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.
As 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?