Are grades hindering learning?

dwight studying

Part of learning how to educate involves learning about teaching and course styles that we have never encountered before. I prefer to make decisions based on facts, yet I have a quick, knee-jerk reaction to the idea of getting rid of grades. I feel profoundly uncomfortable – both as a student and as an instructor- with the idea that more students excel where they are not graded.

A premise behind getting rid of grades is that students will always choose the easiest tasks and take the fewest risks when in a graded environment. When freed from the confines of the traditional course structure, students will actively engage in the learning process. Students can and will learn without the threat or treat of a grade.


We can discuss how course structure impacts students, but a large component of student engagement comes from the students themselves. 

My struggle to accept the premise stems from my own experiences. As an undergraduate, I went to a college which emphasized not discussing grades with other students to avoid a competitive, grade-focused environment. It almost seemed like we didn’t have grades, because we were given our grades without any context. But for me, being freed of the competition of grades did not make me embrace creativity in all of my classes. Instead, I did minimum effort in courses that I thought were boring, and I poured more-than required effort into courses that interested me.

paid attention in classAs a graduate student, my habits became more refined. When I started taking courses that I knew would be useful my career, I made serious efforts at studying terms, taking thorough notes, and connecting information within and between courses. Content I did not believe would be relevant to me or I perceived as busy work received the minimal effort, and work that seemed relevant to my learning and my future career received more time and focus. When possible, I would choose paper and project topics that interested me or allowed me to pull in ideas from other courses. However, I simultaneously found myself motivated to earn good grades.

The two objectives did not exclude each other, though they were not always the same. When doing work just for grades, I did the minimum amount possible to earn the grade required. This could be taken as a comment about how grades distract from learning. But the issue was not grades, but that I did not desire to put any effort into work I considered a waste or my time or irrelevant to me. I would have felt the same even without grades. I would argue that the issue is instead that the required course work was not well-crafted to encourage learning or that the class was of no use to me, and I should have skipped it (the two concepts are not mutually exclusive/overlapping).



“The typical structure of lectures and exams may simply prolong the time during which a learner continues to think like a student rather than an apprentice practitioner.” Lombardi 2008

The above quote stuck with me as I read Lombardi’s paper. I whole-heartedly agree with the intent: in undergraduate education, we should be focused on creating and fostering apprentices not throwing information at and evaluating students. We should be developing the skills and knowledge base required for students to be successful in their future careers. Some of this development requires the hard work of being a student; even master practitioners should be always learning new techniques to gather and analyze data, getting feedback their work, and learning from other people. The second portion of this development is on the educators- we need to treat students’ undergraduate experience as preparation for their future and help students recognize it as such.

Course work itself can burden students with work that does not help students learn.
As a graduate student, where I have had a lot of freedom to choose courses, the conflict between me wanted to earn good grades and learn led me to take busy work-heavy courses pass/fail or audited. With professors’ permission, I sat in on classes that seemed relevant instead of taking them for any credit. Courses do not need get rid of grades in order for students to be engaged with the course work, though they must not be so focused on evaluating students through grading that they don’t give students the ability to learn.

As instructors, we should be thinking about our objectives and student time. Can we test in a way that fosters thinking and not just regurgitation? If we need some memorization, can we evaluate students’ learning in ways that don’t require hours of simply retyping definitions?

Importance of memorization

Key ideas behind mindfulness is that it is the antithesis of memorization and education focused on memorization stifles creativity. Learning mindfulness seems like learning a combination of critical thinking skills and how to question authority. And I agree- students should be taught these skills. Students should be taught about bias and perspective. At the college level, these ideas should be taught in first-semester courses. In middle and high school, these ideas should be introduced when discussing history, science, and literature. However, not all courses can or should consist purely of questioning facts. Most careers require learning linguistic cornerstones (aka memorization of terms). You cannot begin to debate the nuances of a topic unless you are able to read and understand previous work on a topic and know the language of the debate. Learning terms should not just include memorization of the words that describe the terms but understanding the concepts behind them. Part of this process of memorization is mindfulness- students should be engaged in thinking about how these terms fit together and how they fit into the broader topic. When we discuss learning techniques with students, we should be emphasizing that learning requires the hard work of memorization and simultaneously making mindful connections.

Get those kids [with their technology] off my lawn


Lectures are boring… sometimes

Lectures (whether in-person or virtual) should present information and help students understand content by making connections between ideas, demonstrating or explaining difficult concepts, or simply presenting the information in a way that makes it easier for students to remember the information later. Lectures should highlight important concepts and synthesize information that would otherwise take students hours to find and read. However, lectures are often an ebb and flow of new information and boring redundancy.

Teachers are sometimes blamed for students distracting themselves with technology because they aren’t using teaching methods that “kids today” understand. And it may be true that some courses and instructors are unengaging and boring. However, in the regular flow of a lecture, the information receiver will likely be bored during some parts of the lecture because they already understand a concept, are confused and do not know what is happening in the lecture, or simply find the course subject boring. The presence of occasional boredom is a symptom of group learning, when an instructor is teaching to students of different backgrounds.

The problem with modern technology is that it allows the slightly-bored student to escape immediately. What may have been 60 seconds of boredom turns into 240 seconds of distraction. The threshold for distraction is lowered, because we are given instant positive feedback of being entertained by checking our electronic devices. We have now missed some portion of the lecture and are slightly lost, which is may mean that understanding the lecture is difficult. We receive the negative reinforcement that lecture is boring. We distract ourselves with technology again.

I have been a student in networked and non-networked classrooms. And over and over again, students are playing on a computer or phone. Sometimes there is no pretense- the student is watching YouTube the entire class. But often it’s not continuous- just having email or a website up, or looking up something online that is class related. But the ability to escape is a constant pull. Maybe we’re only looking at our phones for 15 minutes out of the 50 minute lecture, but we’re thinking of checking them for another 15.


It’s technology’s fault for [not] being there

Technology in the classroom can be distracting. And it seems to be a problem with two knee-jerk solutions: 1) Get rid of all technology or 2) Incorporate all possible technology into the classroom.

I lean towards the first response. I’m not saying that technology cannot be incorporated into a course. Various platforms allow us to instantly and easily submit assignments, provide feedback and grades, and exchange information. They allow us to engage in distance learning and online discussions. And technology can be used to engage students.

But technology in a class can facilitate distractions. Teachers shouldn’t give up on trying to keep students focused on the lecture instead of their phones and computer screens. It shouldn’t be included in a course just because it can be. Do we need to give students more-expensive electronic versions of equipment or integrate phone applications into a class?

Conversely, technology shouldn’t be used because it’s easier to facilitate and grade than in-person interactions. By replacing in-person with online discussion, words are stripped of their tone and corresponding body language. After spending time crafting the perfect blog post, might we not be a bit defensive about people questioning our ideas? Or reading someone’s post after a bad week of work may result in a negative interpretation of a neutral comment.

I enjoy writing and reading. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t write. Writing forces us look at our rambling thoughts and structure them into coherency. It allows us to pick out our best arguments and cut redundant and contradictory information. I simply question whether instead of encouraging more individual interfacing with the whole of the internet or on a virtual platform just shared with a class, we should be encouraging communication in the physical world.

Teaching technological context not technology

I believe that experiential learning is vitally important in providing students with skills that will prepare them for the real world. Experiential learning involves learning through doing an action. While we can interpret this idea purely as giving students experience in the course topic(s), I would argue that experiential learning should also consist of using the class to give students experiences to build basic communication skills. Many undergraduates are 18-21 year olds are constantly engaging with technology and information, just as they do with reading and writing. However, many of them will have had little formal training in how to use technology or the information readily available on the internet, or they may not understand the context of the training. The modern undergraduate does not need to be taught to blog- they need to be taught how to identify technological tools and the critical thinking skills to use these tools. An 18 year old may not believe determining sources’ reliability is important until their told how they could be sued for liable for printing incorrect information in a newspaper or how basing a manufacturing decision on a study from an opinion website may result in being fired. Part of experiential learning should include teaching students how to navigate through the wilds of the internet, teaching them to recognize when they’re on the well-trodden paths of peer-reviewed science and objective reporting; see biases which are hidden in the fact fronds, and teach them to be aware of the breadcrumbs of personal information that they’re leaving behind every time they click on a search engine link, accept cookies from friendly-looking sites; or post, like, or re-tweet. Colleges and universities should develop curriculum permeated with assignments intended to develop core life skills, even after the students have forgotten all the definitions required. We should develop courses which where the base assumption is that we are improving students’ abilities even as we’re testing them on chemical bonds and the War of 1812. Instructors should ask the question of their course: do the assignments teach more than just the assigned topic, and can I put my course topic in real-life contexts? Teaching students how to craft a professional email doesn’t require them to have assignments where that action is the requirement. These skills develop when course after course requires writing to be coherent, capitalized, and spelled correctly. The same idea applies to teaching technological navigation. The ability to investigate a website for credibility is a skill that will only develop with use, and the ability to read a credible resource (such as a peer-reviewed article) and be able to identify flaws or gaps through critical thinking and not expert knowledge can only come with experience. For the course content to be interrupted as experiential learning to the students, they must be told that it is. We should provide context to not only the course and course content, but the course structure and rubric choices. Explaining our objectives and how the skills developed in the course will be relevant to them later in life. Teach the students to see how course work is experiential learning.