Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feminist philosophers agree: Down with grading!

Over at the Feminist Philosophers blog, someone asked: "If there were one or two things you could change about academia, what would it be?" A heartening answer (from my point of view at least) given by several commenters: grading!

Some choice comments and observations below the fold:

San Diego's H.E. Baber:

Grading. From the perspective of an American academic, grading creates a serious conflict of interests. On the one hand, we’re teachers: we want students to understand the stuff, get excited about the stuff, and do well. On the other hand we’re agents of the university which functions as an employment pre-screening and credentialing agency, ranking students who are after scarce resources: jobs and places in graduate and professional programs. So, we have to produce a spread of grades and make sure that a sufficient percentage of students get bad ones. At my place in particular we’re under constant pressure to keep a lid on grade-inflation.

I teach at a community college, and the conflict between the aims of education and of certification represented by grades is very acute here. What is more, grading often obscures rather than conveys information about student learning; from learning that Student A got an A in an Intro course at one college and that Student B got an A in an Intro course at another (or very often even at the same college, from different instructors), and nothing more, one has learned nothing about their education. You don’t know what they’ve learned, you don’t know how they have been challenged, you don’t know the skills they’ve picked up. The two grades are not commensurable, but we treat them as if they were, and when we do, it’s just pseudo-information, pseudo-knowledge.
Baber's remarks in particular struck a chord. It's frustrating to be playing roles with antithetical aims: the students' educational partner and the students' performance evaluator.


  1. Down with grading as opposed to... what? I'd be interested in considering an alternative that isn't clearly much worse.

  2. I also would like to change this, but also see no suitable alternative. Regarding the conflict, this is present in many realms. For instance, a manager and her team within a corporation are partners of a sort insofar as they are working towards a common goal. But the manager must also evaluate the performance of team members. More to the present point, I'm not as convinced that the conflict of interests is as strong as Baber makes it out to be. There is a conflict present, but I can teach with the aims she discusses and then evaluate how well my students have done without a serious conflict. I may be missing something, or perhaps haven't thought about it enough.

  3. I firmly believe that it is important to separate the functions of teaching and evaluating. In the ideal case, the examiner should not be the teacher, and should not know the identity of the student being evaluated. In fact, I wrote an article on the topic here:

    I hope, by the way, that it is clear from this article that I am not trying to claim that British universities are superior to American universities. There is a lot of debate about whether the system of checks and balances in British universities is working as it should. But at least it is recognized that it is preferable to separate the functions of teaching and examining, whereas in America - famed for separation of powers in the political realm - the two are indivisible, at least an undergraduate level.

    I have come to the conclusion that the difference results from two different conceptions of academic freedom. In England, the classic expression of academic freedom was when the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, resisted King James' attempt to force a president of his choosing upon them. Academic freedom is about the autonomy and integrity of the institution, which is defended by faculty as a collective body.

    I have sometimes heard it said that, for the founding fathers of the USA, "freedom" meant the freedom of a member of the landed gentry to do what he saw fit with his property, and that this explains why lovers of freedom could keep slaves. I'm no expert on American history, but it strikes me that the American concept of academic freedom is similar. It is about upholding the sovereignty of the instructor in the class. When I have suggested that a class be examined by someone other than the instructor, one response has been that this would prevent the instructor focussing attention of areas that he or she thought were of particular interest, and ignoring areas that he or she did not consider so important. This response was presented as an objection, whereas I saw it as an outcome to be desired.

  4. Mightn't the problem be what we're grading during the semester and how we determine the final grade for the course?

    Ideally, grading *during* the semester should be encouraging learning (and I can think of a bunch of ways it could do this) while grading at the end of the semester is supposed to measure what learning happened. I can imagine a system where the same person does all the 'grading' (perhaps what happens during the semester is called something else) but the overall process doesn't need to be as non-conducive to learning as it currently is.

  5. I'm pretty convinced that having instructors play the dual role of evaluator and learning partner tends to diminish learning by increasing anxiety, supplanting extrinsic for intrinsic motivation, and introducing suspicion or gamesmanship where there should be trust. (Mary Ellen Weimer is good on this topic.) It also leads to students adopting a 'how do I please him?' attitude instead of a 'how do I produce work that meets objective standards?'. I'm assuming that most of you out there have students who ask questions like 'what do you want in our papers?' instead 'does my paper meet the stated expectations?' This sort of phenomenon is the upshot of having instructors play this dual role.

    Mike and Justin ask about the alternatives: One is to divorce the roles. This is not the norm in academic life, but here are some examples.
    - Dissertation committees: Yes, your main 'teacher' is on your committee, but you also have to satisfy the expectations of the other committee members. Likewise for undergrad theses in some cases.
    - Ethics Bowl, debate, other forms of 'performance learning'
    - Oxford style tutorials (like those Ben Murphy mentions), with external examiners. I went to an undergraduate college with a similar arrangement, and part of what it made it so rewarding is that the faculty that helped you prepare for the exams are not those who develop or evaluate your exams.
    - Standardized tests. Yes, this is controversial, but they do de-link the instructor from the evaluation.
    - A non- higher ed example:My elementary school age daughter delights in science fair because a panel of judges evaluates her work instead of her classroom teacher.

    I'd very much advocate that students be given learning opportunities like these. Unfortunately, they tend to be resource-intensive.

  6. I'm not a big fan of grades either, but I wonder whether divorcing the roles of teacher and evaluator would really fix the problems that Michael mentions (viz., anxiety, extrinsic motivation, and suspicion).

    Sure, students would stop worrying about pleasing their instructor, but I'm not optimistic that they would then focus on objective standards. My guess is that they would switch to worrying about pleasing whomever was doing the grading. This might even cause more anxiety, since students would face greater uncertainty about the grader's criteria.

    Think about the way that many students behave toward standardized tests. They want to know how to game the test, what the test makers want, etc.

    Am I being too pessimistic about this? What are other people's predictions?

    (This doesn't address Ben's point, which is that outside evaluators deter instructors from teaching idiosyncratic content. But I see that as a different, though important, problem.)

  7. I agree, David. I think the issues raised -- the matter of people being more interested in pleasing their evaluators than in producing quality work for its own sake, and the matter of reducing harmful idiosyncracy in instructors -- are not particularly connected with having the instructor take on a dual role.

    As for the anxiety students feel in class (which I imagine they would feel either way), I think this can be used as a wonderful motivating tool. I don't even make a secret of this. Indeed, my discussion with students (including, and in fact primarily, my own) has confirmed my view that students are grateful when instructors keep them worried about whether they have prepared well enough for their classes and work, since otherwise the general motivation to succeed will drop, followed by the class standards and the whole purpose of pursuing university-level study.

    Additionally, having the instructor grade the performance of the student seems to open up further options that could be desirable. For instance, suppose that Smith and Jones are both at a high B+ level at the middle of the course -- both, in fact, are on the cusp of an A-, given a midterm you have just tentatively graded. But the students are otherwise different. Smith is naturally very bright, but is starting to feel that his natural talents are great enough to make hard work less than worthwhile for him. Jones, by contrast, has struggled with the material throughout the first half of the course, but has just experienced (after what you know to be very hard work) a kind of breakthrough moment. This B+ midterm is the greatest thing he has ever done. Giving Smith the B+ he has earned -- the lowest grade he has ever received -- will often be a rude awakening to Smith, particularly when it's accompanied with a clear comment about what went wrong. This often seems to bring these students to their senses, and to show them that they haven't reached the top of the mountain yet. Also, they normally compensate for this grade by their improvements end of class. Jones, however, might find an A- grade, together with some congratulatory comments, very encouraging, so in that case the half-percentage point increase might lead him to stay in the class rather than drop out in disappointment after all his work came to less than he had hoped for. This is just an example, of course; but it seems to me that these sorts of things are _sometimes_ good, and they would not be possible if the duties were separated.

    Finally, I'm not so sure how much the extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation issue comes to in the end. In my experience, many people who find the study of philosophy (and many other difficult pursuits) rewarding and intrinsically motivating only discovered their love for study after they had been put through the paces by a rigorous program.

  8. Regardless of whether the roles should be split, there are certainly alternative forms of evaluation that are independent of grades in an ordinary sense -- in fact, many professors use such means of evaluation as part of feedback on particular assignments as well as giving grades, so a great deal of labor is being put forward in this direction already. For instance, a standardized rubric breaking down the evaluation in terms of the objectives of the course, or key competencies, even if it is very short, tells you more than an A or B does. Justin's example with the B+ shows precisely one of the absurdities people are forced into when grading on a single scale for a class which will inevitably be multi-faceted: the information going into each mark will either not take into account the student's particular circumstances or will mean something different from student to student.

    But there are real reasons for splitting the roles, and confining instructors to evaluation-for-feedback rather than evaluation-for-official-records. For instance, currently students weigh professors on how easy or hard it is to get a good grade from the professor, rather than how easy or difficult the instructor makes it to pass an independent evaluation. That in itself is a warning sign. Independent evaluation frees up instructor time, removes complaints about grade inflation from instructor shoulders, eliminates worries about differences in grading practices from instructor to instructor, and so forth.

    Conflicts of interest are measured by abuses; so in order to determine how much and to what degree there is a conflict of interest, one must look at abuses, not cases in which people are acting reasonably to navigate the conflict.

  9. @Justin Kalef,

    I know it's been a while since there were any comments to this topic, but I'm only just now reading it.

    I don't want to sound melodramatic, but the best way I can state what I want to state is as follows. When I read your description of a situation where two students performed equally on an assignment, but you would recommend giving one an A- to encourage him, and one a B+ to give him a wake-up call, my reaction was one almost literally of revulsion.

    As teachers, it is not our role, our job, or our moral duty, to evaluate our students' characters or make decisions about how their life ought to be led. Their character and their life are their own concern. Our evaluative role as teachers is simply to see how well they have mastered the course material.

    If two students have performed equally, they should receive equal grades. This is axiomatic. To do otherwise is an immoral seizing of powers that do not rightly belong to you.

    Encouragement and diagnosis and so on are absolutely appropriate and oftn necessary for good teaching. They belong in comments and personal conversations with students. But it is absolutely inappropriate to accomplish the goals behind such speech acts by adjusting students' grades. It is not what grades are _for_. Think of it this way. Why would a student who worked very hard to come back from failing, and who got a B+ on his quiz, be encouraged? He would only be encouraged _on the assumption_ that the grade reflects his performance. If, instead, he understood that the grade reflects, not his performance, but his teacher's desire to encourage him, then he has lost all reason to be encouraged about his ability to master the material. (He may be "encouraged" about the kindness of his teacher but that is, or should be, pedagogically irrelevant.)


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