Wednesday, February 18, 2004


A student left a good comment (read worthy of extra credit) on a previous post on grades. I thought I'd give it a friendly fisking.

All the math that is involved in grades is fine and good. The best way to figure out grades and gpa is a question constantly in debate. Perhaps the reason there is never an agreement is because grades in the first place are arbitrary!

Arbitrary? That implies there is randomness or even capriciousness in assigning grades. I don't think that is true, although I would say they are subjective.

Think about it: what do grades really tell you? That a student was or was not able to regurgitate facts, read the teacher and deliver what he/she wanted, and meet the requirements. That doesn't tell you diddly squat about what they actually know. A student can get the highest marks possible, and take from it nothing but wasted hours of cramming, after which the material promptly left the cranium.

I agree, this is sometimes (maybe even often) the case, but is that an indictment of assigning grades, or is it an indictment of the way some people try to measure understanding?

Conversely, a student can get a C in the class and get much more from it than the previous student. The point is that grades don't mean a whole lot... education should be about learning, not worrying about a mark.

Amen sister...I agree, but why do earning grades and learning have to be inconsistent? Alfie Kohn has written a book entitled Punished by Rewards which makes the argument that the existence of grades destroys intrinsic motivation. I don't buy it...

Without grades, this would be more easily achieved. A few of my teachers have argued for this idea... but the system will not allow it.

Or they are not brave enough to try. Remember that "the system" is just a collection of the faculty. We decide how to evaluate students and report it. We have it within our power to eliminate grades, don't let anyone tell you differently.

Some schools have tried this (I'm looking for links), but many that have subsequently returned to a grading system, why?

Part of the problem is lack of motivation... but I still think that it would be a more well-grounded system if students were truly interested in the material instead of their grade. The no-grade system (pass-fail, and not knowing if you are passing or failing until the end of the class) could possibly work toward that goal.

Which is one of the reasons why I believe in grades, they operate as incentives. Even if I don't believe all of Kohn's book, I do think poorly designed incentives can reduce intrinsic motivation, but what do you do in the case where the student doesn't want to learn? Maybe nothing....

Keywords: Learning, Grades

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