Saturday, December 27, 2014

Grades are Arbitrary, Learning is Not

Betonwerksteinskulptur "Lehrer-Student&qu...
'Lehrer-Student' von Reinhard Schmidt, Rostock (Wikipedia)
by Trent M Kays, Minnesota Daily:

As the semester comes to a close at the University of Minnesota, many students are concerned with what grade they will receive in their courses.

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a lot of the same concerns. I wanted to be sure that I got an A in all my courses because once you get an A, it seems as if you must get that grade every time.

Unfortunately, the worrying that came with this reasoning resulted in high stress and anguish, and it does the same to many other students.

Grades are an odd social construct. They are meant to transmit your level of expertise in course material to the world outside of school. They serve as gatekeepers for those who fall below a certain grade point average.

But instead, grades hardly transmit expertise because most universities have different ways of understanding them. A C+ grade at one university will be a B- at another. This becomes problematic quickly.

If you get a B in ancient Greek history or astronomy, what does that mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s arbitrary. It’s an indicator telling the university that you are ready to move on to the next class in whatever course sequence you’re in. It tells the university whether or not you need to be put on probation or kicked out to make room for other students. That’s it.

For many students, especially undergraduates, grades are a validation. Students crave them because it’s like a pat on the back for doing good work. Students often want validation from their teachers because that seems to be the only way to know if they are doing well or not.

However, this creates a problem. Instead of trying to master the knowledge of the course, students master how to please their teacher. This issue is troublesome because college is one of the few times in a student’s life where he or she can openly challenge something.

College is one of the few safe spaces for students to explore ideas and concepts they might be uncomfortable with. Mastering how to please a teacher - in other words, your audience - is a good skill, and it will probably serve students well outside of college. However, that skill can’t be the only thing they learn in school, and that’s far from the point of a college education.

As a teacher, I’ve always had difficulty assigning grades in my courses. Not because I can’t or don’t know how to, but because grading, as it’s currently understood, is something I don’t believe in.

It’s a flawed system that teaches students to only do the minimum to get a certain grade. It doesn’t encourage sustained inquiry or passion, and it sets up students to be in two groups: A-grade students and everyone else.

Despite my issues with the current grading system in higher education, I still have to assign grades. My role as a teacher in my current university environment dictates it. So, reluctantly, I assign grades every semester to students. Some students complain and fight about their grades and some do not.

Honestly, I’m more concerned about the students who don’t fight their grades because it’s reminiscent of the passivity universities seem to create in students. Many students just seem to accept their grades without comment or criticism. Either they know that’s the grade they deserve, or they just don’t care as long as they pass the class.

I think in most cases, students fall into the latter category. This isn’t to say instructors graded the work incorrectly, whatever that means. It’s likely that the grade assigned comes from the totaled points the student received for the course.

But what many instructors want is for their students to make an argument for a higher grade, even if it’s an unsuccessful argument. When students make an argument to their teachers for a higher grade, it at least shows that the students are engaged.

Students and teachers should be more concerned with learning than grade assigning. At the graduate levels, this is generally more the case; however, it’s still not so at the undergraduate level.

If students focused on learning and exploring their courses rather than what grade they’re trying to get, then perhaps classes would be more engaging and fun. Most teachers do not like grading. It’s a drag. They’d rather be teaching and helping students critique, question and succeed. That’s what teaching is about.

For students, grades are the currency of the University. Good grades let you take classes you really want to take, and bad grades let you take classes you’re not interested in or repeat classes you don’t care about.

Moreover, the University needs grades and grade point averages because it lets others know how good their students are, which factors into many things like funding and rankings. Yet, students and teachers hold the power of grades because grades only mean something if the culture where the grade was created says it means something. That’s a powerful place for students and teachers to be.

The truth is that once you leave the University, five years from now, no one will care that you got a B in your ancient Greek history course. No one.

What ultimately matters is that you graduated with a degree, and for most people, that’s enough. They don’t care about your B grade, and students shouldn’t care about their B grade either.

As a teacher, I want to know if students were challenged and learned something. Not if they didn’t get enough points to get an A.

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