As often happens at the end of a semester, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about grades: What they mean, what purpose they serve, and how to best assign them. In thinking about this, I’m also thinking about a comment that a number of my colleagues put on each class syllabus: something to the effect of “I don’t give grades, you earn them.” These colleagues are gifted teachers whose examples I strive to follow, and I appreciate the sentiment behind their statement, but it’s also always struck me as oversimplifying what it means to grade. I don’t like the suggestion that grades are objective, straightforward representations of what a student has been up to in class.
Before we even get into the question of a student’s individual effort, work, and capacity, consider how many arbitrary decisions go into how grades are assigned. In the United States, we grade on a scale from A-F (but sometimes A-E?) that is connected in some way to a percentage scale. For many students, anything less than an A (at UK, this means less than 90%) is heartbreaking and can be a liability to them. In France, grades are on a scale out of 20, and a 15 (i.e., a 75% on that scale) is a sign of darn good work that many students work hard to get to. In either of these systems, I sometimes wonder if quantification is appropriate for grading—it’s (probably) a necessary evil, but putting numbers over a more holistic, qualitative evaluation of students seems to me to miss some of what happens in classrooms.
Even within the constraints of a particular system, there’s the question of what purpose grades are intended to serve. I think most instructors would bristle at a student’s plea that they deserve a certain grade based on effort (in implicit opposition to understanding or performance), but most of us end up using grades as carrots and sticks to get students to do what we want them to do. As a French instructor over a decade ago, a certain amount of my students’ grades were dependent on their attendance at department-sponsored cultural activities that we had trouble getting people to come to even with grades on the line. In several courses in my college, there are points set aside for student participation in a research subjects pool; is it right for a student’s GPA to be on the line because they didn’t help us publish more?
Just a few days ago, one student asked if I could do something to make up the one-point difference separating them from the letter grade they were hoping to get in my class. Although I didn’t use those exact words, my response channeled the my colleagues’ ethic that this student got the grade that they earned and I wasn’t there to give something more generous. And yet, I know that I set up the syllabus, the assignments, the rubrics, and everything else that translated certain student behaviors into one of five letters at the end of the semester. I don’t “give” grades, but I do determine what they mean and what they represent, and I think it’s important that I take responsiblity for that.
None of this post is to say what the best way to do all of this is. I have traditionally refused to grade attendance because I don’t think attendance alone represents learning. Yet, I’ve also caught myself wondering if it’s actually an act of generosity to incentivize attendance through grades so that my students don’t struggle as much on high-stakes assessments later in the semester. I want to make my grading minimalist in a way that a small number of assessments represent up-or-down assessments of course objectives, but I know from experience that it’s hard to get students to practice those objectives if there aren’t smaller-stakes assessments along the way.
I think I’ll wrestle with this for the rest of my career, but I hope that professors around the world are willing to do that wrestling—to understand that there are a lot of arbitrary decisions that go into grading, to be willing to experiment with those decisions, and to see if we can do something better than how we’ve always done it.
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