Grading and Its Discontents

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

July 11, 2012

I like to think of college as a community of learners whose members are engaged in a common enterprise as well as a shared struggle against the forces of ignorance and complacency. Unfortunately, there's a serpent in this Garden of Eden. Potential for discord arises because some members of the community hold the power to judge the performance of other members—by means of a practice called grading.

To the extent that the faculty-student relationship becomes tense and even adversarial, the community is weakened and the goal of perpetual learning is jeopardized. Short of doing away with grading, what can be done to minimize the tensions?

With that question in mind, I began asking my students what they thought of grading. Their answers, coupled with some old-fashioned research, eventually led me to the following conclusions: Most students bring with them an unhealthy attitude toward grading that has been instilled in them by parents and schoolteachers, an attitude based on the flawed assumption that grades are supposed to function as "carrots and sticks." Consequently, it's not enough for me to simply convey the mechanics of my grading policy; I must also ensure that students acquire a more accurate conception of grading, one that will enhance—rather than impede—their learning.

And I have to do so all along the semester. A single explanation of grading in the first week of classes doesn't have much impact. In my attempt to transform how students approach grading, I realize that I am up against 12 or more years of socialization. I try to keep my hopes low, while being grateful for any sign of progress.

The nature of grading. Grading is a tool, I tell my students. And like any other tool, it is meant to perform certain specific functions. To explain those functions, I like to use a simple analogy.

Consider a car's speedometer. It is a tool that performs two interrelated functions: (1) It measures speed, and (2) it communicates that information to the driver. In a somewhat similar way, grading is a tool that also performs two interrelated functions: (1) It assesses academic performance, and (2) it communicates that information to the student. When driving, you glance at the speedometer to determine the speed of the vehicle—if it is what you want, you try to maintain it; if not, you make appropriate adjustments. That is analogous to how students are supposed to use, and benefit from, whatever it is that their grades are telling them.

It's perfectly normal to desire good grades since they serve as evidence that a student has demonstrated competence in a particular area. But problems arise when students assume that their primary goal in college is to earn good grades so they can achieve or maintain a certain GPA. That is like believing that the primary goal of driving a car is not to reach a particular destination but to achieve or maintain a certain speed.

Since grades have only instrumental value—rather than any intrinsic value—they must be treated as only means to some end, and never as ends in themselves. I tell my students: If your primary goal in college is to receive good grades, you will probably view the required work as an onerous obstacle and you're not likely to feel very motivated to do the work. But you are most likely to receive good grades when you are so focused on learning that grades have ceased to matter.

Frequently asked questions. The process of grading is misunderstood in only a limited number of ways, and they can be inferred from the type of questions that students tend to ask about their own grades. Here are a few examples.

It is not uncommon for a student to ask: "Why did you take off points?" After hearing that several times, I became curious about the kind of reasoning that would lead someone to ask such a question. The students seems to be assuming that they already had a full score and that the professor is therefore responsible for taking away some of what rightfully belonged to them. Needless to say, that is a mistaken assumption.

So I explain: It is not the case that you start out with a perfect score and then "lose" some points because the professor "takes" them "off." Rather, you start out with zero and must earn all of your points. Moreover, a proactive student would not ask "Why did you take off my points?" but rather "Why was I not able to earn a perfect score?"

Learning is never directly caused by anything that a professor does. It happens as a result of the student's own activities (reading, thinking, writing, etc.), while the professor can only facilitate that process. Since the responsibility for learning lies with the student, so does the burden of demonstrating that he or she has actually achieved that learning.

For a while, I took it for granted that students were cognizant of my responsibility for maintaining a reasonable standard of fairness. I started having doubts, however, after the third or fourth time that I heard the following statement: "If I don't get an A in this course, I will lose my scholarship" (or "I won't get into the nursing program," or "I wouldn't qualify for medical school"). What these students seem to be suggesting is that I should not treat them like everyone else in the class because of their special circumstances or difficult career paths. In principle, such a request shouldn't trouble the conscience of any professor, for we are under no obligation to assign grades simply on the basis of what students want or need.

Yet being told that the entire life plan of a young man or woman depends on what grade I give them does put me in an awkward situation psychologically: I don't wish to be the person who destroys someone's dream, but I also have a strong need for integrity. It would be best for both parties if students simply do not share this kind of information with faculty members.

After receiving a poor grade on an assignment, a student has sometimes asked me the following question: "What can I do to improve my grade in this course?" What that question usually implies is that I should give such students an additional assignment so that they can make up for their previous, less-than-stellar performance.

I suspect the main reason students make such a request is that they haven't taken the time to think through its implications. It's obviously unfair to give an opportunity for extra credit to only one student, but giving the same opportunity to everyone in class is not always practical.

Instead of agonizing over what grades they are going to get, I wish my students would be more concerned about the state of their learning. For a student who is truly focused on learning, the appropriate question to ask is not "How can I earn a better grade?" but rather "What do I need to learn that will enhance my academic performance?"

Via negativa. I want students to understand that there are certain functions that grading is not designed to perform. For instance, grading cannot measure a student's effort.

Sometimes a student complains: "I worked so hard in this course and spent so much time studying but I only received a. ... " That student is probably assuming that grading is intended to gauge the time and effort that students invest in their studies—an assumption that clearly isn't true.

Professors rarely observe their students outside of the classroom or lab, which is why we are in no position to judge how hard or long someone has studied. We can only assess their actual performance. A student using ineffective methods of study would have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than a student who is using effective methods. Similarly, a student who is trying to do multiple things simultaneously, or is being constantly distracted by technology, is likely to accomplish much less in the same amount of time than a student who is giving full attention to the task at hand.

Grading cannot measure a student's progress either. On the first day of classes in any given course, some students are already ahead of others because they have a special aptitude for, or a particular interest in, the subject matter. And some students are already at a disadvantage: Perhaps they grew up in an intellectually impoverished environment, or their personal inclinations don't match the subject matter of the course, or they bring to the class deeply ingrained misconceptions that will inhibit them from fully engaging with the material.

Typically, professors do not take such an initial advantage or disadvantage into account when evaluating students' performance, mainly because such factors cannot be realistically quantified. Some students must invest more time and effort than other students in order to receive the same grade. That may seem unjust, I tell students, but it simply mimics the way "real life" functions.

Even academic performance in the form of exams, presentations, and essays provides the professor with no more than a cross-section of all that a student learns during a semester.

Consider this common student complaint: "I learned so much in this course but I only received a. ... " It is true that the quantity of what a student learns is one of the main factors that determine his or her academic performance and grade, but it is also true that not everything a student learns in a course can actually be tested, measured, and graded in a reliable fashion. Indeed, the most important skills that any student can acquire—abstract thinking, self-awareness, empathy, perspective, personal maturity, respect, love of learning, curiosity, and responsibility—are all unquantifiable.

I try to help my students realize that learning is its own reward. No amount of accolades, trophies, diplomas, and money can equal the worth of one's actual learning. It is impossible to reduce the full richness or value of a genuine learning experience to something as bland as a letter grade.

You are not your grades. I want my students to avoid defining themselves in terms of a grade. I want them to know that grades represent nothing more than someone's assessment of one or more instances of their academic performance. Given the nature of the grading process and the limited purposes for which it is designed, the grades they receive are in no way a reflection of who they are as people or even what they are capable of achieving in the long run.

Grades do not represent an objective measure of students' intelligence, capabilities, talents, or potential, nor do they capture the essence of their character, soul, or worth as human beings. An A in a particular assignment or a course does not make the recipient a worthy person, just as a D or an F does not make anyone an unworthy person.

In discussing these matters with my students, my aim is to reduce their grade-related anxiety as much as possible. I believe that when students see their grades as pieces of information, rather than as external rewards or punishments, or as mechanisms of control, they are much more likely to discover the joy that is inherent in the very experience of learning.

Ahmed Afzaal is an assistant professor of comparative religion at Concordia College.