Here’s an interesting (to me) reflective piece by author Dan Houck about grading, from Inside Higher Education. I think the writer has expressed the misgivings many educators feel about distilling the complex phenomenon of student learning down to a single letter or number.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with Peter Ewell, when I was working at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest and he was helping us think about related issues. We got onto the subject of indicators, of which grading is a good example–measures that stand in for more complex phenomena which are not easily measured. Dr. Ewell pointed out that indicators are reasonably useful until consequences are attached to them. When that happens, powerful motivations arise to distort the inputs to the measures, or to the measures themselves. We start to pay more attention to the indicator than to the underlying phenomenon it is meant to illuminate.
In the case of grading, we start to pay attention to the letter or number, rather than to the learning or performance it is supposed to indicate, with all kinds of unintended consequences. As an example, there have been numerous stories in the media about the Hope Scholarship’s requirement that students maintain a “B” average, and scholarship students’ choice of less challenging coursework to ensure that they maintain their eligibility. At least in some cases, rather than taking the hard, but possibly more rewarding, courses, paying attention to the indicator has the effect of increasing risk-aversion among some students.
In a way, though, the question of how–or whether–to grade students, should be accompanied by the more central question of how to engage students in meaningful and valuable learning, as I think Mr. Houck articulates in his reflections. What will help the students find their own reasons to want to squeeze every drop of value out of their school experiences? How best can their teachers help them do that? How can professors, schools and colleges design learning environments where that is at the top of the agenda?