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.

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.

Process VS Product

When putting the pieces of a puzzle together there is time and effort going into the puzzle’s construction. There’s always the pre-excitement–going through Amazon or the aisle of a department store and looking at the covers of boxes. There are paintings of landscape reminiscent of Bob Ross or of your favorite movie poster. When you get the puzzle that is 1,000 plus pieces, you know there will be rigorous hours put into it, just to get into the end result. There are people who appreciate the tedious hours and work put into the puzzle. Whether they attack the puzzle alone or with a group, there is a learning curve to puzzles. They come up with their own strategies like getting the border first and then assemble the pieces that are more distinct in the original painting. There is more beauty in the process of making the puzzle than actual puzzle itself.

This can be similar to how instructors should look and value assessment. In “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning” by Marilyn Lombardi, the article addresses how standardized testing can prove to set students up to fail. Even when we look at the SAT and the ACT, the answers are given in a multiple choice format which sets up the notion that only one right answer can be chosen out of 4 or 5 possibilities. In real life problems, there aren’t usually just one solution, but rather there are many of them that could reap different benefits or repercussions.

In the table Lombardi provided on page 6 discusses her viewpoints on Traditional Assessment vs Authentic Assessment. Even the wording on the chart is interesting rhetorically because it implies that traditional assessment is inauthentic, the assessment doesn’t ring true or genuine. In regarding to the previous paragraph, Lombardi compares answers that have a general reliance on forced-choice, written measures (traditional assessment) to answers that promotes integration of various written and performance measures (authentic assessment) which basically states that we won’t be placing students in one confined box.

In terms of my own grading in my English composition class I assess students partly on how well they improve from their original task and their skill set that they come in with. If an essay isn’t “perfect” in my eyes, I’m not going to dock them terribly if I felt like they put time and effort into their papers and saw their drafts got tremendously better over time. I don’t know how this would look exactly in a STEM class, but I’m sure there can be a way to look at performance and improved performance in the classroom. I know that in my high school, my math teacher made us do problems and show our work. Even if we got the answer wrong, she looked at the steps we made. If we were close in our process she wouldn’t completely dock us, but gave us partial credit. I think this viewpoint allowed me to have room for growth in math and not get discouraged if I did get an answer wrong which further emphasizes the point that process and not the product should be valued.

Rethinking the Grade: Risky, but Necessary

One of the most unfortunate feelings I experienced in my undergraduate courses was the feeling of disappointment, and really outright betrayal, when something that I had learned for an exam never actually appeared on that exam. “Well, dammit, why did I waste my time learning it if I wasn’t going to be tested on it?!” I would think to myself. I felt as though the teacher had tricked me into learning something and taking up valuable space in my already crowded head.

Of course, this is the opposite of what learning is all about. Learning should not be valuable only if it is necessary to some immediate goal, but undergraduate Jackson didn’t see it that way, not when he had to cram for three exams in one week (or even one day, at times). The assessment system as the majority of students have experienced it is broken and backwards, emphasizing rote memorization for the purposes of getting a good grade rather than actual learning.

Of course, this isn’t a secret; most educators will readily admit that the way that student learning is assessed is fundamentally flawed, or at the least in serious need of retooling. Yet, changing the grading system that is now fundamental to US education is a monumental task and one that requires great acts of bravery and defiance. That may sound dramatic, but think about it from the point of view of, well, me!

I am going to complete my PhD program soon, and am beginning the process of applying to institutes of higher education, with the goal of teaching as my main focus. In crafting my teaching philosophy, a large part of me wants to passionately espouse how I am going to reinvent learning and integrate all these newfangled active learning techniques while doing away with categorical grading. However, unless I am applying to an institution that does not use standard grades, I will be required to supply a letter grade for each student, and, more than likely, have a three exam a semester normative syllabus, especially if I teach introductory biology.

I want to get a job, more than I want to be a champion of change. I need to provide for my family and heralding a massive upheaval of the current education system is not likely to help. And, when I do hopefully get that job, I will want to get tenure, and not cause waves by teaching my introductory classes differently than the other sections. So, what do we do, as new teachers do we risk derailing our careers, or not even getting a career in the first place, by championing for change? Do we only apply to institutions like Warren Wilson that already “get it,” thereby changing nothing? Or do we wait patiently until we have our valuable tenure and then begin implementing the changes that we desire, that is if we have not already become mired in the standard grading system and too disimpassioned to change?

I only bring these questions up because I think they are important to consider. Of course we can champion change in smaller, bite-sized amounts that hiring committees will see as appropriately progressive, and departments will not balk at. My passion may scream out “To Hell with anyone who stands in my way! We need to change the entire system NOW!” but change, especially on an individual teacher basis, needs to be both strategic and iterative. Instead of giving exams, for instance, have students write review papers on a topic of their choosing (within the greater subject) and have their peers review those papers for quality and accuracy. The student then may make changes based on their peer review or not (though have them defend their decisions in a written statement) before presenting their paper to the class. In this way, you may assess whether concepts are being sufficiently learned while mimicking the real world of scientific discussion. There are no standardized exams in the real world, and you do not get a grade for each paper you write or talk you give. That being said, it may be a good idea to give weekly quizzes to ensure that the basic, necessary factoids are sinking in, but make them pass/fail.

As I apply for positions, I must keep in mind that I can make change, and stand up for what I believe, without doing away with everything standard at once. As future educators, it is our duty and responsibility to improve how we teach, and how students are assessed. There will undoubtedly be pushback from fellow faculty, the administration, students, and even parents, but we must be firm in our convictions and loyal to the success of our students.

Grades “Never Became the Focus of Energy”: Assessment and Black Mountain College

“I doubt there is a student or teacher worth a damn who has not at some moment pondered creating his own university” my friend Leon Lewis writes at the beginning of his essay, “Black Mountain College: A Strange Spot in A Strange Spot” in Appalachian Journal (vol. 1, no. 3, 1973).  I first read this essay when I was in college, recently fascinated with the strange experimental art school that operated between 1933 and 1957 in my backyard in Black Mountain, North Carolina. There are many things that thrill me about Black Mountain College (BMC) including the lengthy list of art-world teachers, faculty, and visitors who graced the community — Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Charles Olson, Buckminster Fuller, Hilda Morley, MC Richards, Jonathan Williams, Ruth Asawa, Albert Einsten (ok, not an artist per se, but still impressive), Salvador Dali (who visited and orchestrated a film viewing), and Joseph and Anni Albers, among many, many more. Yet, like several of the contributors as well as myself wrote in the new Black Mountain College Special Issue of Appalachian Journal, BMC is and was so much more than the big names who lived, wrote, worked, and created there.

As an educator, BMC captivates me because of its almost complete aversion for grades. As BMC faculty member John L. Wallen relayed to historian Martin Duberman in “the Bible of BMC,” Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community,  when asked what kind of education BMC stood for, would reply, “We don’t have grades,” “we don’t have required courses” (275).

Further, Duberman explains that “Classes varied considerably in format, since each teacher was left to his own devices. Some would lecture or direct discussions more than others; some would settle for words, others would show pictures or play music; an occasional seminar would be jointly taught by three or four instructors, and many classes had staff members or their wives sitting in as students” (100).

While grades were not central to the College’s pedagogy, Duberman writes, “Most instructors privately jotted down grades, but only–so went the rationale, anyway–in case a student later needed a ‘record’ for transfer or for graduate school. The grades were never passed on to the students themselves, and never, therefore, became the focus of energy or the standard for evaluating self-worth that they commonly do in most schools” (100).

Back to dear Leon’s idea that many of us involved in education have daydreamed about our own utopia-inducing schools, mine, like BMC, would not be “grade-obsessed.” I am so fascinated with BMC’s lack of emphasis on grades and meanwhile, the College’s production of loads of artists and writers that had extraordinary impacts on art and culture, both in the US and abroad. Whenever the topic of grading inevitably comes up, either in my own classes as a doctoral student, when grading my own students, or when talking with colleagues, I am always envious of BMC’s approach.

This week, while reading more modern scholarship on assessment and education, I heard the rumblings of the BMC spirit within the words of Alfie Kohn.  Suggesting that the basic function of grades is to collect information about student progress and share that information with students, Kohn suggests, perhaps controversially, that: “Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.”

Citing research from others in education and across the humanities, Kohn establishes his argument against grades across three main findings: (1) “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning” (2) “Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task” and (3) “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” 

Kohn suggests that in order to revise these deleterious effects of grades, educators should aim to “delete” or at least “dilute” grades and their hegemony in the classroom. Writing in favor of more narrative assessment, like in a letter from teacher to student upon completion of a course, Kohn adds that this change in grade format can be gradual, taking place over time, and that in the meantime, the grade-giving process can be made more democratic if students are invited to collaborate on their grade alongside an instructor, weighing in on the decision. Throughout Kohn’s piece, I kept daydreaming about my own ideal school, and feeling excited that the ideas of BMC and other experimental schools are very much still alive and in circulation through discussions of best-practices for educators.

As a graduate student, I am not quite ready to abandon grading, mainly because I’d rather not have that undoubtedly lengthy, difficult discussion with those in power in my department, at the registrar, etc. However, with the legacy of BMC and current scholars like Kohn in mind, I hope to switch to more narrative-based assessment for my students in the coming semesters.

Week 4: “What are you doing with that carrot, Professor?”

First things first, let’s hype everyone up, because I just know you’re reading this with bleary eyes at 3AM, and that’s okay. No judgement here.

“If we start treating people like people, and not assuming that they’re horses… slower, smaller, better-smelling horses… I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off, but… also make our world just a little bit better.”

-Dan Pink: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

When Dan Pink suggested that humans are not infinitely pliable creatures who can be easily controlled by their environments and the (market) forces surrounding them, I immediately began to reflect back on my brief liaison with psychology, and the Behaviorist school of thought more specifically. I went back to one of its most prominent detractors, Steven Pinker, who criticizes the Behaviorist approach to the human psyche in his book, The Blank Slate. In this model (or at least, his version of it which isn’t entirely accurate), we are primarily driven by external stimuli, the consequences of our actions, the things we have been conditioned (dare I say, programmed) to do, a model with which I happen to agree… to an extent. There is merit to our friend Steven’s critique of Behaviorism, and given my own experiences with genetic traits and their influence on human behavior, I happen to subscribe to the current model, which incorporates elements of Behaviorism (B.F. Skinner–the guy with the rats and the levers–being one of its most notable cheerleaders) and evolutionary psychology (our friend Pinker), among other things (ask the psychologists–they know way more than I do: also, Psychologists, please tell me if I totally butchered the whole Behaviorist thing!).

What does any of this have to do with learning? Well, by the psychological definition, learning is what allows us to adapt to new conditions, like, say a stressful university course that comes with specific expectations. In its most simplistic form, and sadly, in the form we most often see in too many schools, learning occurs when students associate conformity to testing standards, rubrics, syllabi, and rankings with positive reinforcements like gold stars, passing grades, higher class rankings, university admissions, and “better-performing” schools. This form of learning is not exactly the most inspiring or the most motivating, but it gets results–at least, the sort that would interest test-prep companies, school districts, and other adults who like quantifiable results. It does not benefit the students, however, because, according to the deeply depressing and realistic film, Declining by Degrees, many of them are simply going through the motions, seeing school as yet another series of hoops to jump through until they meet their next goal.

This is where Dan Pink’s motivational speech (about motivation… har-har) comes in. These uninspired, unmotivated, disenchanted students leave college and enter the workforce. Up to this point, they’ve spent their lives being treated like “slower, smaller, better-smelling horses” or worse, depending on the school district. Uninspired, unmotivated, disenchanted students make for disengaged workers who are less likely to come up with innovative ideas, be more productive, or even like their jobs. Worse still, those who aren’t fortunate enough to travel that path can end up in prison, which results in even more lost productivity and innovation since entire cohorts of young minds are wasted behind bars. I completely agree with Dan Pink: we need to endow our workers and students with a greater sense of purpose, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. He’s already mentioned the profit-driven model of large corporations and the problems that can cause with employee disengagement, but I think we should investigate the motivations of school districts and everyone else who is responsible for our current educational system which, if we look back, has mostly been corporations (remember that passing comment Dr. Nelson made about the role of the Ford Motor Company in the creation of school assessment? Yup. That B-minus was kinda sorta their fault).


Congratulations on surviving the first sixteen years of school! Now let’s see if we can make it better for those coming after us!

Don’t Judge a book by its cover, but still!!

I have to admit that before reading the article “The Case Against Grades” I was extremely biased. As soon as I read the title, I directly knew what to do next:
read the article, bash the article every chance i get, criticize the article in my blog. However, i quickly realized that the author Alfie Kohn is making very good points, and looking back on my own education, i have been the victim of many downsides of grading which include:

>Diminishing students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.
>Creating a preference for the easiest possible task
>Reducing the quality of students’ thinking
>Increasing the levels of cheating

However, as much as i do agree with these points, I still think grading is necessary, at least in advanced levels of education. I definitely see how letting go of grades for children can enhance the learning experience, i mean giving a 7 year old an F isn’t really helping anyone. However, i would definitely feel more comfortable knowing that my surgeon can identify every single organ in my body, or that the pilot knows what the big red button does. Don’t take the previous examples too literally, but try to see the underlying point. If no grading exists how can we differentiate between people who are qualified and people who are not. The article suggest personalized feedback, or meaningful assessment, but once other people have access to these assessment this becomes another way of grading, basically all we end up doing is manipulating semantics.

So yes, i agree grading has an ugly face. However, before launching a crusade against grades to save students, we have to find an alternative that fixes the drawbacks of grading without destroying its benefits. Namely I m talking about the millions of people who choose a career based on making money without having any real interest in the contribution towards the domain. How fair is it to put a person passionate about his major at the same exact level of a person who can basically now manipulate the system since all forms of quantification have been removed?

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