Four Things I Learned from Working with Students… but not with Grades

I have an odd job if you can call it that – some days, “lifestyle” seems like a better descriptor.  For my assistantship, I am a live-in employee of Housing and Residence Life at Virginia Tech.  In that role, I supervise RA’s, serve as a conduct officer, and handle daily operations of two all-male residence halls, which, as you might expect, brings a new adventure every week.  The work is hard to predict and takes a great deal of time, but I love it.

My path to this line of work felt reflective of Dan Pink’s TED Talk on motivation.  My undergraduate study was in chemical engineering, where I was driven purely by extrinsic motivation, primarily grades, to painfully grind through a curriculum that did not feel meaningful to me.  However, my “side-project” of serving as a resident advisor (RA) provided me the sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose mentioned by Dan Pink.  As such, I ended up putting a lot of time and effort into that work, which didn’t feel like work, and decided to pursue work in student affairs, beginning my studies in higher education.

My work directly with students, both the RAs I supervise and residents of the buildings I oversee, has provided insight regarding the struggles students face academically.  Aside from one semester where I served as a TA for a course all RAs must take, my connections to the academic side of campus are few and far between.  However, I often talk to students about their coursework, and make a point to talk about academics with my RAs.  The subject matter of those conversations is often total foreign to me, but they have been productive.  I certainly can’t tutor these students, but we still learn together as I learn about their struggles and challenge them to think about learning differently.  Here are a few things I learned from my conversations:

Intrinsic motivation produces the best work.

With the student population of Virginia Tech, I work with a lot of engineering students and hear a lot of stories that bring me back to my own undergraduate education.  Fortunately, I see a marked difference between myself as an undergrad and many of those students.  Recently, I was having a conversation with one of my RAs about a project he was tasked to complete earlier in his engineering career in an intro class.  All groups in the class were tasked with building a machine that kept a ping-pong ball suspended in the air.  He discussed his group’s process of buying electrical hardware that could integrate with code they had written with the code controlling how high about the fan the ping pong ball would be suspended.  (To be clear, I am not doing this process justice in summarizing it.)  He then said that other groups in the class seem to do the bare minimum with Legos and a fan, probably something I would have done back in the day.

I imagine that both groups met the criteria for an A on that project, though my RA added that his professor specifically thanked his group for leaning into a creative process and going above and beyond.  There might have been a difference in ability between those two groups, but the primary difference was motivation.  My RA wanted to be creative and engineer something, not simply get a grade that could be achieved with a much lower level of effort.  I see the same thing in my RAs within their role in the hall.  Those that perform the highest do it because they are passionate about serving, not for a positive performance evaluation or from fear of being fired.

Our current method of grading does not expose students to open-ended problems.

I once had a professor who many times repeated, “When you cannot measure what you value, you come to value what you can measure.”  While this statement was made in context in assessment for research in higher education, I found in rules true from our assessment in grading.  Learning is not easily measurable; it’s difficult and time-consuming to make judgments about how much a person has learned or developed.  It’s based on qualitative evidence, which can be interpreted differently from person to person.  However, one can measure how many facts a person has retained or how a project or composition adheres to a pre-defined rubric.  It makes grading a lot easier, but then education becomes a series of boxes to be checked rather than true learning.  Perhaps students can be extrinsically motivated to tackle these tasks, but it doesn’t seem to prepare them for open-ended problems.

I never doubt the intelligence of the students I work with.  Since they’ve made it into Virginia Tech, I’m confident in their ability to learn, but I believe our use of “measurable learning” does not equip them to tackle ill-structured problems.  Fortunately, the RA role is full of these sorts of problems.  I often get questions from staff members like “How do I get more guys involved on my hall?” or “Is it okay to be friends with my residence?”  I’ve found that some of my RAs expect to get a list of steps or a quick yes-or-no answer, and I’m occasionally met with frustration when I launch the conversation by admitting I don’t have a clear-cut answer.  While I feel fortunate to facilitate a conversation that helps them generate their own solutions, I can only hope that other students are finding these ill-structured problems elsewhere, so they are prepared to face them beyond their time in college, where rubric won’t define success.

“Exceeds Expectations” doesn’t mean much.

The one time in my work that I use quantitative measures to “grade” students is when it comes time for RA performance evaluations.  The process by which RAs are evaluated includes a self-evaluation, an evaluation from a supervisor, and a discussion comparing those two evaluations to come up with a consensus.  I’ve quickly learned that a key part of this process is to explain the evaluation scale beforehand.  The scale is descriptive and is made up of the following descriptors: exceeds expectations, strong performance, meets expectations, inconsistently meets expectations, and needs improvement.  I’ve found that it is essential to explain that “meets expectations” will likely be the most common grade on any positive evaluation.  If I don’t RAs are inclined to give themselves “exceeds expectations” or at least “strong performance” in every category unless we’ve discussed performance issues in a particular area.

While this tendency made for a few frustrating evaluations early on in my role, the broader implications seem more problematic.  It seems that with the way we assess, an A denotes adequacy.  If there are no problems with an assignment and it matches the rubric criteria, it is deserving of an A.   This leaves little room to formally note excellence and little reason for students to reach for it.  How can we challenge students and get more out of them if the bar is set low?

Grades are not for the learner but for the outsider, and even they shouldn’t be using them.

In my work with students, I find myself reiterating that learning is about far more than a grade.  In my academic work, I try to work to produce quality, independent of a grade.  However, at times as a professional, I find myself overly reliant on those measures that I know to be problematic and imperfect.  The process of hiring RAs is logistically difficult.  In a typical year, a couple hundred applicants compete for what ends up being about one hundred spots.  While the process includes a written application, individual interviews, and group interviews, it all eventually boils down to one number.  Though I try my best to find RAs based on interactions I’ve had with students, recommendations from those who have worked with applicants, and the qualitative measures that accompany the scales, I still must prioritize a list of a hundred names to fill three positions, so numbers end up playing more of a role than I’d like them to.  It’s just not possible for me to read every application or note written by an interviewer.

I think if we are to ever step away from grades in working with students, we need to think more critically about how we compare and evaluate in daily life.  While quantitative measures seem quick and easy, they are not always effective in dealing with complexity, particularly when people are involved.  We cannot capture a person’s abilities in a single number, and a single number cannot provide someone with clear opportunities for improvement.  It takes more time to engage in the complexity that a single measure attempts to evade, but it must be done if we truly wish to invest in student learning.

14 thoughts on “Four Things I Learned from Working with Students… but not with Grades

  1. Blayne Fink says:

    “In my work with students, I find myself reiterating that learning is about far more than a grade. ”

    This right here is the epitome of what I aim to convey as a TA, however, oftentimes, it is what I fall short of conveying to my students. As a TA in public speaking I am oftentimes met with the unsatisfied student who did not earn the “A” that they wanted and I am tasked with the tough job of explaining that it is far more about their process and growth as a speaker than it is a grade. However, as you mentioned, being that we are at Virginia Tech, a university that has highly intelligent individuals everywhere, attempting to convey that message is really hard.

    I appreciate your thoughts and the time you put into this post, as well as the work you do in your “odd job”- you sound like one of the good ones!

    • jagarner says:

      Sounds like you do some of the hard work actually dealing with the grading, Blayne. I can only imagine that’s difficult.

      Whenever I hear students talking about grades and their concerns, I always try to remember their perspective of what their grades might determine. It’s really difficult to have a conversation about learning when they are most concerned that a non-ideal grade might bar them from entering a grad program or med school. It’s a tricky conversation to have.

  2. Carlisle says:

    You make such an interesting point about open-ended questions. There has to be immense value in guiding students to develop their own answers. Having the skills to think beyond the yes and no answers can help students not only in future jobs but in graduate school as well. For example, in developing my research proposal there are multiple methods I could use to answer my research questions, however with each option comes pros and cons. I imagine your RAs are faced with the pros and cons of their solutions as well. How do you help guide them without making the decision for them? What are your strategies?

    • jagarner says:

      I won’t lie. It’s a regular struggle. Particularly in instances where time is valuable, I sometime have to be the one to make a decision.

      However, when I have the time to create a learning moment, I tend to fall back on some of my student development background. Baxter Magolda’s Learning Partnerships Model. I actually have this set as my desktop background in my office where I do most of my work with students: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-5PBQuR8uvtc/VjFd_R0baYI/AAAAAAAAANQ/GSnIjtlz_t8/s1600/learning%2Bpartnerships%2Bmodel.jpg

      However, to put it quickly, it’s about acknowledging the student as an expert of their own situation and working to co-construct meaning. I find it’s about asking a lot of questions and only suggesting answers if a student is really stuck. Otherwise, they focus too much on my suggestion.

  3. Heath Furrow says:

    Jake,
    Interesting post. I like that you brought in your experiences as an RA supervisor and talked about the importance of helping students be able to deal with the open-ended questions/tasks they will be faced with in the real world. My boss at my old undergraduate job used to comment on the fact that the student employees had a lot more difficulty trouble-shooting equipment issues once Virginia enacted the standards of learning. Basically, as the focus on standardized assessment went up, student ability to deal with real world problems declined.
    -Heath

    • jagarner says:

      That’s a really interesting perspective from your boss. Part of me wonders if there was any longitudinal study involving problem solving skills (or another competency) that might have captured any discontinuity when SOL was enacted. Unfortunately, it would be hard to figure that out retroactively.

  4. Kristen Felice Noble says:

    Hey Jake,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and insight as an RA. I like how you point out that “Exceeds Expectations” is overshadowed by the A for “matches the rubric criteria”. This is definitely one of the major issues with the A-F scale, at least in the U.S. – a C is looked down upon even though it should be the average and most students expect to get A’s for minimum effort.

    • jagarner says:

      Thanks for that insight, Kristen. As an undergrad, I was in an honors class where a professor mentioned the concept of a “gentleman’s C,” referring to the time when the average scholar would happily accept that grade. It certainly shocked the class, but it made me remember that issue that you pose.

  5. Arash says:

    Jake,

    That quote from your professor is profound and I’m going to remember it for long. It is true that “quick and easy” often doesn’t do justice in evaluating people’s work. And as you point out it is not just about measuring efforts or achievement but also empowering students to do better and grades can be too vague to show paths for improvement.

    • jagarner says:

      The quote is certainly one that is hard to unhear when presented in the proper context. It makes me think about how may daily work benefits students: Is it in a way that I can measure and demonstrate to my boss or really the kind of support students need? It poses problems but ones worth thinking about.

  6. annalg16 says:

    I really loved your post and can tell that you are passionate about connecting with people. I think that those close connects are also what make you a great teacher and a wonderful mentor. I agree with what you say about grades being a quick an easy quantitive measure. However, what do you suggest we as future professors do to change the system? Do you think that there is an alternative method to the grading system?

    • jagarner says:

      Thanks for that question, Anna. That’s one I could probably think on all day, but here are my brief thoughts:

      I don’t see immediate change to the system as likely. It’s important to acknowledge that these quantitative measures hold value to outsiders so they can quickly glean information about a student (whether it’s as a prospective hire or an applicant to an advanced program). Students are unlikely to stop worrying about such things and rightly so. Hence, I think it’s important to consider how we acknowledge these numerical measurements for how they might be used and figure out how to best utilize them (or maybe not utilize them) for learning.

      Two of my most memorable and talented professors plainly stated the grading system was flawed and told us how they were going to work around that. I had a differential equations professor who told us the important thing was learning 12 different skills. If you mastered all 12 by the end of the semester (by perfectly completing them on at least one test), you got an A. By the end of the semester, I had those skills.

      A professor in philosophy said he’d pretty much be giving As all around (assuming papers showed sufficient effort) but he would not be afraid to critique papers and tell us how he would truly rate the argument if we acknowledged C as truly average. There would just be two scores: what went into the gradebook and what he really though. Having the fear of not getting an A removed made the class less stressful, but I was driven to be thorough in my work in hopes of true mastery and the unofficial A.

  7. spmurray says:

    Hi Jake!

    I really enjoyed reading your post! You have such unique insights through your experiences at VT that helped me think past the grades, to what actually works for students.

    I agree about intrinsic motivation — I have often found, for myself at least, that I do much better work when dealing with a topic I am actually interested in. I think the same goes for curiosity. While as teachers we may try to help students learn lots of content and improve their writing and communication skills, it seems like if we can situate assignments around something students are interested in already, it seems like we can achieve much better results!

    • jagarner says:

      Great point! I try to use the Learning Partnerships Model (in a comment reply above). One of the key principles in that model is situating learning in the learner’s experience, and I think having students write/communicate about something they are interested in is a great way of doing that!

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