Against the Grade Economy

by Kevin Currie-Knight

___

I am a college professor. By and large, I love my job. I love being in the classroom interacting with students. I love the research process. Sometimes, I don’t even mind serving on university committees. But there is one part of my job that I dislike more and more each semester. It permeates every week of the academic year but is most visible and obnoxious at semester’s end: “the grade economy.”

Toward the end of just about every semester, at least a few students come to my office to talk with me about a grade they received that was lower than they were anticipating. They overlooked a due date, misunderstood a rubric item, or disagreed with my evaluation of their project. Sometimes, they make a compelling case, and I can change the grade. But other times, I can’t change the grade. Given the rules of the assignment, it is justified.

Sometimes, this conversation is a short one where the student ends the discussion with a defeated “okay, sorry to bother you.” Other times, they are more adamant. A few have visibly held back either tears (or anger) when trying to argue their point. In the end, I often sympathize with the student’s plight, but I have a job to do that requires grading in certain ways.

What I hate about this is not the students or the “haggling.” Within our grade-driven systems of schooling, students are doing exactly what the incentives nudge them to do. What I hate is what grades do to schooling and education, as well as what they do to me. As a historian and philosopher of education, I understand quite well that grades don’t do at all well what they advertise (measure and incentivize learning). But as a professor, I am bound by the system.

As I mentioned, grades are designed to do two things: (i) give students and others (the college, future employers) a measure of student learning, and (ii) incentivize student learning. The problem is that the evidence is pretty decisive that they do neither of these well.

To start, grades are a poor measure of student learning. In most institutions, grading is done differently by different teachers/professors, who use different criteria in their grading schemes. I think, for instance, about how I calculate certain project grades, where students gain points for such things as how well they argue their points and deal with counter-arguments (so far, so good) as well as whether they turned the project in on time and followed conventional grammar rules. These last two criteria may be justifiable, but their justification has little to do with student learning. (That a student turned in a paper two days late or made several grammatical mistakes doesn’t tell us a thing about whether the paper showed mastery of the material to be learned.) And this means that two students who get low grades may have gotten low grades for totally different reasons: one may have turned in a really good paper several days late, and the other may have turned in a weak paper on time. The letter grade (or percentage earned) often tells us little about student learning.

Also, we know from a wealth of data that grading often says as much about the instructor as it does about the student. According to a literature review discussing the reliability and objectivity of grading:

Factors that occasionally influence an instructor’s scoring of written work include the penmanship of the author, sex of the author, ethnicity of the author, level of experience of the instructor, order in which the papers are reviewed, and even the attractiveness of the author.

It turns out that grades do motivate some students, but when they do, it is often in a problematic way, at least, if quality learning is the goal. Here, I will invoke Goodhart’s (or Campbell’s) law, which goes something like this: to the extent that a measure becomes a target, it will lose its force as a measure. The way I explain this to my own students is with the following example: a potential employer wants to measure how collegial I am, so they bring me into their office and observe how I engage with others. In the name of transparency, they tell me that this exercise is a test of how agreeable I am, and even show me the rubric items they will use to measure my niceness (makes good eye contact, doesn’t interrupt others, etc.). In this case, it is quite clear that the rubric which should have been a measure of my collegiality will now become a target to shoot for (“I really want to interrupt; wait, I’m being observed, so I better not!”). And with that, the measure that is now a target loses its force as a legitimate measure.

We can think of grades the same way. Both the percentage and A-F making systems were introduced in US schools as a measure of student learning, “a unified and scalable mechanism for measurement and communication” for “the rapidly expanding American education system.” [1] Over time, however, these units that teachers could use to efficiently indicate student learning progress to students and parents became targets that students would shoot for.

[T]he importance of grades as a currency for moving through the educational system had partly superseded the pedagogical purpose they continued to serve. If learning sometimes had to occur along the way, so be it; but otherwise, students would do the least amount of work possible in order to attain the token of highest value. [2]

When grades-as-measures become grades-as-targets, it becomes more likely that students do their work primarily for the grade, where learning is at best a secondary benefit and at worst the route one grudgingly takes to earn the grade. (I am positive that most every teacher, professor, and student reading can call to mind their own examples that illustrate this point.)

Again, I do not blame students for behaving this way. A favorite phrase of mine to use when talking with colleagues about students and their relationship to grades is: “Don’t hate the players; hate the game.” Students who show up at professors’ offices to argue over grades, imploring us to bump that B to a B+ are playing an absolutely viable strategy in the school game, as dependent as it is on the grade economy. So are students who cheat, “bullshit” their way through papers, cram for tests, take courses with “easy graders,” and write the paper they know the professor will like rather than the one they really want to write. Don’t hate the players; hate the game.

And while I love my job dearly, I do hate the grade economy game. Partly, this is because, per the reasons given above, I think the grade economy is a bad “marketplace” within which to conduct the type of learning our education systems aspire to produce. Partly, my hatred it is because as bad as I think the grade economy is, it has become so locked into our education systems that were we to do away with it, these systems would cease functioning. (How to get students to do projects they’d rather not do and take classes they’d rather not take? How to “objectively” determine when students have satisfied prerequisites for subsequent courses?) Partly, my dislike of the grade economy is because, regardless of my attitudes toward grades, I am a college professor who must satisfy certain job requirements, one of those being to grade students in various ways. I also know that exchanging work for grades makes my job more manageable. If I do not attach grades to certain assignments, students will be more likely not to do them. And if I do not deduct points for turning projects in on time, it becomes near impossible for me to manage my workflow.

In a way, I feel like the capitalists Marx describes, who may not want to ruthlessly cut costs or treat workers poorly but must because of the incentives of the capitalist system. As one who dislikes the grade economy, I often sympathize with students who petition me for upticks in their grades. But another part of me – the part of me who holds a job that demands the use of grading systems – knows that I often cannot honor these requests and that doing so puts me at odds with the system that employs me.

I have found some ways to mitigate my participation in the grade economy, such as allowing students, on certain projects, to evaluate their own work and persuade me that the grade they’d like to receive is deserved. But these are ultimately half-measures. First, they feel furtive, as I am going against the grain. And when (some) colleagues catch wind of this idea, they often seem quite skeptical. (Just more proof of how much we academics seem to need the grade economy.) And even when I allow students to essentially assign themselves grades for certain projects, they still have things like due dates by which this must be done and after which their grade will be penalized. Nor can I do this for all projects, at least not the ones whose criteria are issued at the department level.

In the end, must I simply accept this as an area that commands me to do what my conscience wants to resist? It might be. As much as I dislike the grade economy, I understand that it is a foundational feature of our institutions of schooling. And everyone seems to understand – and few take issue with – this feature when they sign up to be parts of these institutions. Students who leave my office failing to persuade me to revise their grades may be disappointed with the outcome. But the grade economy which led to the outcome was part of the deal. Or so I tell myself.

Notes

[1] Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt (2014) Making the grade: a history of the A–F marking scheme, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46:2, 201-224, DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2013.790480 (p. 208)

[2] Ibid., p. 216.

51 comments

  1. I think I mostly disagree with this.

    True, I don’t enjoy the end of semester grading period. But it is the tediousness of the actual grading that I dislike. I have mostly been able to deal with disgruntled students.

    Where I mainly disagree, is on the purpose of grading. One thing it does, is give me feedback on what I taught badly and on where the students are confused. This is helpful for the next time that I teach the same subject matter.

    Beyond that, I guess my disagreement is related to my rejection of the “justified true belief” characterization of knowledge. I do not see students as acquiring facts. After all, they can look up the facts whenever they need them. What I see as most important, is that students learn to make good judgments, including judgments about their own knowledge. And the feedback that we provide through grading should be able to help them calibrate their own ways of judging.

    1. “Where I mainly disagree, is on the purpose of grading. One thing it does, is give me feedback on what I taught badly and on where the students are confused. This is helpful for the next time that I teach the same subject matter.”

      So would a myriad of other ways of giving feedback that are not single letters and percentages.

      ” What I see as most important, is that students learn to make good judgments, including judgments about their own knowledge. And the feedback that we provide through grading should be able to help them calibrate their own ways of judging.”

      I have simply not seen any evidence that going through college replete with the grade economy correlates with students exercising improved abilities at judgment. Have you? I have looked for such evidence and I’m pretty confident in saying that it doesn’t exist. IF I’m right and it doesn’t, would that affect how you view the usefulness of grades?

      1. We teach in very different areas. For me, it has been in mathematics and in computer science. I don’t think it easy to compare our experiences.

  2. A few things.

    1. Certainly, grading is a pain in the ass, but given the relationship between high school, college, and graduate school admissions, and the enormous numbers of people being processed through these systems, it seems pretty obvious that there isn’t any other way. There will have to be quantifiable measures of some sort. So a good part of this is just a kind of unrealistic fantasizing.

    2. It is simply untrue that many of the pathologies currently plaguing students is due to the grade economy which *long* predates them. The plagiarism epidemic, for example, has nothing to do with the grade economy.

    3. It is a serious mistake to let the students off the hook in this regard. I think Kevin has been snookered.

    1. “Certainly, grading is a pain in the ass, but given the relationship between high school, college, and graduate school admissions, and the enormous numbers of people being processed through these systems, it seems pretty obvious that there isn’t any other way.”

      I am not sure I disagree with this, short of mentioning that learning in formal institutions of learning are not the only paths to learning. But yes, if what we are talking about is how to structure the modern university – as I say in the piece – the grade economy is pretty locked in. There are a few colleges that do not operate through grades, but they are few, small, and experimental.

      “It is simply untrue that many of the pathologies currently plaguing students is due to the grade economy which *long* predates them.”

      Where did you see me making such a causal claim? Now, it does turn out that historians of education disagree with you on this in that at very least, we can say that the introduction of grading systems into schools (which dates to the middle 1800’s) shifted the focus of learning in schools in ways not anticipated, and one of those ways was introducing the idea that students could find clever ways to cheat on tests and the like. But no, I didn’t make any causal claim that the pathologies plaguing students is DUE to the grade economy. At best, I intimated that those pathologies can be seen as quite rational strategies given the incentives school presents students.

      ” It is a serious mistake to let the students off the hook in this regard. I think Kevin has been snookered.”

      What hook?

      1. “Again, I do not blame students for behaving this way. A favorite phrase of mine to use when talking with colleagues about students and their relationship to grades is: “Don’t hate the players; hate the game.” Students who show up at professors’ offices to argue over grades, imploring us to bump that B to a B+ are playing an absolutely viable strategy in the school game, as dependent as it is on the grade economy. So are students who cheat, “bullshit” their way through papers, cram for tests, take courses with “easy graders,” and write the paper they know the professor will like rather than the one they really want to write. Don’t hate the players; hate the game.”

        = = = = = = =

        With regard to historians of education, I really could care less whether they agree with me or not. The fact is that I have seen the burgeoning of certain pathologies among students over the last 5 years or so — including, but not restricted to plagiarism — that simply did not obtain before, despite the grade economy existing.

        1. Okay, take the statement of mine that you quoted. What I do not mean is that the grade economy is the dependent variable to cheating’s independent variable, that the introduction of the former is a sufficient condition for the inevitable latter. What I mean is that when students cheat, if you were to get inside their brain to find out why, it is pretty plain that the reason is that it is a way to try and get a certain grade without having to do whatever work is officailly required to ‘earn’ the grade.

          Sure there are other factors that have led to the swell of cheating: the internet makes it easy to copy, paste, and find folks willing to write papers for you, etc. But suppose you were watching students – the very same students who exhibit certain pathologies in class – doing stuff they just want to do, stuff they do not get a grade for: learning the guitar, gardening, etc. I bet you will not find them cheating very often in those hobbies… because the defect is less in the student than the student + the incentive structure that, yes, centers around the grade economy.

          “With regard to historians of education, I really could care less whether they agree with me or not. The fact is that I have seen the burgeoning of certain pathologies among students over the last 5 years or so — including, but not restricted to plagiarism — that simply did not obtain before, despite the grade economy existing.”

          Then I don’t know what to tell you, Dan. In these situations, I’d normally try to argue a case. But when the interlocutor tells me that their “lived experience” (that’s what this is, right?) is beyond challenge because no research could erase what they know to be true, I know what ways of proceeding will not likely bear fruit.

          It’s as if you’ve debated ‘social justice warriors’ enough that you have their playbook down cold!

          1. Uh…alright. You and I are different, I guess. I take people’s extensive and varied experience quite seriously, especially with regard to matters where expertise is in good measure a function of extensive and varied experience.

            As grades aren’t going anywhere, the point is academic anyway.

          2. “As grades aren’t going anywhere, the point is academic anyway.”

            To some extent, this is true .At an institutional level, grades aren’t likely to go away. But two things. First, that grades aren’t going away doesn’t mean that the flaws of grading aren’t worth talking about. (No one thinks student evaluations or police stations are going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean that talk of abolishing or reforming each can’t ultimately do something.) Second, at the professorial, rather than institutional level, those who dislike the grade economy can experiment with ways of evaluating and motivating students that don’t depend on teacher-assigned grades.

            “As for your point re: cheating, I disagree. We cheat and lie to ourselves the most, by far. Not to mention all the short-cutting.”

            Point taken, but cheating oneself is different than cheating others. Fooling yourself about how great your paper is is entirely different experientially from trying to cheat the professor. Deluding yourself regarding how much tax you will have to pay is entirely different from trying to cheat the IRS. They’re just two different types of cheating, and I’d even say that the former – talk of cheating oneself – is an analogy only. An interesting analogy, but an analogy.

            Put it this way. Say that I want to learn the guitar so that I can play killer guitar solos. How is it plausible – or even tempting – for me to cheat in anything like the way I might want to try and cheat my professor to earn a high grade on that philosophy term paper? Two ENTIRELY different situations.

          3. I don’t deny that cheating with regard to oneself has some different implications than cheating with regard to others. But nonetheless, I categorically deny the point you make in the last paragraph re: guitar solos. [Just switch guitar solos for losing weight and becoming a babe magnet and the point should be obvious.]

            As for the first point, I prefer not to waste time or energy on entirely academic matters. And if one is going to teach in any actual, accredited institution, one is going to have to give grades, so even at the professorial level, the issue is pretty irrelevant. My main focus is to figure out how to help students do better with the system there is, rather than with the system as I wish it was.

          4. “[Just switch guitar solos for losing weight and becoming a babe magnet and the point should be obvious.]”

            The point that is obvious in the latter example is mine. Why? Because the goal and the activity are different, so a lot of folks will try to achieve the goal (making it look like they lost weight in order to attract mates) rather than engage in the activity as the ONLY WAY to achieve the goal. So, if we jigger the example to be one about losing weight in order to improve one’s health, it may be that folks lose will and ‘cheat’ on the diet. But that cheating is nowhere near the same TYPE of cheating as “I’m going to do what I can to look like I’ve lost weight so that I can fool other people.”

            I have an idea. Know any skateboarders? Ask them when the last time was that they cheated when trying to learn a new move. If they’re like the ones I know, they’ll just look at you and try to make sense of your stupid question. Now, ask those same skateboarders to remember a time when they cheated in school, and they will have NO TROUBLE making sense of the question or recounting examples. Different experiences entirely.

          5. No, you missed the point of the example. A significant reason why people have so much trouble losing weight is because they cheat on their diets and lie to themselves about how much they are cheating.

          6. “My main focus is to figure out how to help students do better with the system there is, rather than with the system as I wish it was.”

            I do this too. Cozy in or a heartwarming story.

            A student of mine was learning what she needed for the teacher certification test (The EdTPA). She was asking me about a particular way of lesson planning, and was telling me that there was a difference between how the EdTPA wanted to see it and how she believed it should be done. I agreed with how she believed it should be done, as I am pretty fluent in that method of planning. She asked me what she should do? Do it the way she thinks is right or the way the EdTPA folks want to see it? Here’s a synopsis of what I said.

            “Your job right now is to pass the test. Do it how they want to see it. In fact, do everything the way you think they want to see it. Later, you can do it the way you want to do it, but your job right now is to guess what they want and give it to them as best you can. I think your way is right, as do you, but these tests are not about getting it right. It is about giving them the answers that will give you a good score.”

            This is a true story; I’m not being facetious. She seemed really devastated at my lack of idealism. But I agree; when the rules of the game are not negotiable and the game decides your fate, your job is to play the game to the best of your ability. And to the extent that higher ed is a game that it is every student’s job to place well in…

    2. “The plagiarism epidemic, for example, has nothing to do with the grade economy.”

      I think I disagree. I suspect a key reason people plagiarize is because the incentive to do so is to get a good grade. So, I think it has something to do with the grade economy. Not that I know of a different or better economy.

      Now, as to why it’s more of an epidemic now as opposed to, say, in 1990 (assuming it is….sometimes one might be surprised)–that could have something to do with the ease plagiarizing. I.e., a student can now go on the internet.

      1. I would argue that the question of the inclination to cheat and the ease of cheating are separate issues. And my impression is that the sheer amount of cheating — I’ve had classes where half the students plagiarized — is not consistent solely with an increase in the ease of cheating.

        1. I taught English composition to future English teachers here in Chile in so-called quality university.

          We (it was the department requirement) assigned a long term paper in English to 3rd year students, in preparation for their senior thesis. They selected their own topic, subject to approval by the professor, but I never vetoed any topic.

          When I looked at the papers, I realized that almost all of them had plagiarized their papers. This was long before the day of Google, but I knew that none of them could write English (or probably Spanish) so well, with zero spelling errors and with such truly professional organization of the subject matter.

          I went to talk to the department head and with a laugh, he suggested that I grade as following: 20% for spelling, 20% for grammar, 20% of neatness, 20% for punctuation and 20% for the student’s contribution. Thus, everyone got 80%, everyone passed and no one complained.

          Thus, as a freshman professor, I learned the rules of the game.

          1. I’ll take Mr. Kaufman”s word for it that the ease of cheating perhaps doesn’t go as far as I suggested in my comment.

            Sigh. My experience teaching (all at the undergraduate level, as a TA and later as an adjunct, in U.S. History) taught me that plagiarism is ever present. One of the (many) reasons I decided I didn’t want to teach was because I didn’t (and don’t) know how to deal with it in a way that feels right to me, or that seems honest. The “rules of the game,” at the institutions where I’ve taught/TA’d (3….all in the US) were oddly both opaque and all too clear. The institutions’ policies were some version of “zero tolerance” but the actual rules of the game were: you mustn’t “bust” students for plagiarism, but also: you must “bust” students for plagiarism, but also: all plagiarism is the same no matter how minor, but also: some plagiarism is much more egregious than others.

            That anecdote doesn’t really address whether it’s incentives or other things that contribute to the “epidemic” of plagiarism. And all that is probably off-topic for the thread and OP.

          2. I have found that the plagiarism has gotten significantly worse over the last five years. But this also has been the time in which the students have also become much worse in terms of their willingness to work and in terms of performance-breaking mental and personality disorders. I would say at this point that a good 40% satisfy that description in one sense or another.

            My way of dealing with it is simple. If the student fesses up and is apologetic, I let them redo the assignment. If they don’t or if they dissemble or dodge, they get a 0 on the assignment (which usually mean an F for the course) and I report them to the Office for Academic Integrity.

          3. The last time I taught was 2009, so I certainly can’t speak to recent trends, even anecdotally. I have in theory more to say about this, but it’s so off-topic I’ll defer or maybe write about it on my own blog. Thanks for engaging me.

          4. “I have found that the plagiarism has gotten significantly worse over the last five years. ”

            I was talking to Rob Gressis about this in prep for our recorded dialogue, and I suspect what you do. So does my department. He reported however seeing data somewhere – by an author who has examined the issue of plagiarism longitudinally for some time – that suggests it HASN’T likely gotten worse at least by way of number of students who do it. I haven’t seen that data, but Rob gave me the reference to the book where he saw it.

            So, for now, I’m siding with you, as is my Department. But the “d word” you seem so averse to may tell us (well, me anyway) otherwise.

            Part of it may be due (as you say in another comment) that we are seeing students who increasingly cannot or aren’t willing to do the honest work. But I think another part of it – and this is from my “lived experience” so you can’t challenge it! – is that the internet has given rise to better ways to connect cheaters to methods of cheating, better ways to avoid detection, etc. (Yes, I know the internet is older than five years, but from what I’ve seen in my own field, there are newer and easier ways to cheat now than there were even six years ago, and these have markedly outstripped our detection methods.)

  3. Grading is not an economy, but an accounting system. Somewhere I read that the alternative to philosophy is not no philosophy, but bad philosophy. (If anyone knows the source, please let me know!) The same is true here–your alternative is not to eliminate the accounting system (grading), but to replace it with a bad one.

    Much of the problem you describe we accountants would call ‘measure management’–managing the measures of performance rather than just the underlying performance those measures are intended to capture. Campbell’s law describes the nature of the problem, but you have to go to accountants for the solution.

    1. You can tie the measure to weaker (or no) incentives, but only at the cost of reducing motivation.

    2. You can be less clear about what measures you are using, but only at the cost of communicating less clearly what you want students to do.

    3. You can restrict student discretion over the ways they can manage their grades (e.g., don’t let them take easy classes instead of hard ones), but that comes with the costs of top-down control.

    4. you can devote a lot more time and money to getting better measures, but at the cost of hassle, bureaucracy, etc.

    They key to remember is that no (accounting) system is perfect. So figure out which problems are least costly to deal with. Personally, I use a lot of 1 and 4. I dramatically lower the stakes on written work by using a ‘good effort in good faith yields full credit’ approach, because intrinsic motivation seems to be enough when students are writing–especially since I have them post on a Canvas discussion forum that other students can read. I also create vast reams of objective questions for test banks that cover each topic, and let students take each topic quiz over and over (with random questions selected each time from the bank) until they are happy with their score, since I don’t care how many tries it takes them, just whether at the end they understand it. This is all pretty costly on 4, but I’m willing to live with that.

    If you are interested, What Counts and What Gets Counted is an ungated eBook (complete with videos) that covers this and related issues in a way that might appeal to readers of this blog, since the foundation of the book is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

    1. I let my students take quizzes as many times as it takes, too, for the reason you cited. Many of colleagues don’t do this, but they understand, and, thankfully, my department is blessedly hands-off. As my chair put it, “We hire the teachers we hire because we trust their teaching.” Thanks for the book recommendation!

      1. I am very self-directed in the way I teach (facilitate is probably more accurate). As long as the course parameters permit it – sometimes they do, other times they don’t – I let students choose what (from the course goals) they want to learn and how. My job is to help connect them to resources, teach them when they want me to, and help them through the process. And as part of this, I give them substantial control of their grades, as it would be unfair of me to allow them to choose what and how they want to do x and then give them a rubric I will use to grade x. (That would defeat the point of the entire exercise in one stroke.)

        I have had two researchers in my room studying how this particular course works over the past two years, and the data they (and I) have collected tell us that students’ controlling their grade has little effect on how hard they work and how much they learn. In fact, it seems to me – at least according to anonymous interviews the researchers conducted – that quite a few students are MORE motivated when they are no longer doing a project they didn’t choose to a rubric they didn’t choose to be graded by someone who is not them. Anecdotal? I’m afraid so, as the sample size is small and this is largely self-reported data (even though the interviews are anonymous and conducted well after all projects are turned in, and kept from me until after the semester is over). But yeah, it actually seems to work pretty well.

        1. Yeah, that wouldn’t fly with me at all. Fortunately, when I was Department Head, I didn’t have anyone under me who was that self-directed.

          My job is to teach the courses in our curriculum that I am assigned in the best way I can and to make it possible for students to satisfy the various requirements that obtain at the departmental and university level. My job is *not* to redesign the system or to cater to what students want to learn, if in any way different from the course requirements. The students are not customers of mine, and I am not a store.

          1. Oh, I stay firmly within the course requirements. I even find a way to have my students do, and do fine with, the project that all sections of the course have to do at the end of the semester. It takes work and creativity, but the payoff is worth it, that payoff being to see students learn and be motivated by their own curiosity rather than doing well on a test or paper about something they care little about but their professor finds fascinating. (Writing about this course and experience, by the way, is what I’m hoping that book contract will be for.)

            “The students are not customers of mine, and I am not a store.”

            I hate it when folks use market analogies because they never seem to get it right. What they do is badly hackney what they think the customer/provider relationship is and analogize from there, or isolate one very specific KIND of market and treat that as exhaustive.

            They certainly are your customers, as they very really pay your university very real money to take your class and other classes en route to the piece of paper at the end. But not to worry! The kind of ‘store’ you are is akin to a tennis coach or auditor whose job is in some sense to put your paying customer through the ringer, rather than say a candy or car shop where the job is to satisfy whatever whim the customer has.

            As for me, I see my job as something more akin to a personal trainer; you are here to learn stuff. I can tell you what to learn if you’d like, or you can give me an idea what your learning goals are and I will do what I can to help you meet those.

        2. I let students choose what (from the course goals) they want to learn and how.

          That might occasionally work with an advanced class. But, for much of what I have taught, there is specific knowledge that is prerequisite to other classes. The students must master that specific knowledge, and most of them are aware of that. The grades provide feedback to the students on how well they are succeeding with that specific knowledge.

          I’m sure the students don’t like exams and grades either. But they will complain if I don’t do the testing and grading, because they know that they need that feedback.

  4. I can only sympathize.

    Inevitably, I find myself wishing higher education would incentivize learning and understanding and disciplined creativity instead of credential-earning. But I see how that would then mean middle- and high-school education, at the very least, would have to incentivize those things. But what would a system-wide incentivization of those things even look like?

    Not to mention the material, economic, spiritual, and political changes that would have to occur just to make it so much as acceptable to say: the intensely personal, subjectively-felt, and thus strictly incommunicable achievement of coming to understand something in a way you didn’t understand it before is an achievement that counts among the most pleasurable kinds of achievement, and among the most important, because of the potential it has for suffusing your awareness, your unique point-of-view-ish-ness, which is something you live with your whole life.

    (And for crying out loud, what I mean is that you’re the one, and the only one, who experiences your understanding, and your love for and enjoyment of that experience is to be cultivated — I’m not denying our need for the nurturing and critical company of others in arriving at and checking our understanding, and I’m not denying our ability to bring others to understand something we do.)

    So then I find myself thinking the incentivization of learning and understanding and disciplined creativity must occur, if it occurs at all, in the student’s private life: family, extended family, friends, religious guides, and the like. But, given the education system’s decades-long history of incentivizing credential-earning, I wonder whether the student’s private associations nowadays are constituted by those who were raised to incentivize credential-earning. . . .

    My mind swirls, and I start to feel the seduction of a fatalistic outlook. I’d love to hear what EA readers think about these issues, because many of them have a problem-solving frame of mind, whereas I don’t.

  5. For those of us who love culture and value learning to grade people to see if they’ve really read, say, Greek tragedies, is sacrilegious, because Greek tragedy should be appreciated for its wisdom and beauty not to get a higher grade.

    However, to be honest, when I was a university freshman and assigned Greek tragedy I had no interest in reading it, considered it to be hopelessly out of it and simply read it because I knew that the professor gave us a weekly multiple choice quiz to make sure that we were doing the reading.

    With the years I’ve learned to appreciate and love ancient Greek literature and philosophy, but the first step was being exposed to it at age 18 and reading it with attention because of the multiple choice quiz and the grade that resulted from the quiz. So grading, while seemingly demeaning of the value of culture, can be a step towards getting people, raised on TV, “roll over Beethoven” and now on social media, to take a moment to look at what is great in human culture.

  6. The Israeli Army has a saying: there are no bad soldiers, only bad commanders. Translated to the classroom this obviously comes out as ‘there are no bad students, only bad professors’. Now clearly some students have no motivation (because they don’t want to be in that class to begin with), some might have cognitive problems, and some might have emotional problems that interfere with their learning. Let’s put those aside for the moment. If a professor is an excellent professor, such that everything he explains is crystal clear, then if the students are being examined solely on what they have been taught, it would seem to be a simple definitional matter that every student would receive a perfect grade.

    There is an aphorism that if you can’t explain something in simple terms then you really don’t understand it. Imho this is more than a simple aphorism: the phenomenology of understanding requires this to be true, since every seemingly ‘complex’ concept is originally understood by reference to simpler concepts that are readily understood. These simpler concepts are most likely understood as a function of the architecture of the brain. Chomsky is pretty adamant that this is precisely how we understand language.

    Richard Feynman famously said, ‘“I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics.’ (To which Sean Carroll, who inherited Feynman’s desk at Caltech, quipped, ‘What Feynman meant is that nobody understands quantum mechanics like he did’. Carroll was kidding, of course (I think:-) On a personal note, a close friend of my brother, who (the friend) did his PhD in mathematical physics with Roger Penrose (this years winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics) actually did say to Feynman when they were discussing some matter in physics — this happened while my brother’s friend was still an undergraduate — ‘that’s because you don’t understand quantum mechanics’. More chutzpadik then this, it doesn’t get. But I digress.)

    What Feynman meant (we know, because he explained himself) is that since there is no human experience that parallels any of the strange behavior of particles at the quantum level (ie being in two places at the same times, or spontaneously appearing on the other side of an object without either having gone through the object or gone around it) it is impossible to understand (in the sense of understanding I laid out above) quantum mechanics; we can only work with its formalism.

    It seems to me that this must be the case for everything. Either concepts — however complex — can be progressively broken down to primitive concepts that are innately understood, and, thus everyone (short of people with organic cognitive deficits), can understand them, or they are concepts that no one truly understands, neither neophyte nor expert.

    1. Now clearly some students have no motivation (because they don’t want to be in that class to begin with), some might have cognitive problems, and some might have emotional problems that interfere with their learning. Let’s put those aside for the moment.

      = = = = =

      I don’t think we can put these aside anymore. They are increasingly true of an increasingly large number of students.

      Also, I don’t know about the aphorism. I might be a great teacher, but if the teachers my students had in high school were terrible, or if their curriculum was inadequate, how good I am becomes irrelevant.

  7. “What I hate is what grades do to schooling and education, as well as what they do to me. As a historian and philosopher of education, I understand quite well that grades don’t do at all well what they advertise (measure and incentivize learning).”

    Grades are a part of a complex system. As it happens, the system is failing, so I don’t want to defend it. What I would say, however, is that the system we inherited used to work better — and grading played what I see as an essential (though not necessarily *central*) role.

    As I see it, it’s a matter of balance.

    The other point I would make is that individuals come to these questions with deep assumptions (ideological and otherwise) that go well beyond the field of education. These assumptions inevitably influence our views on educational practices and the way that we — as casual observers, participants, or researchers — frame the questions.

    1. Yes, this is partly what I was getting at. I’ve been long enough on the earth to remember when the fact that one was being graded in school was not a problem.

  8. Kevin:
    The horrible sinking feeling that you must get when you have to give a high grade to a student who is a consummate fake. He has read just the right amount of the text to give the impression of familiarity, refers to research knowingly and even proffers some light of his own. His spelling is o.k. and his handwriting (?) is legible. Still the doubt remains. Does he understand anything or feel the force of it? My god, this is an academic in the egg!

      1. The more I think about this Dan, the more I think this really may also have to do with our different experiences and context. (I am also basing this on data, but our different experiences may in fact be instructive.)

        I am not sure about the philosophy classes you teach at Missouri State, but if some or all of them are classes that are electives – that most people take because they CHOSE to – that may be an interesting difference.

        All of the classes I teach are part of the teacher prep program at ECU and are mandatory for future teachers coming through that program (and are semi-electives for those outside the program, meaning they have an x requirement and y course is one of 3 classes that satisfy x.)

        So, I get a lot of students who want to be teachers, yes, but may well have no interest in the philosophy of education or theories and research around learning and motivation. They are taking the course because they want to be teachers and my course is between them and a teaching license.

        Would that be a pertinent difference between our experiences?

        1. 75% of what I teach every semester is Gen Ed.

          I’ve never been under the impression that more than a fraction are getting out of it what there is to get out of it. Only that the number has gotten much smaller.

    1. There is a really interesting and telling book called Doing School by Denise Pope. The book is her account of shadowing several high achieving students to try and see what it is they ‘have’ or do that makes them different than other students. Her finding was largely, hence her title, that they were better at treating school as a game (and finding strategies to win it) than other kids were. As you say, reading enough (and reasoning from that reading) to fool the teacher into thinking you understand, finding ways to curry favor with teachers and get creative about arguing for higher grades, etc.

      And to my point, it would be very easy to hate the players, but I think the players are doing the most sensible thing given the game they are in.

      1. My understanding of what makes for the best students, after two and a half decades of teaching is very, very different. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in the South Bronx or Springfield, MO.

        1. Well, I’m certainly not saying that if a student is good, it must be because they are finding ways to play the game. There surely are students who are good precisely because they are learning the things we intend them to learn and learning it well. But I suspect you underestimate the likelihood students finding ways to pull one over on you and overestimate your abilities to detect it when they do. I am near confident that you overestimate the degree to which your students by in large are transformed or even retain most of what they learn in your class. (I have data, but I appreciate that data holds no weight for you.) These over- and under-estimations are not arguably a Dan thing, but just a thing that comes from college professors who (a) love academics so overestimate the number of others who must, (b) have not been an undergrad student for a long time, and (c) do what they do precisely because they believe their material to be vitally transformative to their students and would have a hard time doing what they do if they didn’t so believe.

          1. “Indeed, I have no idea on what basis your guesses and suspicions are supposed to rest.”

            Yes, you do, Dan. I’ve brought the whole idea of resting conclusions on available data up to you before and you’ve told me you have no interest in data when it trumps your lived experience.

            I can give you citations that justify my suspicions if you’d like.

      2. Many students may treat school/college as a game, but once you engage them in a subject (like philosophy or literature) this goes out of the window. This is more likely if you view teaching as a vocation, not as a job. The students do pick up on this. When I taught philosophy in school I would tell them in the first lesson, about the statistics. The grading (by external examiners) was tougher in philosophy than in other subjects. Students of comparable ability who got a ‘C’ in philosophy would get a ‘B’ in Religious Education; and a ‘B’ grade in philosophy would translate into an ‘A’ in RE. Strangely, hardly anyone wanted to change courses. Of course I was lucky, because my class sizes were small. Foolishly, I told the head teacher about the statistics. She then axed philosophy in favour of religious education. One of my students was outraged: “But philosophy is the subject that changes you the most.”

        1. I think all of that is correct. I’m not trying to say that engagement is impossible in the absence of preexisting student interest. I’m saying that it is much less likely. Surely, creative teachers can find ways to attract some of those students who are primarily motivated by the grade, but that is little better than serendipity and we shouldn’t rely or count on it.

          “but once you engage them in a subject (like philosophy or literature) this goes out of the window”

          I find this phrasing to itself be interesting. It is as if “engage” is something a teacher can turn on a spigot and shoot at a student, so that once it hits the student, the teacher has “engaged” them. It’d be like saying that once a comic humors an audience member…

          I see engagement as an interaction between student, material, and teacher (or whatever they are using to learn). All three are necessary to the process and the student’s connection to the material is a vital part of the process. Put it this way: if I am teaching a student something that has no connection to their lives that they recognize, I can seem as engaging as I want, but I will not BE engaging TO that student. Maybe if I am good enough, I can get her to become engaged in a way she didn’t think she could be. But SHE is the one who ultimately decides it, not me.

  9. I always despised grading, but, as Prof. Kaufman suggests, what are the alternatives in large-scale education? Over the decades I realized that it was a fine occasion for exploring Scotch whiskeys. And even at its worst, grading seemed like a jolly picnic in comparison with faculty meetings.

    1. It’s certainly a fair point, John. As I say toward the end of the essay, I am not intending to propose solutions, and I am sort of grim about the idea that we can have anything like the higher ed system we have at the scale we have without grading systems. They are, as I say, “locked in.” Could we have avoided them? Maybe. The history of A-F fells me that grading systems were a very contingent addition that simply got locked in through path dependence. But it also tells me that the reason for the adoption was that it helped the system achieve a type of scale and “objectivity” (or the illusion of it) that that scale needed.

      I think my point in the article is to vent about where the system I am a part of places me, by way of requiring me to engage in exercises that I often think are either pointless, injurious to genuine learning (of a kind we say we care about), or not as important as my supervisors tell me. I don’t get paid enough to propose solutions. 🙂

  10. If I disagree at all it’s the idea that there’s a better way to do this. (And to be fair, I don’t necessarily see you as suggesting there is a better way.)

    I do think, on a personal and anecdotal level, that I agree with S. Wallerstein above. The grade economy has incentivized me (and presumably others) to learn when/what I/we might not have learned. I know that in courses where the instructor was known to be an “easy A,” I tended to learn less than where the instructor had a more hard line reputation.

    That said, I realize my “evidence” (i.e., anecdote) has several weaknesses:

    1. The obvious point that “what’s true for me might not be true on a systematic level.”

    2. I might not necessarily be the best judge of what I learned or how much.

    3. I didn’t retake the same classes, so I don’t have a basis to compare whether the more hard line professors would have taught me more than the “easy A” professors, or vice versa.

    4. I strongly suspect that the hard line professors weren’t necessarily as hard line as I thought they were. They (probably) knew when to give people a pass for errors, as part of a broader project of helping them learn.

    5. I can think of counterexamples: when I learned a lot from an “easy A” instructor and only a little from a hard line instructor.

  11. Gabriel Conroy:
    What an impossible tangle of double binds you have presented. Daniel Kaufman has taken the sword to them:

    
    One, two! One, two! And through and through

          The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

    He left it dead, and with its head

          He went galumphing back.

    Let them abase themselves before the college president, rending their garments and weeping piteously.

    Yet in the world conformity or social plagiarism is approved and valued. Weaving your weasel way through the spirit of the law is lauded. Laws are made of adamantine rubber. The errant contrarian is coerced or mocked. Newspapers seem interchangeable. What we read in the Guardian today will be in the Irish Times tomorrow. Calling certain events shenanigans takes the sting out of them; mere gamesmanship; all good fun, until someone loses a democracy.
    Everyone should get an A. Anything else is elitism.

  12. I don’t have any teaching experience. But as a student, all that I expected from the grading system (or from professors more generally) was feedback. I wanted to know how well I was doing and in which respect. That’s why I don’t trust some of the innovative strategies that try to eliminate grades. I had some of that too, and it often felt as if you were self-stuying. Which is a wonderful thing to do, but you don’t enroll in a college degree and spend huge amounts of time and money only to feel as if you were self-studying. And to get some grades that you don’t know how to intepret and don’t help you to improve.

    Maybe you can’t grade what you find more valuable or relevant, I don’t know about that. But from my perspective, at the very least, as I long as I know what you’re grading, I’ll be able to interpret it. Even if the grading system is far from perfect, I don’t think that’s the limiting problem. It’s the lack of motivation of the students, as has been mentioned. I found that profoundly discouraging as a student and felt very disconnected from my classmates. It also steered me away from any interest in teaching that I may had had. And I guess it hasn’t got any better.

    Ideally, everyone would be as a dedicated professor that I once had, who gave us detailed grades in every assigment (expression and originality of thought: X, depht: Y, formal aspects: Z, and so on). I guess that requires too much time and effort, but even short comments are extremely useful. A few words can be enough: “poorly structured”, “well written but off topic”. Again, I don’t know how unrealistic that is, but it would be truly appreciated, whenever possible. I used to get that sort of comments in high school but never in college. Sometimes you don’t know where the grade comes from, even if you have the grading criteria in front of you. And so, it’s quite disorienting and difficult to improve in that manner.

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