Why do we give grades? Do they bear a meaningful relationship to what students have learned? Do they reflect accurately a student’s abilities in a given field, or her mastery of a given body of knowledge?
I understand that questions like these, for many of my fellow college professors, are answered through the “assessment” of how well students meet our stated “learning outcomes,” bulleted and bold-faced, on our course syllabi. I am not sure we are doing our students a service with the way we grade.
But a lot of my colleagues see value in the enterprise. They must feel this way. After all, the continue to collect essays their students write. “This paper is an 88,” they might say. “But this one is an 86, and that one a 74.” They may have a “rubric,” with columns and rows, which they suggest reduces their grading to a system. Not only is it objective and measurable, but beyond question, too. “I am not in the business of negotiating grades,” a former colleague of mine writes on his syllabus. Look at the rubric.
They will write comments on their students’ papers, like “you need to develop your argument more fully,” or “your paper lacks a clear and coherent thesis,” or “I wish you had put more time into this assignment,” or “you need to realize you are not in high school anymore.” But you didn’t, so you get a 78.
These are all comments I have read on student papers. And I am hardly without blame. I, too, used to grade like this. I don’t anymore.
At the opening weekend for first-year students at Loyola Marymount University, a school which my daughter thought she would attend for four years, the faculty member chosen to deliver the opening convocation address said, “at Loyola Marymount University, we don’t give grades. Students earn them” The audience went wild.
What a load of nonsense.
She was no Olympian, dispensing wisdom from on high. Grading is inexact. It is by its nature imprecise. We read a paper, engage with the writer’s words, and look at the argument. Perhaps we measure what we have before us against our rubric, which this Loyola professor might view as some sort of Platonic standard of student excellence, the Form of the Good Essay. But we are giving numerical or letter scores to something that cannot be measured precisely.
I have written on this blog about grades and grading, and the relationship between grades and student retention. I worry that the entire enterprise of grading can do our students a disservice. It stresses them out for one thing, because of the growing tyranny of GPA in setting the metes and bounds of their future opportunities. If you determine a student has performed poorly or only adequately in your class and you give that student a “C,” it is entirely possible that you have closed more doors for that student than you and your course ever opened for them. They may objectively be worse off, in the long run, for having taken your course. We do not take enough responsibility for the grades we give and the unquestioned power claim to give them.
I have been reading lately the work of professors, like the fantastic Cate Denial, who are altering their approach to grading (I have not met Cate face to face, but I am looking forward to meeting her when she comes to Geneseo in March). I have found this work inspiring, and after far too long, I have decided to start making some significant and fundamental changes to how I engage with my students. I have to enter grades at the end of the semester. There is no changing that. But I can transform that process in ways that I believe will serve students better. I want them to learn, I want them to enjoy history as much as I do. And I want them to see its importance. And like the forced worship that, to Roger Williams, must “stinketh in God’s nostrils,” I do not believe I can coerce students into learning through quizzes and the external motivation of a letter grade.
This semester I decided to move away from scoring papers. I ask my students to submit their papers and journals to me electronically as a document. As I read, I make extensive comments on the argument, evidence, and style. I also try to use these marginal comments to offer instruction in those areas where I feel the student has room for improvement. It is easy to tell students not to do this or that; it is much more challenging to show them how to do things right.
In the past, when I read these papers, I might start thinking of scores and grades. I might have felt conflicted in the past about whether a paper deserved a B, or a B+, or an A-, or what amount of points I might give to an essay.
I realize that these may be my own idiosyncrasies, and that what I am proposing will not work for everyone. There are many, many, many excellent professors who inspire students, change their lives for the better, and teach them effectively using conventional grading methods. What I am proposing, furthermore, I recognize will probably not work well in every subject. Still, half way through the semester, and I find that the students appreciate what it is that I am trying to do.
Students receive back their papers with detailed commentary. I mention what I thought they did well, where they need to improve, and how I think they might best do that. I am honest. When I feel that a paper included careless errors, or that the student may not have proofread his or her paper, I point it out and give reasons why I feel that way. I tell that them that people who read what they write, now and in the future, may judge them harshly for their misspellings and grammatical errors. Some students have been poorly prepared for college writing. They were not taught the importance of editing, proofreading, and writing multiple drafts. Some have not been asked to read widely. For some of them, then, weak writing is not their fault, so the emphasis is always on getting better.
By the end of the semester, I will have folders on each student, containing all their written work, along with my comments. The students and I have this material in front of us when we meet during finals week to discuss their final grade. At our meeting, I ask the students to come prepared to discuss the following questions:
- What did you learn this semester in this course? What new information did you find most surprising?
- In what ways did you grow and develop as a scholar and a Historian?
- What do you think of the work you did this semester? Were you satisfied with its quality? Are there things you might have done better?
- What grade do you believe you deserve for the course and why?
We will discuss these questions and, I hope, arrive at some sort of agreement.
I have been warned by friends that I will face endless arguments, that the “grade grubbers” will wheedle and whine until they get the “A” they want. Others, who have actually tried something like this, find that students are harsh in their assessment of their own work. I do not know for certain what is going to happen. But I would find this job very difficult to do if I did not believe that students are honest, that they want to learn, and that I can learn much from them. And, what’s more, I believe this: It costs me nothing to grade generously, to listen to students, to constantly reassess my own standards, and to take seriously the students’ own assessment of what they have taken from my classes.