Grades vs. Knowledge Slugfest

In the constant struggle of evaluation process, students and teachers are find themselves trying to navigate that highwire tightrope scenario of a grading rubric.  I have often heard instructors mention how they would be perfectly happy if everyone if their class earned an ‘A.’  The careful use of language does not go unnoticed.  The subtle use of “earned” rather “received” provides insight that the successful benchmark isn’t the ‘A’ but the satisfaction that students are learning.  In most cases, from grade school throughout undergraduate studies, students may not see the difference between the two.  I know as an undergraduate, especially when fulfilling the minimum requirements for general education courses, getting an ‘A’ meant I learned enough to survive and move on to more meaningful and relevant courses.  Marilyn Lombardi describes a situation I recall happening in nearly every gen-ed course.  It can be summed up in six words: (say it with me) will this be on the test?  And there it is, the ultimate educational line in the sand.  The unfortunate fact remains that this isn’t necessarily an indictment on the student for asking.  When the reliance of educational empiricism falls on Standards of Learning tests throughout high school, SAT scores for undergraduate admission, and (gasp) the GRE for graduate admission, students are intrinsically trained to view education in a means-ends relationship.  Again, this isn’t an indictment on the student.  This is how they’ve been trained to view “learning.”

From a social science perspective, I have a full range of emotions when it comes to standardized tests: dread, discontent, fear, contempt to name a few.  Give me an essay any day.  Let me argue.  Don’t handcuff me into finding only one “correct” answer.  Let me think for myself and try to defend it.  That’s why engineering and math were never in the cards for me.  I can’t argue with algebra.  Laws of physics are called laws because they’re not being contested, they’re just proven facts.  That’s why you won’t find any sociological laws, only theories.  But I’m ok with that.

Now I’m certain that if you’re in a hard science discipline, you couldn’t disagree with me more.  That there’s something comforting about knowing an answer with certainty.  Fortunately neither of us are wrong.  So how does any of this relate to grades and evaluation?  Well if you’re a student that has been subject to evaluation through evidence or outcome based education as Donna Riley describes, then you may perceive learning as the end outcome, namely if you received an ‘A’ or not.  But is this really the best evaluation of education?  I recieved  enough ‘A’s’ that get me through my undergraduate degrees but I certainly can’t what I retained.  I also came from an outcome based high school and trained myself that the measure of success was good grades.  It wasn’t until I started my graduate studies that I really started to enjoy the journey of academia and embraced the idea of learning rather than the grade I received at the end of the semester.  I kept my books after the semester ended, something I would never dream of as an undergraduate.

Now this doesn’t mean I can’t see the use and need for grades to an extent.  As with our readings and discussions about mindful learning from last week, there is an idealized standard that each of has when approaching the classroom.  I would love to never give a single test, and rely on discussions or counter-arguments like the format of many graduate courses or akin to Alfie Kohn’s perspective of evaluating without grades.  The difficulty comes in trying to overcome the students’ culture of outcome and evaluation based results.

4 Replies to “Grades vs. Knowledge Slugfest”

  1. I really enjoyed your post. And I thought your comparison of the social sciences and hard sciences was really interesting. I would argue that in engineering, we need more discussions surrounding uncertainty in engineering and the impact of engineering solutions on society. There often is not a correct answer but we often teach it that way.

  2. Thanks for your post. Yes although engineering and sciences are based on facts and tend to have one ‘correct’ answer, it is still essential to try to incorporate pedagogical skills that will allow students to better learn and retain the knowledge. Also, evaluating them on creative application of knowledge rather than fully relying on tests.

  3. I agree the issue is really lies in student behavior. Lack of interest in the learning itself has necessitated the evolution of outcome based education. The art will be learning how to efficiently motivate each individual towards mastering the course material in a way that is personalized to their own unique interests. Our world is evolving and so must our education system. Testing is a lazy way to evaluate performance that tries to fit every student into the same box. We no longer live in a standardized world but rather one that is constantly changing and evolving in front of our eyes. So much is known about our interests and our preferences when it comes to music and movies and marketing us products. Why not also to the way we learn? Why not also to the way we assess that learning?

  4. I really appreciated this line in your post: “…students are intrinsically trained to view education in a means-ends relationship.” This is both very true and very upsetting. We should value school as a way to receive an education and learn about various topics, but instead we see it only as a path to get to the career we want and don’t fully appreciate what we are experiencing during school.

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