Are grades problematic? The grade polemic?

Grades are tricky. Students always ask what should I know for the exam, and I have to answer in some manner. But I always answer with the same response, the big ideas, the concepts you wrestled with as the course came to fruition. Thinking about what you actually learned is a revealing process, because what if I learned nothing at all then what? I believe that is the fear of grades, that they provide evidence of what you do not know, when in fact they provide evidence of my failure as an instructor in not simplifying the material in a way in which the student can understand. With this said grades are important to a point, they provide evidence of what one knows. Although, the inverse is true an A in a class does not indicate they know the information, merely they know what the professor wanted them to know and they will probably forget a large sum of that information they learned. Again grades are tricky, and what professors should encourage is outside learning and conversations about the material. This way students can engage with the material they struggle with, what they do not know, and perhaps gain an acumen for the material. The grade matters in terms of a degree,  and the rubric for a specialty is garnered at this level. So it matters, but the pursuit of knowledge should matter more. As Mark Twain once said,  “I will never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” Encouraging outside learning and specialty is perhaps the best way out of the grade trap.

8 Replies to “Are grades problematic? The grade polemic?”

  1. I love the Mark Twain quote! I’d be interested in knowing more about outside learning and specialty to get out of the grad trap. What immediately comes to mind is the idea of giving students projects or questions they have to research and find answers to. (Or better yet have them come up with their own questions.) Could including work like this as participation (and participation being worth more than 15 or 20 percent of the grade) be a possibility?

  2. Thanks for you post. That’s right! Grades only show that the students know what the professor wanted them to know, and nothing more than that. So we have to have other means to educate students. Conversations, discussions, real-world experiences, etc. should be considered as well. Thanks

  3. Thank you for the post. I completely agree and sympathize with the predicament the education system has put us all in. Students are encouraged to find a “way to get the grade” rather than learn. Professors are encouraged to “grade and assess” rather than teach. I do not know how to avoid sounding pompous when a student asks what is on the exam… my response is usually to some degree “the course.” Sarcasm aside, I make a strong attempt to show them how the material is connected together and how they are being “graded or assessed” based on their ability to engage with and build on the material, not just memorize it. I really respect and appreciate your comment about how a professor internalizes a grade failure – as a potential failure of their communication. Its become painfully obvious how little we know about how well the grade reflects a student’s knowledge, simply because they are not homogenous in how they interpellate or engage with a course. All in all, both students and professors are in a tough spot.

  4. One of the things that stood out to me in your post Patrick was when you say “So it matters, but the pursuit of knowledge should matter more.” and that I think is the key to shift the focus from grades for “passing” to what matters more. I think we as educators hold that key, it depends on how we utilize this tool called “grading” to inspire curiosity for pursuit of knowledge (as you say) instead of the pursuit of a perfect GPA.

  5. Thank you Patrick. I agree that grades are very tricky and don’t measure what people think they do. Yes, they are supposed to measure the ability of the student to prove what they learned but they really do measure the ability of the teacher to teach to a test. You got it with the Twain quote. Too many times education gets in the way of learning.

  6. I agree grades are tricky, but I definitely think they are not the ONLY way to assess what a student knows. So why not get rid of them and replace with something better? I really like how you brought in the Mark Twain quote… and think about how long ago that was written and in how many literature classes that book is read in and that quote is highlighted, yet we still have some big changes that need to be made in the classroom.

  7. I think that profs aren’t necessarily responsible for imposing a grading system. They have to enforce GTAs grading students, but I’d imagine that departments enforce the profs. But I agree that learning and specialty is a good start to get out of the grade trap.

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