Transcending the Number: Foundational Incentives for Meaningful Engagement

I empathize with Kohn’s argument that grades are not necessary with the potential to distract from the larger questions of learning or deeper engagement. Of course some kind of reporting/assessment is required, but the positions against grades overlook their fundamental utility as springboards to larger questions, tasks, and education. For me, grades are merely a piece in my toolkit to foster reflection and meaningful engagement with questions beyond mere content.

Kohn’s position on the need to ditch grades on the surface seems compelling, but firsthand experience in my courses suggests otherwise. Rather, grades play an important role in shaping my pedagogy, namely less as a disciplinary tool (i.e., to impose a rationalized order), but as a starting point from which students are encouraged to move beyond. Students want – and need – to perform well in school (and this means assessment), but this is not the sole motivation. No, grades are one of the means to the end I seek – student investment in and reflection on wider questions and issues related to the readings, activities, and even assignments.

Grades are merely one incentive in many, but they are not what holds attention. The actual structure and/or content of the assignments, readings, papers, and tests are what sparks and maintains student interest, and thus offer avenues for deeper engagement. Per our discussion at the last session, I planned an “extra credit” film screening for students in my Arab-Israeli Dispute course this evening. I told students they would earn two (2) extra credit points (out of a total 200 points for the course), if they a) show up (and stay for two hours) and b) write a basic one-page response to the film: Jaffa, The Orange’s Clockwork (a critical analysis of the history, symbolism, advertisements, politics, and historiography of the storied Jaffa Orange).

Now, I underscored to them that the primary reason for the screening was student engagement – I emphasized that the bonus points were merely an added incentive, the real benefit they would gain from the screening was the post-screening discussion. Again, I told them they would need to stay for the entire 2 hours (the film is 1.5 hours), meaning we had thirty minutes for discussion. Several of the students expressed interest, but only twelve (out of 40) showed up. Nevertheless, those who did engaged in a lively discussion and reflection on the meaning of the film to their own interests, the course content, and their lives. In those moments I saw the student facade drop to give way to curiosity, self-reflection, teasing out patterns and connecting aspects of the film to their own lived experiences. One of the students said she would “never look at an orange or any fruit in an advertisement in the same way” after the screening. While this may be hyperbole, the main point was moving beyond course content for wider engagement.

OK, the symbolic two extra credit points brought them to the screening (or perhaps curiosity, I will never know and they may not, either (humans are complex)), but that premise was the foundation for a meaningful engagement. This helped me to realize that grades are not an exclusive incentive, but may be wielded as a salient entry point into wider explorations and deeper engagements that correspond to their lived experiences. While I sought to build this in to all of the assignments, I encountered this firsthand this evening.

I think our task, then, is less to teach “imagination” to our students, but rather to reimagine our own role as teachers who do not just wield grades as disciplinary tools (to impose an order on students), but as avenues to facilitate meaningful student engagements (or “imagination” as a reflexive tool), and to grade accordingly based on those engagements. I recognize this entails a bit more work (for instructors), but ask yourself: what was a meaningful class when you were an undergraduate? What kind of assignment would you like to complete? What are the lessons you hope your students take away from your course? While I fully realize using grades as a basic foundational incentive from which to build toward deeper engagements will not work all of the time or would be more successful in disciplines premised on subjective engagement, the use of grades provides a foundational incentive from which to inspire is an important consideration for student empowerment. To do so, we need less of the absolutist banishment of grades, and more reflection on the ways that grades – and other activities or class sessions – provide gateways to meaningful student engagement that goes beyond course content.

2 Replies to “Transcending the Number: Foundational Incentives for Meaningful Engagement”

  1. This was a really interesting post! I love the idea of encouraging and facilitating student engagement through various aspects of the class and course environment and encouraging students to pursue relevant experiences outside of the classroom. I agree that it is important to consider what you want students to take away from an experience and incorporate activities, feedback, and even grades to facilitate that engagement and create meaningful learning environments for students. I would be interested to hear more about the ways that you do that in your classroom!

  2. I agree with Amy. You’ve got great ideas for encouraging engagement and seem to be succeeding marvelously with your students. I do think there’s a difference between an incentive (extra credit for an extra activity) and “grading” as a kind of assessment (measuring progress, quantifying or evaluating learning).

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