Sunday, May 11, 2008

Downhill grading

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Bob Sommer pretty nearly captures my own antipathy to grading:
I enjoy teaching but dislike giving examinations and grading. Is there something wrong with this picture? I became a college teacher to educate students, not to spend time deciding whether an essay answer is worth a B or a B- or whether average exam grades of 87.3 are B+ or A-. For me personally, grades are a secondary and derivative issue at best, an anguished responsibility at worst.

Why is grading often such a drag? For me, I point to three factors.
  1. Grading too often ends an inquiry rather than keeping it alive. Grading is verdictive. More often than not, to give a student a grade is to put the period on the end of a sentence. With the term ending, the students probably won't continue investigating the content I've taught them, or with the paper on X written, they probably won't think much about X again in their lives. And since the inquiry is what excites me, grading usually represents a terminus of something good, rather than its continuation. Yes, there are the exceptional students who take grades as ways of continuing to learn, but they are not the norm in my experience.
  2. Grading invites antagonism rather than collaboration. At its best, teaching and learning is a partnership, instructor and student investigating a subject together. Grading is by necessity not collaborative. (I'm aware that many people have students do self-assessments, which I support, but conscientious instructors still recognize their role as 'the decider' when it comes to grades.) And when students complain about grades, they're not arguing with Aristotle or Mill. They're arguing with me.
  3. The time spent rarely justifies the meager contribution to learning. The previous two points can be summed up as follows: Grading doesn't usually contribute much to student learning. Add to this that many of us teach large numbers of students, and it strikes me that grading is probably a wildly inefficient way to stimulate student learning: big investment, low payoff.

Do others share my sentiments about grading? Anyone have innovative approaches to grading they'd like to share?


  1. I don't like grades either. I've found their incredibly annoying conversation pieces to discuss with parents.

    Theirs such an emphasis on it now to. I remember in elementary school as long as you could sing the abc's without too many letters missing and you weren't trying to hurt the other kids, you got an A. Now, I'm in high school and it's all like, we have tests in chem, algebra, english, physics, and basically every class every two weeks. Forget learning, I need to learn memorize this or that, so I can know whether to pick A or C on my history test.

    On top of that, the governments testing us. I have tests in English, Science, and Mathematics for the government. In English we spent an entire week in class just talking about how to get high scores on the government's test. It's like the teachers have to change up everything their doing just to get us to pass the standardized tests. No Child Left Behind isn't really popular among the teachers at my school.

    As you reach higher grades it seems that theirs a slow shift from learning to testing. And soon testing, and passing tests become more important than getting concepts down and really understanding it. At least that's what I've felt.

  2. No innovation here, but I feel your pain. The worst part of assigning grades in an introductory level class is that so many of the students fall into the same mediocre range. They have mastered the minimal required details for answering the question, but have no further insight beyond what they managed to absorb in that review session last week. How am I supposed to meaningfully differentiate this mass of exams to assign different grades? Or, alternately, should almost everyone receive the same grade? I'm at a loss what to do to make the grading process fair and significant.

  3. I'm not at all a fan of grading, but my students seem to be motivated to work at understanding the material in exchange for a grade -- or at least they work hard at trying to demonstrate understanding in exchange for that grade -- so it isn't so bad.

    In logic courses, grades are directly connected to the difficulty of proofs they can complete, so they are motivated by the grades to work on difficult logic problems -- or to master less difficult problems to insure their B or C.

  4. I did not receive grades in college - I went to UC Santa Cruz. When I taught writing courses at Cornell, where I went to grad school, we were encouraged to experiment with not giving grades until the end of the semester. Both of these experiences taught me something very useful: a symbol is always less informative than complete sentences. On the no-grading system, the poorest writers improved a lot, as did the most sophisticated. Those in the middle stayed in the middle. But it was really great to reach those who had been demoralized by poor grades and those who hadn't been challenged because they always received the highest grades.
    When I write what UCSC called "narrative evaluations," I find that it is much more productive. I don't have the luxury of opting-out on the grading system now, but I do spend a lot of time trying to communicate by means other than grades. Of course, I do have the luxury of small class sizes, and most do not.

  5. I was recently reading about how to make grading more conducive to learning recently in McKeachie's Teaching Tips (I think), where it was suggested that the instructor give an exam, grade it, return it, discuss it, then have another test over the same material with different questions. The advantage is that students continue to engage the material and learn where they went wrong. The disadvantage is, of course, this entails more grading.

  6. As a tutor, I'm not allowed to grade. That's a good thing for all the reasons you mentioned, and I rarely have students ask me 'What do you think it's worth?'. Instead, I discuss their drafts with them, write lots of comments and get questions that are actually related to the content. I guess I can do this because I don't work with huge classes but even as a student, I prefer to get back essays with comments than ones without. It's not really innovative, but comments (and questions, and pointers to new material) work for me, and apparently for my students as well.

  7. You're probably already aware of this, but there's actually a pretty enormous literature and body of research out there to back you up on this. Perhaps you've heard of Alfie Kohn? He's not the most deeply reflective thinker (read: not a philosopher), and he tends to focus more on secondary schools than colleges/universities, but he is genuinely thoughtful, and his work pulls together a lot of Very Serious Science to support his basic conclusion: that grades are at best a waste of time and resources, at worst actually counterproductive to learning. This article is a good overview, and (unlike some of his other 'popular' articles) includes extensive references.

    I'm tempted to go on (this is something of a pet interest of mine), but I'll leave it at this for now.

  8. Thanks for everyone's (supportive!) comments.

    Dresden, do go on! The Kohn article is awesome. I'm now an official grade abolitionist!

    But the pragmatist returns: I can't get rid of grades (my employer won't let me). So what can be done to minimize the various negative effects of grades that Kohn outlines?

  9. I'm really glad you found my comments helpful! Kohn cuts a goofy sort of figure sometimes (he's even more fond of puns than I am, which is saying something) so I often worry when introducing people to his work that they'll write him off as not a Serious Scholar. Which he isn't, really; but that doesn't mean he isn't serious about what he does, or that the results he points out aren't real.

    In the interest of full disclosure: I am not myself a teacher. While I have read extensively on this subject, and my significant other and I have been thinking and talking about it for years, reflecting on our experiences as students and his as a teacher (he's a philosophy PhD candidate who's been teaching for almost as long as I've known him), any 'advice' I could offer would really be (at best maybe a notch or two above) educated speculation.

    So I don't have any teaching credentials. What I do have is a good memory, an intense interest, a willingness (even eagerness) to reflect, mad Googling skills, and a whoooole lot of free time, so if you're willing to keep talking about this stuff with me, I'll do my best to make it worth your while.

    I strongly suggest picking up one or both of Kohn's Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve. As I said before, his work is focused more on the elementary/secondary than the college/university level, but they're both easy (even quick) reads and the research they draw on is thoroughly documented in both. In the mean time, this site has a pretty faithful summary of Kohn's main arguments against the use of rewards (among which he includes grades) as well as his "guidelines" for grading. That summary is pretty bare-bones, though; I can't find my copies of either of those books right now, but I have a good working memory of them, so if there's anything you want fleshed out, I'll do my best to fill in the gaps.

    Forgive me if I'm a little overenthusiastic (read: obsessed); this has been a pet issue of mine for many years, so I freak out a little whenever I find someone willing to talk about it with me!


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!