Are giving grades the problem with education, or is it how we generate grades?

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Last week, there was a provocative piece in the Globe and Mail regarding the practice of grading and its effect on student learning. The author, Elyse Watkins, feels that grading negatively affects those students who need more time to learn, and grades have essentially become a currency that teachers and professors “pay” students for good work. She believes that alternative methods of assessment other than tests and assignments, as well as alternative teaching structures will promote lifelong learning for students. If you read the comments at the bottom of the article, you’ll see many people, particularly those in post-secondary teaching, vehemently disagreeing with her. From my perspective, the practice of grading itself is not the problem. Rather, it’s how educators promote learning and generate grades that should be carefully analyzed.

I agree that it’s important to have alternative ways of assessing students. In Ontario, grades are supposed to be assigned to students as a judgement on their learning and understanding of course concepts. That judgement should be informed by all sorts of means. Tests, quizzes, and assignments are the traditional items that teachers use to see how much students have learned. However, teachers are encouraged also to use observations of and conversations with students to further identify the amount of learning that they have attained. So, for the student that has difficulty with test-taking, but can demonstrate their knowledge brilliantly with a one-to-one conference, such alternative methods of assessment are to their benefit.

Teachers should also be assessing students throughout the learning period and providing corrective feedback so that when judgement must be passed, students will be ready to prove their learning. For me, if I’m giving a test after, say, 15 classes, I will have checked throughout the 15 days that students are learning or not, and provide feedback and opportunities to get better and better. I don’t give grades during the learning period – that`s the students’ time to figure things out, and they shouldn’t worry about making mistakes during that time. I don`t wait for test day to see whether students “get it” or not. By then, I will have checked and helped students many times over.

Grades should never be considered currency, as Ms. Watkins puts it. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. I overhear teachers giving students grades (or taking marks off) according to behaviour. Since grades should be a judgement of learning and not how well a student is behaving, this is clearly a misuse of the system. I have also seen teachers dangle marks like bait, making students complete assigned work to get them. Again, since grades are a judgement on learning, there are other ways to see student understanding. It doesn’t have to be a transaction of work for marks. Finally, grades are used to differentiate higher-achieving students from lower-achieving students for many reasons – admission to post-secondary schools, scholarships, or employment. Do I believe that grades shouldn’t be used as a tool to choose the best candidates? No, but it should be only a part of a more holistic way of evaluating a person. Grades tell one narrow part of a story.

Grades aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, how we come up with grades can be greatly improved.

What do you think about grades? Should we can them? Do we need to standardize grading? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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3 thoughts on “Are giving grades the problem with education, or is it how we generate grades?

  1. I think moderated marking sounds like an interesting idea that may address some of these concerns. Something else that I’ve played with a little is standards based grading. I used in on a 12U physics problem set, and I loved it. It was a crazy pain in the butt to create, but I would totally do it again. The idea to do this and how to do this I originally read about here:
    https://kellyoshea.wordpress.com/standards-based-grading/

    I’ve been wondering a lot about “re-tests” lately in the context of growth mindsets, and standards based grading. I would have scoffed at the idea before, but I now find myself rethinking that stance for many reasons.

    And then there’s the idea of two stage exams that promote collaboration, in which students work in small groups to problem solve for a portion of the exam:
    http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/SEI_research/files/Physics/Wieman-Rieger-Heiner_Two-Stage-Exam_PT2014.pdf

  2. The one circumstance in which I might agree with using grades for “behaviour” issues is cheating/plagiarism – in fact, this is typically policy in most schools/boards. definitely undermines other A&E principals – marks reflecting learning/achievement, rather than, as you put it, marks as currency.

    1. Penalizing plagiarism is definitely a confusing concept. I’ve done it, and you’re right, it contradicts what assessment and evaluation is all about, but at the same time, there needs to be a deterrent for cheating. From the few times that I’ve seen students cheat on a math test, I scold them, inform parents, and hopefully all that negative attention serves as the deterrent. Then, I allow them to write again, dock them 50%, but also write down what they actually achieved so that I have a record of what they really “should” get, and that helps inform what their final course grade will be. At the end of the day, teachers need to assess students’ ability, but also guide them to being good students, too.

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