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How Grades Make Students Want to Cheat

Written with Mary Churchill

Mike: Continuing our discussion from earlier this week, teachers like Cathy Davidson who try to innovate in grading may suffer the same disappointment as reformists have always suffered. The “externalities” are not simply there, like a hill that is familiar in a landscape; they proliferate and expand as management increasingly turns inward and finds reasons to incorporate extra-educational values to determine grades. That makes it difficult for any teacher to use those innovations in other classes, since most educational innovations at some point run up against values imposed from without.

When I say that traditional grading is incompatible with the interrelated processes of teaching and learning, I mean that grading imposes irrational limitations on both teacher and student. Grading does not evaluate the sort of knowledge that is inherent in the learning process; and the sort of knowledge it does evaluate has never been explained with sufficient clarity to justify what grading has become.

Mary: Mike, I think that you are correct in saying that grading innovations are always a compromise because grading itself is always limited in its ability to capture and evaluate the process of learning. Grading requires us to interrupt this process, to act as if time stands still, to assign a ranked value to a product or a moment in time.

But I am most concerned about adjunct, contingent, and junior faculty: a vulnerable and unprotected group of teachers. I am drawn to Davidson’s approach to contract and peer-reviewed grading because it can serve as a model for these more-vulnerable instructors who wish to innovate. She gives the details of her method, and as a professor and former vice provost at Duke, she has the power and status to be used as a point of reference.

Professors have been encouraged to use detailed rubrics to facilitate the grading of large numbers of students across multiple sections. Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, referred to this mass-production model of education as follows: “Universities try to rationalize and mechanize education and then blame teachers when students scope out the game.”

As an academic administrator, I have had to deal with far too many grade disputes. Grades play a significant role in this “game” of higher ed, and rubrics are used to explain grades to protesting students and questioning chairs and deans.

Mike: I can see some value in the occasional use of rubrics. But many of the categories used, like risk-taking, originality, narrative force, quality of inference, or depth, are assumed to be independent of one another; but they are not. They appear to be objective values, but they merely shift responsibility from the teacher as part of the learning process to a prior list that is most often “received” rather than generated in the course of teaching and learning. That is, they seem to be transcendentally valid but are derived from external considerations far removed from the intellectual work involved in education.

Mary: Since we began this series on grading, I have been contacted by several teachers at both the college and high-school levels. Many are uncertain about why they grade or how their grading relates to teaching and learning. It is clear that high-school teachers feel the pressure of standardized teaching and testing far more than those in higher ed.

My five-year old son had his first “test” today. Last night, he told me that he wanted to cheat on it. I was horrified, but I understood that his spelling test seemed completely unrelated to school. I had no real explanation for why he had to take this test or for how it related to his joy of learning and exploration.

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