Alternatives to Grading: New wine in Old Bottles?

Critics of grading have offered arguments (some compelling, and others not so compelling) to discredit the system of grading that we have grown accustomed to. While some have advocated for a complete overhaul of the grading system, others have been less daring in their recommendations, and have only recommended we do away with letter grades. Common to all, however, is the sentiment that grading is fraught with problems that need addressing.

A major problem of grading is what I call the “subjectivity of the grader”. Elbow (1993) referred to this as the unreliability of graders, highlighting it as one of the problems facing the traditional grading system. From a personal standpoint, I can attest to this. For example, last semester, I taught a leadership course titled, “The Dynamics of Leadership,” which required me to grade my students’ assignments and project. Over the course of the semester, my students were asked to write an essay about a current event happening in the society that had to do with leadership dynamics. The assignment follows a “what?” “so what?” and “now what?” format. The grading rubric looks like this:

10 points for the “what?”

10 points for “so what?”

10 points for “now what?”

10 points for “connection to course concepts” and

10 points for what we call “overall impression.”

While grading each criterion had some element of subjectivity, I would say the last criterion – overall impression – was the most subjective.  ‘What is overall impression?’ I thought to myself. How do I have a  metric for the overall impression that is consistent across the board?  This is not due to a lack of metrics – in fact, there were metrics like grammar, writing style etc. that I was supposed to look for in their essay. However, this was quite difficult to implement – Sometimes, I would spend several minutes on an essay trying to decide what score is appropriate.

While I agree that this traditional grading system is insufficient, I am yet to be convinced on the practicability of the alternatives. As an alternative, Elbow (1993) and Alfie Kohn suggested we use a system of testimonials or portfolios, where teachers write extensively on the proficiency of students. Then I began to wonder how that would look like for a high school graduate, how many pages of testimonials they would have accumulated throughout high school and how much of work it would be for college admission committee to review such documents. Moreover, can the teachers who write such testimonials be completely objective in their assessment of the student? What about the admission personnel reviewing it? Can we say with utmost certainty that they would be perfectly objective in their assessment of such testimonials?

At the end of the day, I think this whole debate begs the question, “can we as humans completely eliminate subjectivity in our assessment?” If the answer to the question is yes, then great, I would like to learn about such systems of assessment. If the answer is No (which I suppose), then it adds a whole level of complexity to this already complex issue. If alternatives are still liable to subjectivity, then this may well be new wine in old bottles.


This subject is so important and complicated. Our performance was measured by grades since primary school; and now, we are grading other students. Is grading a good or bad thing? Does it really reflect the student’s performance? I have taught some students who understand the material and participate in class; but they don’t do well in tests, so they don’t get good grades but they are learning! Can we say that they are not good students while they are the best learners? Isn’t it contradictory?

Alfie Kohn stated three different drawbacks of assessment, which I agree with. He said “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning” because they are gonna be focused on grades more than learning.  Second, he said “Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task”. This means that, students choose the easiest project rather than the most challenging one in order to get good grades. Also, he said ” Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking”. During class, instead of thinking about constructive questions that make them understand better the material, they are thinking if the material will be on the test.

Another grading drawback is the ranking! I have studied in Tunisia, and I can see the difference compared to US. Instead of letter grades, we have numeric grades and GPA, but what matters is the rank! The difference between the first student in the class and the second one, could be one or two points in a math exam. At the end of the year, they give prizes only to the first and second students in the class. If you are the third, and as excellent as the others; sorry! No prize for you! This motivates the third to work hard and beat the other two. But the motivation is not about learning, it is only about winning!

I really don’t like this grading system. But at the same time I don’t know what could be the alternative? If there is no grading, and at the same time no learning motivation (because students are obliged to take classes even if they don’t like), students will loose interest in class. They will be absent all the time and learn nothing. How can we assess them then? May be the problem is not only about the assessment strategy, but also about choosing subjects and classes. Shall we force the students to take classes they are not interested in, or shall we give them freedom in choosing all the classes. If we should let them choose their own classes, at what age should be that? Will they be mature enough to make good choices?

Assessment to develop potentials, not to screen the gifted

Learning and academic performance of students are largely influenced by their ability to concentrate on subjects. The attention level of individuals is based on the neurobiological structure of their brain, which is unique for each individual. For example, students diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) cannot stay focused on their tasks; against their will. Their performance on tests is not usually the true representative of their knowledge and learning capacity. They might perform poorly on exams due to several distractions and lack of ability to follow the questions thoroughly. On the other hand, if they are interested in the topic or they can overcome the distractions, their performance will be boosted drastically. The traditional teaching and testing routine in schools are not effective for these students. An interactive teaching and assessment policy, however, can be more helpful to motivate these students and encourage them to improve their capabilities. The explanation of Dan Pink on the ineffectiveness of the reward on creativity and the role of passion in an individual’s performance reminded ADHD daily life. Their work quality differs vastly if they are interested in the topic. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) data, the number of students diagnosed with ADHD has increased since 1997 (based on different testing criteria). Therefore, more students require a more effective education system annually.

Furthermore,  I thought about the outcome of the improved education system in Finland as exampled by Ken Robinson. I found some documents about Finland’s education system (such as the attached video). According to this video, there is no program for gifted students and students have to help others who are slower in their improvement. There is no private school. Also, there is no national exam or stressful entrance exam for their acceptance to college. The other noticeable change in their system is almost no homework.

According to worldtop20 ranking, Finland is got the highest education ranking in 2017, where Japan and South Korea are second and third. however, the education system in Japan and South Korea are highly competitive with compact testing schedules. In Japan, students attend supplementary classes after school to get ready for the national exam and their acceptance in college depends on their grade on an annual exam. Also, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Finland’s students’ performance on reading, mathematics, and science in 2015 is below Japan.

According to this data, though ranking results not necessarily reflect the effectiveness of education systems with less emphasis on assessment.  Nevertheless, I thought it might be worthful to compare the quality of life of people in Japan and Finland for any further influence of the education system.

In Human Development Index (HDI), which evaluates life expectancy, knowledge and education and standards of living, Finland and Japan are ranked 15th and 19th globally. Their improvement in this index is shown in the graph below.



Guilty as charged

As a student and as a teaching assistant, the question of “is this on the exam?” was and continues to always be on my mind in a classroom setting. I find myself zoning in on minuscule, insignificant details as a student for fear that small piece of information may appear on an exam or assessment. I am guilty of memorizing concepts, prioritizing easier tasks (a shorter book, a familiar topic), and skimming books at one point– all the reasons concluded in Kohn’s article about the effect of grades. I have been taught the ins and outs of how I can succeed at “being a great student” by performing well on an exam or paper.

I wonder what it would have been like to go through schooling in an environment where grades were replaced be measures of progression and learning itself. I felt like I would have learned more rather than be forced to think in a way to do well on an exam. I see both sides of the argument for grading. Efficiency and ease cannot be beat and would be argued by some as the reason for staying with grading. I see a system where grades can be utilized to an extent but be done with more meaning rather than be a simple “ranking”. Maybe grades that represent an overall period rather than just a single performance time/date like an exam.

My reflection on my current educational career so far and this weeks’ readings have sparked a curiosity on correct usage of grades and alternatives. I am curious about how to incorporate these ideas into a classroom where you are not the main instructor. I love the idea of portfolios and evaluation-free zones but wonder how I would discuss these concepts with a professor in hopes of adding/trying it in their class for which I TA for.

How to Fix a Problem You Can’t Diagnose

Short Answer: You can’t.

Long Answer: In my reflections on this week’s class readings, I’ve noticed that defenses for traditional undergraduate grading share one thing in common: an appeal to diagnosis. In other words, defenders argue that it’s important to measure how well students are learning and teachers are teaching.

Yeah, a couple of questions there.

First, according to whose definition of well? Faith in “evidence-based” standards for grading assume a criteria for success that must remain unchallenged. In other words, advocates for this model assume a near-universal ideal of objectivity on the part of decision makers. That position poses problems, to put it mildly.

Second, assume I agree its important to measure how well a student is learning or how well a teacher is teaching. How does the current grading system accomplish that? It basically falls to an instructor to give an arbitrary ranking based on some constructed criteria without any justification behind it. It doesn’t offer any context or information to either the teacher or the student beyond “get better or face consequences”. That didn’t work for me in my efforts to improve my handwriting, it didn’t work for dealing with my depression and anxiety, and it sure as sugar didn’t work for my geometry class in high school. I doubt (not without merit) that it fares much better for others, either.

That leads to the fundamental issue I have with traditional grading models. Their purpose (the main argument for their defense) and their function fail to connect. One is diagnostic while the other is prescriptive. As one of my favorite professors is fond of saying, it’s “putting the cart before the horse” (illustration below).

Tevye’s Model of Traditional Grading
(Photo courtesy of Florida Theater on Stage)

Let me explain. A diagnostic tells you how well what you’re doing lines up with what you want or need to accomplish. Its merit lies in the indicators it offers for what is lacking. It mainly deals with what’s happening or what’s already happened. Prescriptive deals more with method and rules to address issues. In this context, grading is designed around a diagnostic ideal but functions as a prescriptive indicator or rank. If your rank is low, find out what you’re doing wrong, because the grade sure won’t tell you. If your rank is high, you don’t need feedback, you’re doing just fine. Seems backwards, doesn’t it?

All that leads to my third question. What alternatives are there? Well, to be brief: lots. There’s the option to utilize portfolios with comments and feedback as opposed to a numeric ranking. There’s the option to negotiate standards and rubrics while using minimized ranking. There’s the option to forgo ranks altogether and focus on a seminar model. However, until educators, students, and administrators alike come together and negotiate a challenge to the status quo, at best these methods will likely function as stopgap measures. However, as the saying goes: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” The rest will come from our joint struggle.

Passion for Excellence

I never really understood the concept of passion until I found mine — behavioral science. I had never read a book (for fun) in my life until last year; since then I have finished two (which is a big deal for me). Listening to Dan Pink talk about productivity and innovation in 21st century really resonated with my working style. For me, purpose is the most important component, followed by mastery, and then autonomy (purpose > mastery > autonomy). I saw Dan Pinks’ both TED talks and he uses tech companies as examples to prove his point, that intrinsic motivators work better. However, I think in the financial sector, extrinsic motivators would work better (money is what people care about for the most part, so I guess money is their purpose?). I believe the kind of motivators that would work well for the employees depends on the industry and sector. Additionally, as I was listening to the talk, I thought to myself how does Google (because he uses Google as an example) differentiate between its top performers and bottom performers. I did some sleuthing and bonuses was the answer. Based on my findings, I concluded that money finds its way into employee performance evaluation — so eventually money (extrinsic motivator) is the final answer. Then I realized that Google’s bonuses are a “recognition” mechanism not a “motivating” mechanism — there’s a fine difference between the two, but I can’t put my finger on the difference (suggestions welcome).

Anyway, I have rambled enough. Dan Pinks talk has made my head churn. I agree with him because I have witnessed it first hand but I am not sure how the sciences (that Dan talks about) will be implemented in corporations — I guess that is another problem with an inconspicuous answer (just like the candle problem).

You Can’t Always “Marie Kondo” Your Education

When I was a junior in civil engineering, I decided to take Reinforced Concrete Design. When we got to class the first day, I checked the part of the syllabus that tells you how your final grade will be calculated and saw:

  • Midterm: 45%
  • Final Exam: 65%

At this point in my college career, it had been at least a year since I took my last structural-related class, so I’m a little rusty. When we got to the midterm, I opened it up and there was one question: “determine the live load that can be carried by the shed in the structure shown below.” This one question encompassed everything we’d learned so far: structural analysis for concrete slabs, beams, and columns. Looking around the classroom as people opened the test and then checked the back of the page to see if there were any more questions, I saw a lot of these faces:

While our midterm did have a numerical grade, we had to go by our professor’s office to pick it up. There, he would walk through the exam with us and show us where we went wrong and how to improve. While I appreciate his taking the time to discuss how to move forward between the midterm and the final, I really can’t decide how I feel about this method of simply having fewer assessments that contributed to our final grade. I’m thinking specifically of students who can work hard and understand the material but experience major test anxiety. Most students with whom I’ve talked, even those without test anxiety, prefer when their course grade is more weighted toward homework and projects that can be completed outside of class and on their own time. These kinds of assignments allow students to work outside of class, to try and fail at different solutions and learn through the process.

I fully believe there are wiser ways than that to incorporate assessment into our classrooms.

In the engineering field, the accreditation board (ABET) requires that each class have a set of learning objectives that must be met for a student to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to advance to the next level. Each field has a body of knowledge that outlines the information needed to solve problems related to that field. Developing a core competency the foundations of civil engineering (for example, knowing how to use statics to determine whether a bridge is structurally stable or understanding how to design a disinfection system for a water treatment plant) is critical to the pubic health and safety and therefore, engineers must be assessed based on a set of standards. Engineering students cannot just choose what they learn or get rid of a key topic because it doesn’t spark joy for them.

The idea Kohl proposed of removing assessments and sitting down with students and discussing what grade they thought they’d deserved is like saying “I want to lose weight but I’m not going to weigh myself.” Assessments are necessary and should be written to ascertain whether students can meet the objectives of a course.

How can we create assessments that are meaningful? In their book Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, Felder and Brent remind educators that teaching is not a mystery religion, we should tell students what we expect and then assess them based on those expectations. Here’s a few thoughts about developing assessments that matter:

  1. Write learning objectives before the course begins. Teach the things that are in line with the learning objectives.
  2. These objectives may not be intrinsically inspiring to students (they may not “spark joy”), but we can incorporate examples of how these concepts are applied by professionals practicing in our field to show students that there is purpose to what they’re learning.
  3. When writing an assessment, look at the learning objectives you’ve written. Are your questions rooted in those objectives? (If not, rewrite your question.)
  4. Provide the learning objectives to your students before the exam as a study guide. As they prepare for the test, they’ll know what you expect them to understand.

Take your nose out of the grade book and behold wonder!

In the video we saw during class, Dan Pink talks about higher rewards leading to worse performance on cognitive tasks. However, he doesn’t describe the experiment well enough to understand why/how higher rewards impact cognitive skills. His other video does a better job with the candle experiment. In this one, he describes that the higher reward narrows subject focus so much that they can’t think outside the box to solve the problem. This matches with the quote used by Alfie Kohn :

A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  “Ten years,” the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  “Then 20 years,” the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student in the Ashram.  “In that case, 30 years,” the master replied.  His explanation:  “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I didn’t register the impact of Pink’s work until I read Kohn’s. Then I got hit by memories of finals time with friends calculating what grade they needed to get grade X in each class. While I’d like to say I was above this practice, that I didn’t feel those needs because I would rather be studying instead, such words would be a lie. In the classes that I enjoyed, I don’t think I ever calculated a theoretical grade, but in the boring or disinteresting classes there was a lot of “I could probably accept a lower grade in exchange for my sanity…”. What’s worse about this is how focused people are on only grades.

Students want a degree to get a job, and think that grades will affect their job chances. The truth is that your professional network and your ability to interact with people will pull far, far more weight in the job market. However, students feel more compelled to study than to attend networking socials and conferences. I have a terribly hard time getting students to attend events for my club (when they’ve already told me they are interested) because they’re afraid to take time out away from the lab or studying.  I offered a free week in Detroit to eat food and network at the largest and most important conference in my field, no presentations required, and no one would take me up on the offer. That is insane to me. I basically had to force close friends to go because I had already booked housing with university funding. I’ll do the same thing next year too. Students are so focused on finishing degrees or getting good grades that they miss the opportunities that make life good. It’s a sickness at this point, and I blame this need to keep an eye on your grade/end goal. Finishing is important, but if you enjoy the journey you’re far more likely to make it out alive.

With this in mind, what are some opportunities you’ve missed because you were afraid of setting yourself back or getting a lower grade? What experiences have you enjoyed at some cost?

To grade or not to grade?

This week I think we have another issue without a clear-cut answer. Should we grade students? And if we do, what should we assign? And if we don’t, how do we hold students accountable? Or should we, as instructors, be responsible for that in the first place.

There is no easy answer.

I am early in my career as an instructor. However, I have had the privilege of teaching my own class and I thought quite a lot about what I would do with regards to assessment for that class the first time around. Now, considering round 2, I have even more thoughts and uncertainties to sort out.

I knew one thing before I started teaching. I don’t believe in tests. I think that while they do work in assessing some students, they don’t work for all students. What I do believe in is a multi-faceted approach with a diverse set of assessment tools. The first time I taught my class, I had students present, discuss, write guided reflections, read and write for homework and participate in group activities. What worked: small group discussions, short presentations. What needs tinkering with: written reflections on reading assignments (or just ways to encourage students to read in general).

I thought the successes went well because I was flexible with what I considered ‘good’ work from the students. I left room in my grading for creativity and engagement, even if that meant going down a different path than some of their classmates.

I thought the written responses were a failure because despite me trying to avoid reading quizzes (quizzes being just a smaller format of testing), students just were not reading the assigned texts.

I’m hoping next time to make some changes. I’m not sure yet what those changes will be, but I know that having a fixed and stagnant syllabus isn’t good for anyone. As educators, we should always be trying to improve and do a better job every time we teach of reaching our students. I might have to give podcasting a try after reading about Ray Thomas’ experience with podcasts in his class!

Let’s talk grades, young man.

I haven’t seen my nephew since Christmas, so I took him out for some errands this weekend, thereby giving us some needed catch-up time and his parents some needed alone time. For reference, G (as my nephew will be called) is my sister’s only child. He’s 14, and he’s going through the awkward stages of puberty. This means he towers over his mom now, walks with a little uncertainty, and his voice is hovering two octaves below his uncle Ben’s. Where’s the time gone, man?

For a little more about G, he is autistic; he often addresses his elder family members by their first names (his mom is ‘Gina’); he often stammers through his thoughts in a halting, stream-of-conscious way. For example, when asked if he thought homeschooling was a good idea, his response was this:

G: Kinda. I think it is… well, A) they don’t have to be… eh.. and I mean.. eh.. I’m not sure, I guess, I’m going to totally,.. I do… Yeah, I really do not think… eh, I will… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

For this reason, I will simplify the conversation we had for expediency, as I would like to share his thoughts on our education system with you, dear reader. At times he is contradictory. At others, quite pensive. He gives no full answers, but he’s brutally honest in his attempts. I tried to keep my inputs to a minimum, and I prodded mostly to keep him on topic. I have left some tangents along for context and flavor. [some of my inner thoughts are available, too].

Here’s how it went down: Driving down 460, I asked him “How’s school going, G?,” and he promptly dove into a dialog about the current conditions of learning in the school system, beginning with [wait for it] assessments – our current class topic! I realized how interesting this might be for some, so I asked if I could record. He agreed but continued talking before I could fully capture his next sentence. It began along these lines: “Grades are killing learning, Uncle Ben. They should do away with grades and create…”

B: Wait, what? We need to ‘create more _’ what?

G: World preparation centers. We need world preparation centers.

B: What are ‘world preparation centers?’

G: I guess they help students to prepare for the world.

B: And you think there should be more of them?

G: I think they should exist.

B: Okay.

[you heard it here first, folks. make it happen and send the kid some college cash.]

G: One should exist, and we’ll see how that does with students… [long pause] I guess school technically is. I think we are entering a new age – the information age, or something. And, I think technology is helping learning. I mean, there’s online school, and more and more students are being home-schooled… [long pause]

B: And you think that’s a good thing?

G: Kinda. I think it is. Well… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

[See what I did there? G dives into a long discussion of the political climate, a favorite topic of his, and he states our country needs better people in the world.]

B: How do you suspect we get better people?

G: I don’t know. We should educate them better. Yeah, we need to educate them. And we need to stop teaching them stuff they don’t need. And we need to teach them stuff that they do need. People may not like school, so maybe we should have school… be important. We should try to fix school in some ways, I guess. Like, remember when you woke up early to go school?

B: Yeah. [I still get up early to go to school, but that’s beside the point].

G: Well, I hear that some schools in the UK are being asked to shift their school days an hour or two forward.

B: True.

G: Because at different stages of your life you have different sleep cycles. And, like, people around my age generally continue to sleep through the early part of the morning and don’t even start learning until later, like mid-morning.

B: What kinds of things do think students are learning that they don’t need?

G: I don’t know. [long sigh] I guess maybe school has its purpose. Let me ask you this, Ben: Do you think learning about the fact that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell that important?

B: It is if you’re a biologist.

G: Okay.

B: It’s good to know it’s out there.

G: I guess. Maybe we do need… I think…

B: I mean, in truth, I’ve never used it in my life. I do understand it a little bit, but… I’ve never had to use it.

G: I guess some people might have to use it. I guess school does have its purpose.

[We were just starting to make our exit]

G: By the way, I think tests are absolute… ugh! Maybe schools should stop worrying about tests. Because seriously, grades make students feel like they need to worry about grades. And I’m like, students shouldn’t have to worry. Students shouldn’t let grades define them.

B: Where are you learning this stuff?

G: I don’t know. I think I’m trying to do a little research in what people think of school, I guess.

B: Okay.

G: And, I think Ameri…

[G proceeds to go hard on the president and his policies. G is not a fan of Trump, much to the happiness of his parents and to the chagrins of (some of) his grandparents. After the venting and much fine toeing of strong language boundaries, he mellowed into more typical teenager subjects of Kid Cudi, the Chili Peppers, Eminem, Facebook and Instagram. We were somewhere near Lowe’s when he picked up the thread again. And once again, I hit record in the middle of the action…]

G: It makes children feel like grades define who they are, even though they don’t. I mean, I know Gina told me to try the best I can, [but] I always dreaded… most kids are worried about, or always say, ‘what’s going to be on the test?

B: That’s true.

G: Eh, it’s just, I think school needs to teach more important things and have less tests. According to Google, tests can help children memorize, but… but I’m not sure if we should necessarily have, … [He loses his thought at the red light. I try to steer back into the lane.]

B: So, with the tests, did you ever feel that you were trying to study for the grades and only for the grades? Or were you actually enjoying what you were trying to learn? I mean…

G: I felt like I was just studying for the grades.

B: Okay.

G: Yeah. I guess it just felt like I had to learn it. I’m glad my mother was like, ‘Just try your best.’ I’m glad my mom didn’t get absolutely furious with me when I got a bad test score.

B: When did you get a bad test score?

G: I think I’ve gotten a couple bad ones throughout my school years.

B: Okay. [long pause]

B: So how do you learn? What’s the best way that you learn? What are you finding that’s most effective for you?

G: Um… I … I honestly don’t know. I guess when I was in home-school… Gina is really passionate about me learning. And, I kinda feel like I should be learning?

B: Okay, but do you want to?

G: Eh, no. I’m not really into that, but I’m like, ‘okay, I’ll look up this, and I’ll look up that.’ Some of the stuff that Gina wanted me look up was actually useful. However, some of it wasn’t… Gina says she’s not a good teacher… and I understand that [she’s] probably not a good teacher… but I really do think she could teach me a few life lessons. Actually, she does, and when she does teach me life lessons… I think she does a good job of that… I gue… yeah… [the struggle is real with this kid!]. I don’t know.…

[extra long pause]

All rivers must run their course. Our conversation was coming to an end. He later told me that his friends and his aides, the persons who guided him through the public school system, were the best resources he had for the enjoyment of learning. A quick note: after failing an SOL in 2017, G was required to spend his summer in school – no time for free play. His anxiety shot through the roof, and he could no longer focus without heavy medication and therapy. My sister applied for the Homebound program and pulled him out of public school. He has been in the program ever since and done well. He’s dropped most of his medications and doesn’t have to see his therapist so often. He is involved with his life and wants to make changes for the better. I’m so proud!

But, this also comes at the expense of not learning with his peers. This coming fall, he plans to attend an “alternative” school system, which shows promise to his interests, his well-being, and his abilities. It is my understanding they promote an emergent adaptive learning system, and I hope they are responsive to my nephew’s inquisitive mind. Anything has to be better than the traditional prescription. I look forward to his next report.

B: Thanks, G. We’ll catch up later.

G: Bye, Uncle Ben.

1 2 3