Over the last couple years, I have begun teaching. At first just a reading group or seminar with a handful of attendees. Last term I helped teach two large lecture classes.

I know that, compared to some of my colleagues, I spend an enormous amount of time assessing and evaluating students’ assignments. I try very hard to give detailed, substantive, feedback on each piece of student work. At the end of the day, however — at my school at least — there’s always a grade.

For someone who went well out of his way to go to a college with no grades, there’s a tragic irony to the whole situation: I think grades mean little and are often worth much less. Today I am forced to to inflict them on people who, almost universally, do not.

9 Replies to “Grades”

  1. I’d be interested to hear how you deal with the conflict: is there any way of assigning a grade that genuinely reflects (at least one principal component of) the detailed feedback you give to each student? Are any of the escapes I vaguely remember being deployed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance available to you?

  2. I follow the pretty standard practice of assessing all work on a numeric scale and then mapping these scores onto a grade distribution that results in a class GPA within the school-mandated range. At my school at least, in a class of high achievers, roughly half must get and A and half must get a B.

    But to answer your question, there is no real way of addressing the tension. Grades are simply too “lossy” to be useful. For example, I can’t figure out how to reflect progress. Some students do great work throughout a course. Other students start out much more roughly and then improve impressively through learning, feedback, and effort.

    You certainly want to reward both students but, it feels unfair to reward a student who did uneven work but learned with a higher grade than a student who did high quality work throughout the course.

    The written evaluations I provide describe, in detail, both situations. Every evaluation describes both strengths and areas for improvement. And each one is different. There’s simply no way these can be collapsed into a single dimension relative to the work of every other student in the class.

    As far as I’m concern, my written evaluations are my only valuable feedback. It’s just sad that all the affordances are such that my students are likely to disagree with me.

  3. It’s because grades are an artificial way to judge a student’s actual learning.  It’s a convenient numeric system that makes it easy to assess large #s of folks but not really give the student a better experience.

    The real learning experience for the student was the whole process of preparing the work for evaluation.  Simply assigning a grade doesn’t feedback to them and let them have an opportunity to build on their experience.  Many professors offer a first round of constructive feedback but few students take them up on it.  With larger #s it’s almost impossible to make that offer though.

    Think about how you’ve truly learned something – it probably involved first making a mistake and then being given some insight from either a person or machine that led you to greater understanding.  Even if you got the right answer the first time, you may not have understood the underlying concepts until you had to explain them to someone else (Synthesis) or even moreso build  an system to test others learning (Evaluation).

    Assessing knowledge level is easy (Knowledge as in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning). Assessing everything above that level(Comprehension, Assessment, Synthesis, Evaluation) is more difficult b/c of the effort on the part of the evaluator and evaluation system. 

    The most unintuitive thing about teaching is how much each person learns when they have to teach others.

  4. “I follow the pretty standard practice of assessing all work on a numeric scale and then mapping these scores onto a grade distribution that results in a class GPA within the school-mandated range. At my school at least, in a class of high achievers, roughly half must get and A and half must get a B.”

    Unless I’ve misinterpreted, you just said you grade on a curve?  Ick.

    I have no objection to grades in general, though not as a primary means of useful feedback, just as a mechanism for saying whether you passed a class and can move on or not.  But in a sensible grade structure, the professor should have no problem giving the entire class As if they earned them, and conversely should give the entire class Cs or Fs if they earned them.  How well a student learned from a given class does not depend on how well or how badly their classmates learned; an A should mean the same thing regardless of peers.

  5. Anonymous: I think at the most fundemental level, it is grading on a curve, yes.

    But you quoted the key issue. I explained that at my institution (for masters and undergraduate classes, at least), I cannot give over a certain class GPA. If I give half the class As, half the class must get Bs.

    The point of grades is at least in part to showcase learning but to showcase relative performance. The variance required by that desire interferes with our ability to use grades for other things. This is one reasons that I think they are not very useful. Hence the point.

  6. I too have to assign grades though a few years ago I talked to my school director and got permission to give a “complete/incomplete” record on student report cards. Unfortunately, when the new school director came in, I was forced to give grades again.

    Grades are useful to those who view education as a means to an end. They help separate the winners from the losers and can be used to rank students. Grades are, supposedly, a form of “accountability”.

    Here’s some food for thought from someone I admire a lot:

  7. How are the grades used after the course is over? No matter whether a school uses grades, grades obviously can’t substitute for the hard, thoughtful work you do giving feedback and the student’s use of that feedback. But when students look to the future–to assistantships, jobs, graduation honors, etc.–that puts their interests in good grades somewhere other than straight-up learning.

    So at MIT, are those grades used somewhere else besides the class?

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