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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