Making the Grade

The reflections on assessment and grading presented by Kohn and Lui/Noppe-Brandon provide for a different evaluation of potential teaching/learning atmospheres, but I feel like some of the solutions miss the point.

I agree with the primary assertions that grading is often about controlling students and can be detrimental to student development and creativity, but some of the proposed solutions create new problems. How, for instance, is one supposed to discuss student evaluation in “conferences” if a class is 100-300 students large? Additionally, doesn’t the creation of a “negotiation” of asking students to offer up an evaluation on their own grade and decide it in conjuction with a professor open to even more charges of biases, confrontation, and potential backlash? There are some students out there who feel like they are doing tremendous work when they’re really missing the bar, or feel like they should be getting an A no matter what.

I’m certainly not against reforming the way that grading is done. I think there would be a lot of value in a much more feedback driven, iterative assessment environment where a student’s grade is not based on a one-off test or single paper. I’ve always found comments on papers to be extremely helpful and have not “stymied” creativity or pushed me to do something “easy.” Ultimately, I don’t think a lot of students write about “boring” issues just to get things done with, almost all students seem to have something they care about that fits into the various different classes they take. Good teaching could involve giving leeway for that rather than just packing in traditional grading.

However, this also doesn’t address the issue that some professors/teachers simply do not care about teaching as their primary focus. I once had a professor who literally turned his class over to a non-affiliated local businessman who knew the subject so that the professor could “focus on what the University hired him to do: research.” Even professors who do engage in creating “imaginative spaces” for students still face the issue that even non-traditional pedagogy doesn’t reach everyone.

It seems clear that there are a lot more institutional obstacles to over come on this issue than just changing individual classrooms and methods. I think that the idea of grading coming from a different perspective than just pure assessment/ordering/standardizing is important and there are many potential ways to tie that into courses, but ultimately someone is going to have to submit some type of letter grade to the bureaucracy.


  • Samuel T Sherry

    You bring up some really good points. The first one I want to address is about student proposing their own grades. I know of a professor here at Tech that did this, because he did not want to calculate their grades (my assumption). I also think he was trying to get some input from the student for justification. However I honestly think it was more for the former. This makes me sad, like they were just exploiting this good idea. I think it has some really good potential to keep students accountable.

    The second point I want to bring up is some teachers just don’t want to teach. In a lot of cases It is just a requirement for the job title. I completely agree with your points here. Sometimes I think it would be beneficial if they were completely different entities. Strictly teaching and strictly research.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks for your comments Samuel. I agree that it is unfortunate that students might exploit a situation like giving input on their own grade even when given the opportunity. I do wonder whether most people inflate their grade unknowingly rather than knowingly and how the overall system of the value of grades (currently) might impact the introduction of the practices.

  • Sara

    Hi Raymond,

    Thanks for the post this week. You are hitting on some of the more important issues and criticisms that come up when we consider an alternative to the status quo. I like the idea of an iterative, feedback-focused assessment. That in itself would be motivating for students if they understood their grades weren’t coming from a mysterious place, but were rooted in whether or not they were able to demonstrate that they are learning…and if not, the feedback is there to help get them where they need to be.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks Sara. I hope it doesn’t come across as so much of a defense of the status quo rather than an attempt to make sure that the choice isn’t between uncritically accepting the status quo or uncritically accepting an alternative. I think solutions come out better when all potential issues are on the table.

  • pallavi raonka

    Great Blog! The workload on the faculties both in terms of research and teaching has immensely increased. But as a student you want the instructor of the class to give there best while teaching and grading. There are various tools, strategies, etc available to reduce the teaching and grading load. There should be more discussion on different methods of assessing students and grading tools.

    • Ray Thomas

      I agree that there should be more discussion of different methods of assessing. I am worried, however, that students will still run into problems when they run into these types of situations where professors are research oriented (in this ever increasing publication arms-race continues on) rather than teaching oriented.

  • Stephanie Gonzalez Maldonado

    Raymond, great post! You bring up good points. I agree that giving leeway results in better grades because students decide to write about things they care about. I feel this grading dilemma would be much easier to figure out if the reality wasn’t classrooms of 100+ students and faculty that are not passionate about teaching. It would take someone very dedicated, I think, to sit down and negotiate grades with students.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks Stephanie. I agree with you that it would be much easier to have discussions about changing the nature of traditional pedagogy if we didn’t have situations with large classrooms and heavy demand to focus on research rather than teaching. I don’t want to submit to doom and gloom but it seems like an uphill battle that might never really be resolved at some levels.

  • John

    Ray, I enjoyed the post and you bring up some great points. I haven’t seen anybody explain how you would do an iterative, feedback-focused assessment when you have a class of 200 students. I would get the feeling that the grader would be in a sea of paperwork.

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