De/Grading

At a recent department meeting we voted to align our grading scales. That means we decided that to achieve a grade of A, a 93% average of all course work would be required. An 85% average would yield a B, 75% a C, and on down the line.

There was not much debate, but some preferences were raised. The intervals between grades should be even, the percent band of A should be narrower than B, C, and D. The previous range of individual requirements for an A ranged from 90% to 95%. Concerns were raised about scholarship money, lawsuits, and sorting students in to categories (that last one was me).

The lack of debate was not surprising to me, having spent the last few years reading in a sometimes-systematic manner about grades and grading. An extensive review of research published in 2016 (Brookhart et al.) described grades as essentially a fuzzy amalgam of effort and performance. Years of studies show a lack of coordination among teachers at all levels of formal education.

Our university policy is that professors can do what they want when deciding what percentage earns what grade. To me this indicates the somewhat arbitrary nature of the enterprise of grading. Ostensibly grades have two purposes: communicating success from teacher to student and helping institutions compare how students have done. But we all know the concept of an “easy A.” Few people need an explanation if you indicate that a physics major’s 4.0 was a greater accomplishment than a religion major’s 4.0. Surprisingly, GPA is the best statistic we have for predicting student success from high school to college. We also know that no matter how you divide up the percentages, students who usually make an A will make an A.

As I get back in to another phase of more systematic reading in the topic of grading in higher education, I’ll be updating this blog post with additions in the form of summaries from scholarly writings on grading.

6/4 Tannock (No grades in higher education now!…2017) writes that grades run counter to the purpose of public universities. From the title one can surmise the radical nature of the article. It includes some history of anti-grading movements of the past and describes potential for areas of action now.

“For what this ruling makes clear is that the structure of the con-
temporary neoliberal university continues to be able to accommodate any number of radical claims and ideas – provided that no attempt is made to put these into practice within the university itself.” P. 1346

He wants to define the public university, an institution that serves its people and wider society, and uses grades as a practical place to contest the private interests that have captured universities for their own gain. He has a list of ideas about what functions a public university would perform from various theorists, but notes they tend to avoid grading unless they talk about grade inflation. “For this and all other core purposes identified for the public university, it is essential to ask whether particular university practices – including the forms of graded assessment that now dominate higher education worldwide – serve such goals or not.” P 1349.

1350: “In general, democratic educators have focused on three key arguments about the use of graded assessment. First, grading undermines the sense of collective solidarity and mutual responsibility between students that democratic education seeks to foster, and promotes instead an embrace of competitive and detached individualism. Second, grading undermines the principles of dialogical engagement and critical questioning of authority figures vital to democratic practice, by instead promoting relationships of passivity, obedience and submissiveness among students towards their teachers…Third, grading undermines intrinsic motivations among students for becoming independent, critically engaged, self-directed learners – again, the type of learners who are widely held to be essential for preserving healthy democratic societies –instead substituting extrinsic motivations of working and learning to gain reward or recognition from others, or avoid failure or discipline.” He goes on to say grades create “social divisions” among students. In this section he cites Dewey, Giroux, Apple, and many others.

Tannock found three main alternatives to traditional grading, and noted that they are not without their own issues.

“As alternatives to traditional grading, three complementary sets of approaches have generally been adopted by democratic educators: (1) dialogical or participatory forms of assessment, in which students play an active role in the assessment process, for example, through self, peer or collaborative assessment, grade contracts or collective negotiations over the assessment system as a whole (Giroux 1984); (2) learning-
centred, information-rich and formally diverse forms of assessment that are non-comparative, non-competitive and non-graded, such as narrative- or portfolio-based evaluations (Knoester 2012) and (3) particularly in contexts where there is a clearly identifiable set of skills or knowledge to be acquired, use of a basic pass/fail model of certifying competence or mastery (Ferrer 1913; Gray 2013).” P. 1351 Evergreen College, in a study of their own practice of not using traditional grades, found that some narrative feedback was “bewildering.” He says that the issue is that grading itself can’t bear sole responsibility for making universities live up to their ideals. Obviously not grading has problems. It’s nice as a teacher to have something to hold over a student’s head. Students don’t always know what’s best for themselves in the long run. Many elements of math that are boring to learn open up entire beautiful worlds of mathematics later. The same can be said of most disciplines.

Lately I’ve noted that in studies of implicit bias, discretion is the situation where racism comes out the most. So if grades are left to teacher discretion, there is potential for racism and any other form of bigotry or unfairness.

He notes that grades are being abandoned in med schools in part because grades run counter to the ethos of being a doctor. Couldn’t this be said to be true of just about any field? The idea is lifelong learning requires intrinsic motivation. Grades build extrinsic motivation, especially among those with a high drive for achieving the top grade.

 

5/8 K. Webber, 2012, on the use of learner-centered assessments. This article examines results from a large-scale survey of degree-granting institutions in terms of how things changed from 1993-2004. Essentially more faculty used more student-centered assessments.

5/11 I’ve tried to find peer reviewed work on courses with no grades and strike out. I may have to check out some dissertations. But that seems crazy, the variability of quality in dissertations is immense! I thought the chapter I read from S. Blume’s book would have some references to empirical work but it had only more position pieces or more anecdotal research (like her research, which she claims is anthropological but is written like she never intended it to be systematic).

8/17 Schinske and Tanner 2014, these authors review grading in higher ed history, review research, and offer suggestions on how to grade “less (or differently).” It is a decidedly resigned view to grades as the “currency” of higher education. They draw often on the excellent Schneider and Hutt history of grading piece. The purpose of grades began as a pedagogical device to improve learning and evaluate learners. Basically (they don’t say this) as the eugenics movement grew in influence, the idea of grades as a sorting mechanism emerged. This is a short article, so they can’t do all they did thoroughly. The overview of research on grades and motivation is a gloss, to be sure, but their conclusions are in line with what I’ve seen: “Rather than motivating students to learn, grading appears to, in many ways, have quite the opposite effect. Perhaps at best, grading motivates high-achieving students to continue getting high grades—regardless of whether that goal also happens to overlap with learning. At worst, grading lowers interest in learning and enhances anxiety and extrinsic motivation, especially among those students who are struggling” (p. 162). They make a few suggestions: peer and self-evaluation, allowing some assignments to be completed without a grade attached, move away from curving (duh), and be skeptical of grades. They make slight mention of the fact that curving is an inequitable practice. Of course, it’s designed to be inequitable! From the get-go, the eugenicists and the educational psychologists were interwoven in their goals, methods, and research.

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