Another case against grades

Alfie Kohn wrote that grades have the effect of “diminish[ing] students’ interest in whatever they’re learning,” “creat[ing] a preference for the easiest possible task, and “tend[ing] to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.”

This has certainly been the experience for me throughout undergrad and graduate school. One thing that I think intensifies the effect of grades is the multitude of responsibilities that students have. I had a professor in undergrad who used to sympathize with how busy we are with our jobs to pay for school, our extra-cirriculars, or our unpaid internships, not to mention the book(s) a week we are expected to read. This professor would say, “I understand, sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul.” This was usually in acknowledgement that he knows that we cannot always do all of the reading, and then he would offer tips on how we might read strategically in the future.

Unfortunately, I have found it difficult to be engaged with my education, at least the way I want to, over the past almost decade. I feel that grades, and the overall managerial, profit-driven, turn in higher ed, has forced me to have a more cost-benefit analysis approach to my education. For example, my thought process during the semester might be: ‘the weekly reading reflections are not graded for quality, only for completion. I’ll rob Peter by putting those on the back burner so that I can pay Paul, work towards a great final paper (worth a whole bunch of my grade).’

If this is the strategy I choose, which I often feel forced to, what is lost are the new ideas, or the critique of my current ideas, that would have come from a more genuine engagement with those weekly readings and reflections. But, if I choose to prioritize my weekly readings and reflections, I jeopardize my final paper, and ultimately my final grade.  In reality, I’m robbing myself of the long term benefit of developing my critical reading skills and studying touchstone works in my discipline, to pay myself the short term benefit of getting by.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have not found some sort of balance between engaging with education and meeting the grading  requirements. I only wish to say that I feel that the grading requirements are increasingly encroaching on my ability to engage in my education to  the degree I want to. I think we should demand more from our educational system.

I think the experience I described above reflects the disconnect between theory and practice, education policy and our experience learning. Grading, and assessment more broadly, in the United States is symptomatic, I think, of this disconnect. If this divide is not reconciled, it seems to me that the current direction of higher ed is actually undermining what we as a society claim to value; educating the public.