Grading isn’t great, but is it sometimes necessary?

I am all for de-emphasizing grades in school, from kindergarten to college. I think that the focus on outcomes to the exclusion of all else (including actual learning) has caused a mess in our grade schools and high schools. I, like many others, am tired of hearing, “Will this be on the test?” and I applaud the efforts of teachers who have eliminated most grading altogether, as mentioned in “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn.

That being said, I don’t know how to make it work in my field. It seemed that the examples in the Kohn article were mostly from humanities fields, talking about giving feedback on subjective assignments like essays. There is no right or wrong answer on things like that. You can make grammatical mistakes, but that may be less important than the content of the essay as a whole. How could this be applied to science- or math-based disciplines, where the material is often more objective?

I currently TA a class that is very math-intensive (specifically linear algebra). On a particular quiz, students may be demonstrating their ability to apply a specific algorithm they learned that week. If they apply the algorithm wrong – that is, if they follow the wrong steps or do them in the wrong order – what kind of feedback could I give beyond showing them how to do it correctly? That’s not particularly substantive – they’ve seen those demonstrations in class, their notes, and their textbook. Would that be enough to impress upon them the importance and urgency of learning the algorithm correctly? As is the case with many classes, the topic of the next quiz, a week later, builds upon the algorithm being tested.

I think that sometimes an assessment that has a real impact, like a grade, may be necessary to motivate students to learn foundational topics. I would hate to see a student struggle later in the class because they didn’t understand the early material and “didn’t think it was that important.” Any thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Grading isn’t great, but is it sometimes necessary?”

  1. I think there is a balance to be struck. I agree that in more subjective areas personalized “authentic” feedback is a much better approach, but for problems that are objective and have a clearly-defined Correct Answer, a numerical grade is the better way to go. It may be somewhat unfortunate, but students know how to speak grades and they’re quite good at translating numbers or letters into what they mean. So a numerical mark on a math problem is a clearer communication of that process’ importance. That being said, including commentary with the mark is, I feel, even better, because you can draw their attention with the number while emphasizing the concept’s importance with the comment.

  2. So, obviously linear algebra is not something I deal with very often (huge understatement), but are there ways of working with students to help them figure out how to approach the problem (the order of the steps, for example) — can you get them interested in problem solving? I realize they have to come up with the correct answer, but I think a lot of the concern around testing and measuring comes from our obsession with getting the “right answer” rather than knowing how to find that answer.

  3. I have been thinking about this same issue, as I am in a math-based field, as well. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken linear algebra, but I do remember having some assignments that seemed more lab-based, where we were given a more general problem and asked how to use the tools of linear algebra to solve it. I wonder if math classes could alternate- a class period or two of learning some skills, and then interesting problem sets or discussions where students could creatively use those skills. I think that you are right in that sometimes, there is a right answer and there is stuff students should know that will help them in the future. Assessments may even be beneficial for students because it tells them what they know, from this set of skills. But maybe, in the structure of the final grade, quizzes and exams could take up a smaller portion of the grade, while other assignments could make up the bulk? That could be a relatively easy starting point that would get students more engaged in critical thinking and give less incentive for cramming material the night before a test.

  4. I think at least for some subjects, if they have to be taught at all, such as math, physics, chemistry etc., quantitative assessments should never be got rid of. These subjects’ characteristics determine that hardcore standards have to be adopted or you never know if students grasp the knowledge or not. For a physical question, either you get the right result or not; anything beyond that will be irrelevant to the subject itself. You simply cannot talk people into believing that the orbit of a planet can be described by beautiful words, no matter how humanistic it seems to be.
    Of course, whether every student should be required to learn such hardcore natural science is another question. I totally support the idea that students should be able to choose if they learn such subjects or not, but I am also equally against the idea that the boundaries of different subjects are to be blurred. If you cannot handle equations, you can keep out, but you should not try to transform an equation into something else just to make people comfortable. Letting different subjects follow their own ways is probably necessary to keep them healthy respectively.

  5. Adding to Dr. Nelson’s comment, what if you don’t name the assessment a “quiz,” one of my colleagues was asking me for advice because most of his students were doing poorly in the quizzes in his class. I asked where the problem was, most of the time was that they didn’t have enough time. After a long conversation I was able to make him understand that it wasn’t about “speed,” it is about knowledge. He decided to do a session on a flipped classroom. He sent videos of the topic, and told them that they were going to be doing exercises during the class time. When students arrived the first exercise was to be solved individually (it was the quiz for that week) but he never mentioned about it being a quiz or said any rules about time. Most students not only got it right, but they did in in less than the usual 15 minutes they have for taking the quiz.

    I think some times with this complex topics is important to develop strategies to take off some of the pressure but at the same time assess the outcomes that you need to assess.

  6. That’s really a thought provoking idea and I think is a good balance point to the readings. Assessments do have some value. In the humanities there are a balance too. Early on in the semester I test my students on factual information, like the arguments a particular theorist makes. However, I am always looking for “value added” in their work, and if simply have them repeat to me the information which I gave to them with accuracy, the student has not added any value to the subject. I agree with the early comment that different types of assessments have different values and it is simply finding the right balance for the learner, the class, and the subject.

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