational genes are still visible everywhere in the current education system. Some of the things that Chinese people are used to may be unimaginable for Westerners. For most primary and secondary schools, the student’s test rankings will be open to everyone; teachers will talk to parents if their children have poor grades; in the year before the college entrance exam, there will be an exam with six subjects almost every week…Scores become the most important thing for teachers, students and parents in education. Some standardized tests are not very useful, such as English. The English test of the college entrance examination and the graduate entrance examination are very rigid and almost useless for daily communication. In the three years of high school, students usually learn new knowledge in the first two years, and in the third year, they all review and keep doing exercises. This process is boring and painful for most people and is the toughest year in life. But for many people, especially those who are the bottom class or come from the rural areas, college entrance examination, one of the most important annual activities of the country, is the best way for them to change their destiny.
I am very grateful for this ranking system in China. I grew up in an agricultural city in a backward province in China. My parents didn’t have a college degree. My family didn’t have our own house until I graduated from elementary school. I need to work hard to get enough grades to enter the local junior school and high school with good education quality. I have also experienced more brutal competition, the college entrance examination. I clearly remember that I am the 475th among the more than 200,000 candidates in the province. This allowed me to enter a top ten university in China, which only recruits 30 students in our province. I keep my first place for four years in college, which gave me an opportunity to enter the best university in China to get my master’s degree. After that, I applied to come to the United States to study for a doctorate at Virginia Tech. I have no other specialties. Before I entered college, I rarely had free time to spend on sports and social activities or other personal interests such as music and painting. But is this all worth it? I think it is worth it. I changed my destiny and the fate of my family. I totally rely on my own efforts. Although this scoring system is not completely fair, I do benefit from it. If leadership, social skills, or specialties in sports or music are included in the assessment system, how do I compete with those with rich resources?
I admit that the grading system will definitely be reformed in the future. But any reform measures that do not consider social equity are ridiculous. Education can change not only the fate of the individuals but also a nation. Some education reform experiments are very good, but there are no conditions for promotion. Grading system reform is necessary, but the extreme idea that completely abandoning seems to me to be like Utopia and needs to be avoided.

Assessment, Motivation, and Learning for 21st Century Problems

Kohn (2011) begins his case against grades with a quote from a student. The quote pertains to a paper written, so I immediately wondered if this is applicable across disciplines and assignment types. Potentially a course of study with diverse assignments could be free of grades, but is that just electives or is it core requirements plus electives? Do the statistics professors feel the same about grades as the art history professors? Should they? Certainly there is also variation in student preferences, learning styles, and feedback needs. Claire may feel like the grade diminished her personal growth, but I don’t think that holds for all students.

Connecting Kohn (2011) to Pink (2009, 2010) and Lombardi (2008), one can see that assessments and motivation are tied together. This is less about the preferences of a student, and more about whether coursework and grading are preparing students for twenty-first century problems and a work world that requires interdisciplinary thinking and team work. Lombardi’s comparison of tradition and authentic assessments dovetails nicely with the ideas that Pink discusses. According to Lombardi, traditional assessments “[encourage] memorization”, for instance, and “targets simplistic skills” (2008). This can be likened to the MIT/Federal Reserve Bank study on motivation. Authentic assessments, by contrast, “[encourage] divergent thinking and “[prepare] students for ambiguities]” (Lombardi, 2008).

Applying the concepts raised in Lombardi’s (2008) paper with those raised in Pink’s TED talks (2009, 2010), the work world is also consumed by traditional assessments – or the analogy would be that workplaces focus on extrinsic motivators (substitute grades for monetary bonuses). Behavioral economists over the last decade would suggest that these bonuses are less useful for cognitive performance than the three legged stool of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Going back to the questions raised in the first paragraph, it is conceivable that a self-directed course of study would be possible. This could be more akin to a ROWE model, or to a Google 20% model. Maybe it would vary by the discipline, but not necessarily. If students want to master the concepts from their coursework, can a more self-directed plan of study help with this? Is mastery even possible? I think of the inventors who toiled away for hundreds or thousands of hours to create or learn something to the point of having a command over it, which can’t be expected for students in a 16-week course. If however students plans of study reflected a four-year period, there might be ways to provide interim assessments while also looking more at the totality of work over time. Lastly, there is the concept of purpose. I recently came upon the story of a student who went into Business as an undergraduate because he needed to be able to support his family, even though his passion was social work. An external purpose could be as motivating as an internal purpose from becoming a nurse or civil engineer designing public infrastructure. Ultimately supporting students in finding meaning and purpose is essential to their continued success.

What Pink (2009, 2010) and Lombardi (2008) both touch on is the role of motivation and assessment in the right brain, problem-based nature of issues in the twenty-first century. Students can memorize theory and equations, but if a student can’t apply them outside of the classroom when a problem has multiple solutions, when solutions have different tradeoffs, and when multiple interests (landowners, governments, non-profit organizations, tribal entities, etc.) then the memorization mattered for at most sixteen weeks. Secondly, problems post college are often solved by interdisciplinary teams where listening, learning from one another, and negotiation skills are required. A more self-directed, multi-scale, and purpose-driven course of study seems more likely to teach these skills than would a more traditional program.

Lastly, taking a different view here for a moment, it seems that inherent in a method that deviates from grades is additional contact time with students for different types of assessments (input) and information sharing (output). If more time and resources – or different types of resources – are utilized in this framework, does that mean that less students will be admitted or that college will become even more unaffordable as the supply-demand calculus changes? It seems that we may be able to create a better, more informative, educational proposition, but I worry that we could do so at the expense of maintaining – and expanding – a diverse student body. Diversity, as McKinsey has argued, is also part work success (

The effect of grading

In order to enter a good university and graduate school you want to go, we have to get a better score than others. We can have as many choices as we want to get good grades across all areas as well as our favorite subjects. If you do not get good grades at the moment when you realize that ‘good grades = many and various opportunities’, you feel like you are a bad student. Nevertheless, teachers cannot give up grading. There are many reasons for this ironic educational situation. Based on my experience, I would like to write down my thoughts on the effect of grading introduced by Alfie Kohn.

  1. Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.

Sometimes the interest is diminished, but when students solve problems of high difficulty, they feel a strong joy and it gives them a deeper level of interest. But basically it is only valid for the subjects they like and do well.

2. Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task

I agree with this opinion. If students set goals for high grades, they try to find a way to get the most effective way. In fact, learning methods to obtain deep knowledge and study methods to receive good grades are different. It is easy to get good grades by getting a well-organized reference book or previous tests.

3.  Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

I think it depends on the exam questions. If there are more descriptive test items than multiple choice, students will have many thoughts and thoughts during the test. Particularly well-organized step-by-step narrative test items can enhance quality of students’ thinking through testing.

Week 5: Making the Grade

The material for this week brought to my attention many aspects that I may be aware of, but don’t necessarily question mainly because that is just the “norm”. In Dan Pink’s video of “The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us”, I  definitely felt that the 3 factors he described as leading to better performance were accurate in autonomy, mastery and purpose. Although, he described it in terms of an industrial or professional setting, I think those factors are similarly shared by future members of academia. Especially for those involved in research, I am certain that a lot of their motivation comes from research questions they are personally interested and invested in. I think this may be why the tenure track position is so competitive and desired by a future professor. Where the first years in academia may feel like meeting the requirement check boxes to prove that you are valuable to your institution, reaching the tenured levels finally opens up a bit of freedom to dive into what your personal interests are really about and the 3 factors of autonomy, mastery and purpose are more easily attainable.

Similarly, I felt Alife Kohn’s article on “The Case Against Grades” presents an interesting argument to how grades may effect or influence learning. I suppose from a personal experience, there were many courses that I struggled with and was always frightened of the grade I would receive or embarrassed to share my grade with my classmates.  This occurred while I was enrolled in a certain class. However, after revisiting the course material at a later date without the pressure of grades hanging over my head I was able to understand the material in a much clearer way. I wouldn’t say that worrying about the grade caused me to perform to a lower capacity, but it was my first time learning  and seeing the course material in my life. I’ve often thought about this, and realized that the overall objective of the institution is to make sure that I learn what I am required to know for my professional development. And although I may have done poorly in some classes in the past, that does not take away from the fact that I know the material now at present time. So in a sense, the institution did complete their objective by pressuring me and making me worry about trying to learn something  (by trying to get a good grade), and not realizing how much I was actually learning.  I’ve recently been involved with courses that adapt qualitative and quantitative assessments and feel that there are pro’s and con’s to both. However, I do agree that as long as the instructors provide the adequate resources the students need to show self discipline and motivation to truly understand the subject matter, and sometimes they need a bit of motivation by attaching a grade to it.

Lastly, in Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon’s Imagination First reading,  I certainly agree that imagination is a unique tool that can help us in many ways. A lot of our interactions with technology in present day may have been pushed a side as early as 20 years ago. Even in smaller tasks that require repetition, imagination and opening your mind to a different approach can lead to not only a more creative or different solution, but also a more efficient one. Sometimes, it’s worth it to take a couple of minutes to truly examine and think about a number of different ways you can approach a problem.



Grading and Society

Grading: it’s probably the aspect of educating that all teachers (from elementary strait through university) like the least. Yet at the same time we all seem to assume that grading is both essential and inevitable, even as we may question our ability to reduce our understanding of a student’s learning into an easily quantifiable number, letter or rank. Virtually all of this week’s readings challenged the assumption that grades are essential for student learning, and in fact, many of the readings argued that grades are not only inaccurate, prone to bias and generally unhelpful, but also actively toxic to the learning process. I can’t say that I found any of this all that surprising. I already knew that it is difficult to assess the kind of higher order thinking which should be an important part of a college education (or any education really). I’ve also already seen how a focus on grades often keeps students from engaging in the material at a deeper level. As a matter of fact, every week as we talk about innovate learning techniques that can help our students think at a deeper level, I can’t help but think of that student on the front row raising their hand and asking if this is going to be on the test.

In a lot of ways, our students are even more attached to the system of grades than we are. Some of them, like Lisa Simpson, have their sense of self-worth tied up in these powerful little letters and others are simply acting on a rational calculation of their self-interest based on everything everyone has told them about how the world works. Get good grades in high school to get into a good college, get good grades in college to get a good job (or, just as often these days, get into a good grad school). On and on it goes. We can talk about innovate teaching all we want, but the fact of the matter is that for many of our students, all this learning stuff is just a way to get that fancy piece of paper that is supposed to open the door to the rest of their lives. Of course, reality is a lot more complicated. That little piece of paper might open some doors (although on its own it doesn’t open nearly as many as I expected it to when I graduated the first time around), but by itself, without the capacity for critical thought, introspection and other higher order thinking, it is unlikely to bring success and even less likely to bring any sense of happiness or fulfillment.

We might hope that the ‘real world’ would see the value of higher level thinking and actually encourage us to change the way that we assess, but unfortunately the ‘real world’ is often every bit as obsessed with measurable outcomes and simple systems of reward and punishment. I really enjoyed Dan Pink’s video, because he addressed the issue of assessment not in terms of education but in terms of business. I think this video points to a reality that debates in education often fail to consider, the reality that our obsession with overly simplistic measurable results is not an education problem, but a society problem. I can’t help but think about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he essentially argues that modern institutions (be they factories, prisons, armies or schools) are based upon the concept of control through constant observation. One important part of observation is breaking tasks down into simple steps that can be standardized, taught, observed and enforced (Foucault, 157). Perhaps grades are just a manifestation of this unseen force that underlays the fabric of modern society.

Wow. Now I’m starting to get depressed. Sometimes all of this feels like it’s beyond my control, like I’m just a cog in this unceasing machine. Alfie Cohn talks about this sentiment in “The Case Against Grades,” referring to it as the “better get used to it” philosophy. (Kohn) Cohn argues that the prevalence of grades throughout a student’s life is no reason to give in to bad policy. Instead, Cohn suggests that teachers seek out ways to minimize the impact of grades on student learning through alternative forms of assessment. Similarly, in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow gives several suggestions for ways that an individual professor can limit the harmful aspects of grades. For example, he talks about creating “Evaluation-Free Zones” by having periods where there are only ungraded assignments (197). These articles do give me some hope that I can help my students move beyond a focus on grades and begin to appreciate learning in its own right. I’ll be interested to see what the rest of this class thought when we discuss some of these ideas in class this week.


P.S.: Michel Foucault discusses education extensively in Discipline and Punish and I’ve only just scratched the surface of his analysis.  He gives an interesting (although also depressing) analysis of the role of education in modern society.

Four Things I Learned from Working with Students… but not with Grades

I have an odd job if you can call it that – some days, “lifestyle” seems like a better descriptor.  For my assistantship, I am a live-in employee of Housing and Residence Life at Virginia Tech.  In that role, I supervise RA’s, serve as a conduct officer, and handle daily operations of two all-male residence halls, which, as you might expect, brings a new adventure every week.  The work is hard to predict and takes a great deal of time, but I love it.

My path to this line of work felt reflective of Dan Pink’s TED Talk on motivation.  My undergraduate study was in chemical engineering, where I was driven purely by extrinsic motivation, primarily grades, to painfully grind through a curriculum that did not feel meaningful to me.  However, my “side-project” of serving as a resident advisor (RA) provided me the sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose mentioned by Dan Pink.  As such, I ended up putting a lot of time and effort into that work, which didn’t feel like work, and decided to pursue work in student affairs, beginning my studies in higher education.

My work directly with students, both the RAs I supervise and residents of the buildings I oversee, has provided insight regarding the struggles students face academically.  Aside from one semester where I served as a TA for a course all RAs must take, my connections to the academic side of campus are few and far between.  However, I often talk to students about their coursework, and make a point to talk about academics with my RAs.  The subject matter of those conversations is often total foreign to me, but they have been productive.  I certainly can’t tutor these students, but we still learn together as I learn about their struggles and challenge them to think about learning differently.  Here are a few things I learned from my conversations:

Intrinsic motivation produces the best work.

With the student population of Virginia Tech, I work with a lot of engineering students and hear a lot of stories that bring me back to my own undergraduate education.  Fortunately, I see a marked difference between myself as an undergrad and many of those students.  Recently, I was having a conversation with one of my RAs about a project he was tasked to complete earlier in his engineering career in an intro class.  All groups in the class were tasked with building a machine that kept a ping-pong ball suspended in the air.  He discussed his group’s process of buying electrical hardware that could integrate with code they had written with the code controlling how high about the fan the ping pong ball would be suspended.  (To be clear, I am not doing this process justice in summarizing it.)  He then said that other groups in the class seem to do the bare minimum with Legos and a fan, probably something I would have done back in the day.

I imagine that both groups met the criteria for an A on that project, though my RA added that his professor specifically thanked his group for leaning into a creative process and going above and beyond.  There might have been a difference in ability between those two groups, but the primary difference was motivation.  My RA wanted to be creative and engineer something, not simply get a grade that could be achieved with a much lower level of effort.  I see the same thing in my RAs within their role in the hall.  Those that perform the highest do it because they are passionate about serving, not for a positive performance evaluation or from fear of being fired.

Our current method of grading does not expose students to open-ended problems.

I once had a professor who many times repeated, “When you cannot measure what you value, you come to value what you can measure.”  While this statement was made in context in assessment for research in higher education, I found in rules true from our assessment in grading.  Learning is not easily measurable; it’s difficult and time-consuming to make judgments about how much a person has learned or developed.  It’s based on qualitative evidence, which can be interpreted differently from person to person.  However, one can measure how many facts a person has retained or how a project or composition adheres to a pre-defined rubric.  It makes grading a lot easier, but then education becomes a series of boxes to be checked rather than true learning.  Perhaps students can be extrinsically motivated to tackle these tasks, but it doesn’t seem to prepare them for open-ended problems.

I never doubt the intelligence of the students I work with.  Since they’ve made it into Virginia Tech, I’m confident in their ability to learn, but I believe our use of “measurable learning” does not equip them to tackle ill-structured problems.  Fortunately, the RA role is full of these sorts of problems.  I often get questions from staff members like “How do I get more guys involved on my hall?” or “Is it okay to be friends with my residence?”  I’ve found that some of my RAs expect to get a list of steps or a quick yes-or-no answer, and I’m occasionally met with frustration when I launch the conversation by admitting I don’t have a clear-cut answer.  While I feel fortunate to facilitate a conversation that helps them generate their own solutions, I can only hope that other students are finding these ill-structured problems elsewhere, so they are prepared to face them beyond their time in college, where rubric won’t define success.

“Exceeds Expectations” doesn’t mean much.

The one time in my work that I use quantitative measures to “grade” students is when it comes time for RA performance evaluations.  The process by which RAs are evaluated includes a self-evaluation, an evaluation from a supervisor, and a discussion comparing those two evaluations to come up with a consensus.  I’ve quickly learned that a key part of this process is to explain the evaluation scale beforehand.  The scale is descriptive and is made up of the following descriptors: exceeds expectations, strong performance, meets expectations, inconsistently meets expectations, and needs improvement.  I’ve found that it is essential to explain that “meets expectations” will likely be the most common grade on any positive evaluation.  If I don’t RAs are inclined to give themselves “exceeds expectations” or at least “strong performance” in every category unless we’ve discussed performance issues in a particular area.

While this tendency made for a few frustrating evaluations early on in my role, the broader implications seem more problematic.  It seems that with the way we assess, an A denotes adequacy.  If there are no problems with an assignment and it matches the rubric criteria, it is deserving of an A.   This leaves little room to formally note excellence and little reason for students to reach for it.  How can we challenge students and get more out of them if the bar is set low?

Grades are not for the learner but for the outsider, and even they shouldn’t be using them.

In my work with students, I find myself reiterating that learning is about far more than a grade.  In my academic work, I try to work to produce quality, independent of a grade.  However, at times as a professional, I find myself overly reliant on those measures that I know to be problematic and imperfect.  The process of hiring RAs is logistically difficult.  In a typical year, a couple hundred applicants compete for what ends up being about one hundred spots.  While the process includes a written application, individual interviews, and group interviews, it all eventually boils down to one number.  Though I try my best to find RAs based on interactions I’ve had with students, recommendations from those who have worked with applicants, and the qualitative measures that accompany the scales, I still must prioritize a list of a hundred names to fill three positions, so numbers end up playing more of a role than I’d like them to.  It’s just not possible for me to read every application or note written by an interviewer.

I think if we are to ever step away from grades in working with students, we need to think more critically about how we compare and evaluate in daily life.  While quantitative measures seem quick and easy, they are not always effective in dealing with complexity, particularly when people are involved.  We cannot capture a person’s abilities in a single number, and a single number cannot provide someone with clear opportunities for improvement.  It takes more time to engage in the complexity that a single measure attempts to evade, but it must be done if we truly wish to invest in student learning.

Self-Assigned Grades

I can remember my first day of creative writing as a freshman at Clemson University. For such an entry-level class, I felt so anxious. I should have been worried about the chemistry or biology class, but no I was worried about writing. It felt so much more abstract, and then on top of that my work was going to be picked apart and graded.

To my surprise, the professor said she would not be giving any grades on any of our writing. I was floored. How can this be? At that moment, I could feel some weight lifted and the anxiety ease. All of a sudden the pressure to write for a grade was gone. There was a caveat though; she still had to submit a grade to the University at the end of the semester. So she told us all we would assign a grade to ourselves. We had to argue for our grade in the form of a persuasive paper based on how well we improved throughout the semester. As long as we provided a legitimate argument with supporting information, we would get the grade we proposed. What a cool way to approach grading. By removing the pressure of grading, the professor gave us the freedom to explore writing with a focus on improvement. I’ll admit, I was pretty grade focused. I knew I wanted to argue for an A, which I did, and the professor accepted my argument. While I still had the thought of grades in my head, I was not as motivated or concerned about it. I could write more freely. I can honestly say I have never encountered another class like this in terms of grading structure.

As I read “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn, I kept coming back to my experience as a freshman in creative writing. He says, “What matters is whether a given practice is in the best interest of the student”. At least for me, changing the typical practice of grading allowed me to write without additional pressure. I would still receive feedback from the professor, but a value was not assigned. This qualitative assessment described by Kohn offers an alternative to numerical grades. Embracing a more democratic classroom as Kohn describes can be done. I experienced it first hand and 12 years later still remember the positive impact it had on me.

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