Don’t Judge a book by its cover, but still!!

I have to admit that before reading the article “The Case Against Grades” I was extremely biased. As soon as I read the title, I directly knew what to do next:
read the article, bash the article every chance i get, criticize the article in my blog. However, i quickly realized that the author Alfie Kohn is making very good points, and looking back on my own education, i have been the victim of many downsides of grading which include:

>Diminishing students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.
>Creating a preference for the easiest possible task
>Reducing the quality of students’ thinking
>Increasing the levels of cheating

However, as much as i do agree with these points, I still think grading is necessary, at least in advanced levels of education. I definitely see how letting go of grades for children can enhance the learning experience, i mean giving a 7 year old an F isn’t really helping anyone. However, i would definitely feel more comfortable knowing that my surgeon can identify every single organ in my body, or that the pilot knows what the big red button does. Don’t take the previous examples too literally, but try to see the underlying point. If no grading exists how can we differentiate between people who are qualified and people who are not. The article suggest personalized feedback, or meaningful assessment, but once other people have access to these assessment this becomes another way of grading, basically all we end up doing is manipulating semantics. If i know that a professor is going to be writing my recommendation letter, i will naturally tend to put much more effort toward his work, and less towards other’s work. If this sounds familiar, well its similar to what grading does to people.

At the end of the day i don’t think we are stuck with only one of two options: keep grading as is or completely get rid of it. We should focus on reducing the harm caused by grading, but at the same time acknowledge that grading does still have the benefit of at least giving a perspective of a person’s qualifications ( again i agree that qualifications are not entirely based on grades). I will end by saying that a person can be passionate about a career, but passion does not translate into competence.



13 Replies to “Don’t Judge a book by its cover, but still!!”

  1. I’m coming from the other side on this one. When I read “The Case Against Grading”, I was fully prepared to bash grading right along with him. I do believe that in elementary, middle, and maybe even high school, grading doesn’t do much. However, your point that “passion does not translate into competence” is also valid: there’s a huge difference between someone who’s passionate about kidneys and someone with an M.D., a board certification, and the hospital experience to take mine out should something go wrong. If I had to get my kidney removed, I’d definitely prefer the latter.

    1. Hey Remy & Jasmine,

      Thanks for sharing your reactions to Kohn. I can relate on wanting to make sure that people with professional jobs like surgeons, architects, and lawyers know what they’re doing… and knowing you’re in the hands of an A+ surgeon is probably comforting… but beyond the licensing exam that gives the stamp of approval, I’m just not convinced that grades are necessary to make sure that an individual is competent in their subject area.

      What if surgeons had to demonstrate their competence in a virtual reality simulation, after which they received an “Ok, you may move to the next lesson” or a “You need to spend another few weeks on kidneys before you can advance…”? I guess my question is whether or not a numerical score or a letter grade even matters when we can assess student learning in so many different ways?

      1. In my opinion as long as there exists a fair and objective method to measure the understanding of students I’m completely fine with that. However, my main issue with a pass and fail system is that it demotivates people to work hard. As an A student, i worked very hard to get good grades and differentiate myself from my colleges. However, if i knew that all students are on the same level once they passed, i would never have bothered studying more than the bare minimum.

      2. Sara, I like your argument for and against some of the points that both Remy and Jasmine put forward. I think we all can sleep well knowing that colleges and universities are not expected to do away with their traditional grade systems anytime soon. With or without a wholesome transformation of the current grading system, I believe that standard-based or criterion-based testing criteria are not effective or even necessary.

        Perhaps, a better way assess a student’s knowledge to allow students to produce products or outcomes through entrepreneurially-minded problem-solving methods. I totally agree with Dan Pink’s argument that a constructive way to motivate students, increase performance, and improve learning outcomes is for students to operate in an environment where there is a fair level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If this is true, then,

  2. I can’t help but wonder what it would look like to have a surgeon or a pilot who didn’t have any graded assignments… I suppose the argument for more qualitative feedback is something that might actually just work– assuming that those in positions of power don’t just pass people (nor force them to fail when they’re doing ok). Take a PhD for example. I would think that the final “test’ in the PhD process looks quite similar across disciplines, but at least in Computer Science, we must have a formal presentation in front of at lest 5 committee members. Each of them must have a PhD, one must be outside the VT community. In this presentation, you defend everything that you’ve done for your dissertation, and they get the opportunity to ask you any question they want. If you can’t present your material or answer their questions in a satisfactory manner, you fail that attempt at your defense. What if pilots and surgeons had to do something similar? What if they had to showcase their abilities to a committee who must all agree they have the skills necessary before moving on to the next step in their education or career path? The feedback could still be qualitative– no grades. And since such a process requires discussion amongst the “testing” committee, does that mean that the final results of who passes and who fails is more representative of who has the proper qualifications than if they were to get grades? Might such a process also promote more “not yet” mentalities amongst students as opposed to “I failed/I’m a failure?”

  3. Hey Remy,
    Great post! And great comments. Remy, I also really liked your statement that “passion does not translate into competence.” You also make an excellent point to Sara regarding the potential need to differentiate students on multiple levels to encourage students to go above the bare minimum. However, what if the bar was set high and it wasn’t so easy to pass? Or there were levels that had to be achieved throughout a course that students could either pass or need to repeat? Like Michelle brings up, the PhD and most professions have qualifying exams to evaluate proficiency/competence.
    Also, shouldn’t students be self-motivated. For example, if a person wants to become a medical doctor, they should want to work hard to learn the skills and knowledge required to become one. Right now, using the letter grade system, these students are actually more driven to get A’s, which causes high levels of anxiety. In addition, these students are probably not internalizing very much of the information they are supposed to be learning. I look forward to discussing this more in class on Wednesday!

  4. Interesting post and comments. I appreciated your point about the need to have some system that verifies that professionals are competent at their jobs, especially when these have a serious impact on human safety. To your point that “passion does not translate into competence,” I certainly agree, but I would also argue that good grades often don’t translate into competence either, unless grades are based on assessments that can accurately measure an individual’s ability to perform the required tasks. The discussion about dissertations in the comments got me thinking that in graduate school, we are generally evaluated based on examples of us doing the things we will theoretically be doing in our future professions. For my MAED degree this was accomplished by me showing examples of my teaching in internships. For my history MA this will involve me essentially writing a small historical monograph. This feels like a more appropriate model of assessment than the sorts of tasks that we generally use to assess undergraduates, although I’m not sure if the graduate school method would readily transfer to the undergraduate context.

  5. Remy,

    I appreciate your viewpoint. As a fellow typically A student (we just don’t talk about Chemistry..) I tend to be in defense of grades because I have benefited from the system. However I don’t know that licensing with tiers or grades is a great solution. For one, it might not reflect increased expertise years after the licensing process. And I think in this case, other more qualitative parameters such as publications, reviews, and awards might be better for determining whether you want a doctor cutting out your kidney.

  6. My undergraduate study went through a period of not caring about grades to the second period of really getting well on grades. From that experience, getting a good grade take more efforts definitely, but it’s always an achievable thing. Under the current grading system, what matters probably is whether we pursue the grade for a good looking resume or think of them as a tool to achieve our long-term goals.

  7. Remy, I appreciate the point you make about qualification. Standards are certainly important and quantitative measures make standards easy for sure.

    That said, I’m left wondering if a quantitative measure like grades can, with any amount of certainty, demonstrate one’s qualifications. A grade is just a measure that one person assigned to another. Unless the grade a surgeon is given is based on the actual percentage of successful surgeries, it doesn’t mean a whole lot, and it might not make much of a difference in one specific case. I think it’s comforting to assume objectivity in numbers and grading systems, but I’m not sure that it provides the objective information that we want it to.

  8. Interesting post and comments. I think an entrepreneurially-minded problem-solving approach to learning can increase student engagement and learning outcomes. Although is it hard to measure critical thinking and creativity, I think passion can translate into some measureable learning outcomes in a project-based learning environment by providing opportunities for students to develop their talents, and to put their skills to work. I believe the goal for teaching and learning is to allow students to operate in an environment where there is a fair level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in whatever they choose to do.

  9. Hey Remy,

    Thanks for sharing your post. For me, I think the grades vs. not-grades dilemma comes down to a question of which perspective is used when assigning evaluations. My experience with grades has typically been something like this:

    An authority on the subject examines my work and gives me back a letter/number that quantifies how much “I’m not quite there yet.”

    This backward-looking perspective reinforces the idea that students aren’t good enough — until they are. In some instances this might be just fine; as you point out we all definitely want our surgeons to be “good enough.” But knowledge doesn’t fit this paradigm, at least in a conceptual sense. Our learning isn’t finite. There is no upper limit to the knowledge we can study/gain/pursue. The traditional grading structure struggles to motivate this learning trajectory, instead placing importance on being “good enough.”

  10. I completely agree with you. Better reduce the harm than trying to get rid of grades. What hurt the most to me is the diminishing aspects that can result in total lose of interest failure while a small push would change the student performances. To me, grading is necessary even at less advance levels of education as there as well we still need to see who is qualified or skilled enough to go to the next level. We just need to rethink about assessment and remodel it for better outcome

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