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?