The Difficulties of Grade Reform

Written with Michael Brown

Mary: Our last post generated several comments which highlight some of the problems that faculties face with grading. Although many agree  that our current system is broken, people seem to be at a loss when it comes to brainstorming solutions for reform.

Mike: As I see it, there are two problems in understanding the difficulties teachers might have with grading. The first has to do with the expected ambivalence that accompanies any act of evaluation, and the second has to do with the imposition of “externalities” on the evaluation process.

Teaching does not exclude evaluation, but grading is not the only form of evaluation, and, in fact, grading can be viewed as hostile in the context of ordinary interactions. How does a teacher fit the evaluation of a student’s learning and the student’s own reflection on that learning into an evaluation of something like a product, such as a paper or exam, that is presumed to be the crucial evidence necessary to justify the grade? The point is that grading cannot rationally be extracted from the educational process and still measure something relevant to that process.

Mary: Mike, I agree with you that grading should not be “extracted” from the educational process of learning. However, I think that many professors attempt to do just that. Their methods range from Denis Rancourt awarding A+ grades to all of the students in his class, to professors devoting a hefty percentage of their grades to “attendance and participation,” to others who assume that all students in their courses begin with a “B” and grade accordingly. In each of these cases, individual teachers recognize that the system is broken and are searching for ways to separate grading from the evaluation of learning.

Mike: That goes back to the problem of ambivalence. Given that eliminating grading seems somewhat irrational in the context of what teachers do as teachers, teachers often try to innovate, in an attempt to restore some logic to the relationship between the obligation to give a grade and the obligation to evaluate what students are actually learning. The innovations you mention are defective because there is no rational solution as things stand.

Mary: Cathy Davidson at Duke has found an innovative way to make grading meaningful while also paying attention to the importance of grades outside of the professor’s classroom — what you refer to as “externalities.” She admits that traditional grading is a “meaningless” way to evaluating learning. In its place, she has introduced a rigorous form of peer review, what she calls “crowdsourced grading.” I find this to be a clever way of reforming grading. Unlike Rancourt, Davidson accepts the constraints imposed by externalities and works within the institutional framework.

Mike: The problem is that the process of teaching and learning is still left untouched by this approach, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t an improvement. It may be. But it identifies knowledge, presumably, with the evaluated product rather than as something internal to the process of learning.

As for external concerns, grades are treated as indices to be combined in a way that purports to give an overall value to the various products of a student. For a teacher who anticipates this, something has happened to the teaching process itself. Evaluation becomes a kind of pricing mechanism based on conditions set from outside of teaching altogether. It violates the educational process insofar as that process has to do with the interaction of students and teacher over a period of time, an interaction that has its own value. However, this is a value that is not registered in the way in which grading itself is graded from an external point of view and not registered in the way in which the grades of different courses are combined.

Mary: As a professor, you assign a grade to an individual student within the confines of your class. That grade then leaves your class, becomes external to the relationship between you and your student, and takes on a significance that neither you nor the student can predict.

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7 Responses to “The Difficulties of Grade Reform”

  1. missoularedhead says:

    crowdsourced grading sounds intriguing, but what about in an online class, which is highly individualistic? One can only do so much with blogs and wikis and discussion boards.
    I also think that grading and evaluating are two very different things. Grading implies a certain set of criteria (ah, the lovely rubric), while evaluation is more subjective, at least in my mind. Problem is, in the academic climate as it is, the very subjectivity of evaluation calls it into question. I am expected to have rubrics for every assignment, regardless of if it should even HAVE a rubric (for instance, is it really necessary to have a rubric for a quiz in which I ask students to define plagiarism in their own words? And even if it is required, is it in any way efficacious?)

  2. @missoularedhed. thanks for stopping by and commenting. Ah rubrics and “objectivity”!! stay tuned for our next post – it’s all about rubrics (and grade inflation)

  3. scades says:

    Granted that I’m a retired 35-year classroom veteran, but I find this discussion quite frustrating.
    I don’t know how to construct a course without having learning outcomes in mind. (Granted, I didn’t so-label my goals until the phrase was forced on me by the assessment movement.) Once I’ve committed those outcomes to the screen, I can lay them out as grading targets. (Doesn’t meet, barely meets, etc.) Add (or subtract) for writing quality, timeliness, etc. as meets personal or institutional needs, and grading, per se, is done. How much time to spend in commenting on submissions is the real question. It may be that many students don’t read comments, but those who do benefit more from them than the mere letter (or numeric) grade.
    I don’t believe that students are customers; they’re clients. We’re not selling a product; we’re offering a process. The grade is the (externalized) way we indicate the student’s mastery of both content and process. If the median grade is “A,” the student cannot know the extent of her mastery.
    Clearly, Professor Dickinson has put enormous effort into constructing an innovative course; I do not mean to denigrate her course or its impact on students. But it seems to me that she has constructed a system to avoid the part of teaching that finally led me to retire: I could no longer bring myself to pick up a stack of papers (or their screen equivalent) to write yet another set of the same comments I’d been writing for nearly four decades. But for myself alone, I could not in good conscience make assignments I was unwilling to grade. Students–at least the ones most important to me–chose my courses because they wanted to learn what I might have to teach them. To then not evaluate and feed back on their learning would have been to not fulfill my obligations to them.

  4. literarychica says:

    Grading is something I struggle with on a regular basis, as a composition instructor. I have tried different ways of handling it, like using rubrics where I circle things they can improve upon or using a points system instead of a grade system, but at the end of the day it is tedious and stressful. I love teaching and I love learning–but grading? I do not like grading. Like Scades mentioned above, I know some of them value my feedback on their papers and their learning, and that keeps me going when I’m getting through that huge stack of papers every week. I find in-class discussions and work so much more rewarding (for me and for them) than grading paper after paper. Something tells me they find that much more rewarding too.

  5. diotima says:

    Re: the last paragraph in the article. I don’t think that I grade students; I grade their work in my class.

    I do not understand the concern with externalities. The student has to externalize what s/he has learned in some form — verbal, written, visual — that I can observe. The only alternative is some claim to mind-reading on the basis of nothing observable. A grade assesses those observable performances, and while the latter are the substance of learning and the former merely an arbitrary form, we should strive to maintain some correlation between them.

  6. dziuk says:

    After 55 years of teaching about 180 classes at all levels and thousands of students I still have no clear means of evaluationg the students or their teacher that holds for every case.You can’t learn if you don’t attend, you can’t learn if you don’t participate , you can’t evaluate if you don’t test by some means.
    Students are hard taskmasters for their classmates but often evaluate their teachers by the grade they get-not necessarily earn.Perhaps if we allow students to exchange/grade each other’s work we might get a more complete evaluation. Philip Dziuk

  7. m_c_mdelta says:

    From a student’s perspective:

    Grading, or any “objective” measure of learning produces a sense of “learning for the test” not learning for learning’s sake. This problem is typified in the secondary education system, especially in states where there is a comprehensive exam at the end of high school. Teachers and professors become mere instruments of the grading process, reducing learning to mere mimicking the professor’s notes on a test rather than engaging with the topics and using them to produce work of your own. This is, fundamentally, not learning.

    I gave a presentation this morning and the majority of students in the class gave presentations that listed various works by authors in their field and at the end gave some examples of how to improve whatever system they analyzed. My presentation was an engagement with the material and using it to say something about the world, drawing from the texts but also going beyond them.

    I guess this is where a student’s work should be evaluated: How well were you able to grasp the concepts presented and how well can you utilize those concepts beyond the bounds of the text.