In reading Alfie Kohn’s piece, “The Case Against Grades”, I feel like a lot of what he is saying makes innate sense. When we know we are being assessed, we always want to be the best and come out on top. I think it is in most of our nature to be competitive and strive to be the best. However, as mentioned in his piece as well as the piece by Dan Pink, this most often inhibits any chances of learning or thinking.
A personally relevant example of this is how fourth year veterinary students are assessed. The first three years of veterinary school (here) are primarily didactic in nature. You spend all day in a classroom learning lots of facts and a few ways to problem solve. However, in your fourth year, you get the opportunity to use everything you have learned and rotate through the veterinary teaching hospital. Here, at Virginia Tech, fourth year rotations are graded pass-fail (well, at least they were when I went through 5 years ago). This was exceptionally relieving to me. As a lifelong overachiever and fact-memorizer, I was just as Alfie Kohn discusses in his essay. I was completely fixated on grades and would do whatever it took (ethically of course) to get the grade. If I needed to pull an all-nighter to memorize a bunch of facts, spit them out the next day and forget them forever, I would. When I had to write an essay, I would sit the rubric right next to my computer making sure to address each point whether it related to my topic or not. (In fact, I once got an A on a paper with a note from the professor stating this was almost the worst paper he had ever read as it made absolutely no sense. However, I had earned an A based on the criteria laid out in the rubric. If THAT’S not suggestive of a problem in the system, I don’t know WHAT is!) But, in my eyes, I needed the good grade to get into the good college to get a good job. I kept this mentality through vet school (although now, looking back-it seems so silly). When I got to my fourth year clinical rotations, I finally felt like I could take a breath and use what I had learned. I wasn’t concerned with making the highest grade or knowing the most factoids. The beauty of it was that I could focus on my patient, learn my case, and integrate facts with real world situations.
I think this generally applies to most disciplines. In real life, there is typically not a “right” or “wrong” answer. You take what you have learned, integrate it into the problem you have in front of you and create a solution. In my case, not being graded on an A-F scale in my fourth year allowed me more freedom to feel comfortable learning. I’m sure many would agree that, I afforded the opportunity, they would find this just as freeing.