Check Yes or No?

“[did thing] Check! [did thing] Check! [did thing] Check! [did thing] Check!…”

As an instructor of record at Virginia Tech, I am “forced” into using letter grades to assess my students. This is the exact same framework that affects my own graduate studies. Virginia Tech goes beyond the standard “A-D and F” grading scale and adds further qualifiers through the use of “pluses” and “minuses.” I cannot count the number of emails I have received from students towards the end of the semester in which they are requesting any possible way to receive tenths of a point in order to move them from an A- to an A or a B to a B+. This perception of an education and its impact on life often leads to viewing every day as a routine series of checklists and compartmentalization. It becomes a question of “Yes or No?” not “Why or How?” This is because they fear that their GPA will be affected and in turn, their GPA affects the quality of job they will receive after graduation.”Grades don’t prepare children for the ‘real world’ — unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant” (Kohn).

Have we reached a world where interest and quality of thinking are unimportant? Today’s current political climate, the disavowing of science, and and the use of “alternative facts” by those in power would surely suggest this. It almost seems that I refer to a quote from Sir Isaac Asimov on almost a daily basis. The quote I reference is from a January 21, 1980 Newsweek article he wrote titled “A Cult of Ignorance” where he says, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Has the university become an extension of trade and vocational schools? I personally hope that this is not the case. I am hopeful that students realize the necessity of gaining a diversity of knowledge and what we might perceive as skills usually taught in trade and vocational schools are in fact examples of experiential learning.”Employers complain that many college graduates are not prepared for the workplace and lack the new set of skills necessary for successful employment and continuous career development” (Lombardi). These skills are not just knowing the mechanics of the student’s chosen trade or discipline but how to problem solve, how to do group work, how to not operate in a silo and work between disciplines. These skills can be found in experiential learning. My experience with experiential learning as a student was a positive experience. In my undergraduate program, I was required to have a semester long internship in order to graduate. That internship eventually turned into a job after I graduated. I was also involved in National Model United Nations (NMUN) in New York City. NMUN taught me daily skills used by diplomats, such as negotiation with others, writing position papers, and writing resolutions to solve global problems that are difficult to learn in the classroom at times. However, as an instructor, I have implemented this type of experiential learning with limited success. In a course here at Virginia Tech, titled Multilateral Diplomacy Workshop, some students felt the use of National Model United Nations in the classroom was too nebulous and that there should have been more lectures and direct applications to what they would have to do in their future jobs. Their work indicated a lack of creativity as they relied on current real world solutions to solve the issues presented to them. Instead, they should have come to the realization that we still have constant discussions about the same real world problems and that the current answers might not work. Therefore, they should primarily ask what is not working within the current structures and then creatively think about solutions involving those structures or invent new solutions.


Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, in Imagination First, propose that the United States has created a society that stifles ideas; creativity; imagination; and deep thinking. The use of grades, metrics, rubrics, and teaching to the test are the root cause of the educational society we have created and we must innovatively disrupt this if we are to progress our educational system. This is supported via a point offered  by Kohn, “…the absence of grades is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for promoting deep thinking and a desire to engage in it.”


(Side note: Since I am a New Orleanian, I am inordinately appreciative of Liu and Noppe-Brandon’s acknowledgement of the Lower Ninth Ward that was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and remains an area of New Orleans that, even 10 1/2 years later, has not completely recovered.)



Asimov, Isaac. “A Cult of Ignorance.” Newsweek. January 21, 1980.

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Educational Leadership. November 2011.

Liu, Eric and Scott Noppe-Brandon. Imagination First. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. 2009.

Lombardi, Marilyn M. “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning.” Educause Learning Initiative. January 2008.