Rethinking Grading

Grades are learning incentives. Incentives are important, but testing as a means to incentivizing students, are not necessarily useful measures to induce creativity and spark imaginations (see Kohn, 2011; Dan Pink, TED Talk, Aug 25, 2009). Student assessment and evaluation for grading are often based on the subjective judgments, intertwined with various biases. I recognize that issues of educational measurement techniques are not only psychological and pedagogical questions (as Kohn argued,) but also have social and cultural implications.

I agree with Kohn’s (2011) argument on the inverse relationship between a “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” to learning. That there is a negative effect on learning when the emphasis is placed on getting good grades, which tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning. Perhaps, more importantly, the that a grade-oriented environment tends to reduce the quality of students’ thinking; students will perform the easiest possible task by focusing on familiar subject areas and in general, would avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks (Kohn, 2011).  

The norm is to measure outcomes, noting if we meet or exceed expectations. The central concern of students is assessment and not necessarily their learning experience (Lombardi, 2008). Nowadays, it appears like explicit motivations are the most prevailing and acceptable social and cultural narratives in term of learning assessment. Even as an “achieved” professional and an adult learner who should know better, I still pay attention to my class grades with the goal of getting excellent grades. The purpose is not the pursuit of excellence in my field of study or practice. My motivation is to meet or exceed the expectations of the class or professor or the university. As future educators, we must learn betters ways to effectively engage students and support their personal growth; and by setting the right expectations, providing very clear, practical, and specific feedback on past performance. I think the primary goal of an educator must be to provide students with relevant context and information, support their intellectual development, and improve their scope and understanding important issues. 

Overall, facts may be contradictory in some settings, but it is generally accepted that it is difficult to measure critical thinking and creativity. As Lombardi correctly stated, the “long-term knowledge retention and transfer” of knowledge should be the focus of colleges and universities. And while colleges and universities are not expected to do away with their traditional grade systems (i.e. standard-based or criterion-based testing), long-term changes are possible. For instance, I agree with Dan Pink’s argument that a constructive way to motivate and improve learning outcomes and student performance is to allow students to operate in an environment where there is a fair level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.