Thursday, April 12, 2007

What if Everyone Got an A?

A friend of mine tells a story about someone who had been teaching at a Major Ivy and was, shall we say, permanently released from his responsibilities. As most of the people who teach at Major Ivies are eventually. Said faculty member packed up and left town, booking passage on the QEII as a farewell gift to himself. It was discovered some days later that Professor X had failed to turn in grades for the class. A wire was sent to the ocean liner in mid-Atlantic that graduation was imminent and grades imperative. (Theatrical pause.) A wire returned to Major Ivy: "Had such a lovely time at Ivy U. Give everyone an A."

This is a good story for many occasions, but an even better story when the grading season is upon us. Since mid-February, I have not had a desk without a pile of student work on it at: my hope is to clear one set of papers before the next arrives and makes the situation hopeless. Now I have five senior honors theses sitting on my desk, having just cleared a set of seminar papers; a set of papers from my lecture class is, as we say, incoming. And soon the academic blogosphere will begin to ring with grading woes, as all of us grind our way toward the finish, paper by paper.

Everyone hates grading, and we hate it for different reasons. There's the "I am putting more effort into marking this paper than the student put into writing it" reason. There's the routine quality of it -- one paper after another that is more or less the same, because the class is responding to an assignment *you* gave, Meat Head. There's the overidentification with students who haven't done well, and feeling terrible about giving a poor grade. There's the worry that if you do give a poor grade, the student will be in your office trying to negotiate a higher one. There's the nagging feeling in the background that if you don't like grading them, and they don't like writing them, why are we doing this at all?

Oh yeah, because everyone has to get a grade. But what if everyone got an A?

Or rather, what if we taught pass-fail? (Note: I have begun a long-term experiment of teaching all my lecture courses with a pass-fail option. I'll let you know what it looks like, but so far, I would say the results are promising.)

Or what if we gave three grades, 1, 2, and 3? And stopped fooling around with all the fine points that cause students to wonder what the actual difference between a B- critical essay and a B critical essay is?

And I guess my real question here is, I wonder why we who are college professors are so invested in a grading system that doesn't benefit us; that stresses our students out; that none of us really agree on (my A is different from Professor B's A, which is different from Professor C's A); in which you can't give lower than a B without the student dropping the course; and that causes students to compete for the grade rather than enjoy the work they are doing?

Part of why I started thinking in this way is that I just read a set of papers I really enjoyed, and for which the grades were quite high. And it reminded me of the Hobson's choice that the grading system often gives us, one that has resulted in the current incoherent discussion at many selective colleges and universities about whether grade inflation is a problem or not, and for whom. At the level of the individual professor, grading is always a lose-lose situation in the context of grade inflation debates, resulting in mental agony over papers and exams that might include:

Scenario 1: Everyone in the class is getting such great grades, my colleagues will think I am not being tough enough. And yet, it is possible that they are getting great grades because I am teaching well and they are learning well. So why shouldn't everyone get an A? Because everyone will think I am not tough enough. Ok, got to find some reason to lower some grades.....

Scenario 2: I've only given one A and I am halfway through the papers -- oh G-d, maybe I'm really not teaching well. There's something wrong with me! So instead of facing it that for some reason I am not succeeding in getting through to them, I will represent myself publicly as a person with "high standards," and give as many bad grades as I think I can get away with.

Now you might notice that in both these scenarios, the professor's public image is central to the grading dilemma, not the student's learning experience. A close second are the gatekeeping functions of college -- who goes on to Phi Beta Kappa, who gets the prizes, who goes to the best law schools, grad programs, blah, blah. And this, of course, is exactly what makes students nuts and corrupts their learning experience: that it is not their work, but the grades we give them on their work, that determines their future.

Then of course, we grump that our students are grade-grubbing when they don't get the grades they want.

So here's my proposal: let's get rid of grades. Plenty of schools do perfectly well without them; at least one major at my university has never given grades, and their students seem very smart and hard-working to me. What if, every time you assigned a paper, instead of grading it and writing graffiti all over it, you read it and the student came in and talked to you about it for ten minutes? This would also cut way back on plagiarism, because a student can't discuss a paper s/he didn't write. And then maybe it would be possible to appreciate students for who they are and what they bring to the table, and then maybe they would use the time they spend stressing and worrying to read and write about what interests them instead of what they think *might* interest us.

And then they would be happier, and we would be happier, and we would spend our days talking about books and ideas and not grades, grades, grades.


Footnote: I am leaving the comments on, but any comments about Lacrosse, Duke University, Michael Nifong, the Heroic Three, and "the 88" will be deleted by the management, and we will also delete anything that we think is in bad taste, including all racial and ethnic slurs. The pro-lacrosse faction had many comments on the last two posts to express themselves, and I am leaving them up as a gesture toward freedom of speech, but we do not agree with you, we are not concerned that you do not agree with us, and we are no longer, and never were, interested in lacrosse players at Tenured Radical.


Phul Devi said...

I would wholeheartedly endorse the proposal to abolish grades, particularly at a place like Wesleyan (where I myself was an undergraduate in the early 80s.) But that only works at a certain type of institution. At the university where I currently teach history, classes of between 80 and 200 students are the norm. A 10-minute consultation with each student, about every major assignment, would be lethal. (On the other hand, in my view the entire pedagogical system of vast lectures is inherently flawed anyway, but that's a separate issue.)

Thanks for raising this question, which I think is central to the way we ought to be thinking about fostering intellectual community in our classrooms, versus acquiescing to the consumerist model of higher education.

ks said...

Well done! What an important issue to raise at this point in the semester, with finals in the near offing. I often worry that my high grades might reduce rather than increase the way my academic peers (who are tt-while I am still merely an adjunct) will regard my skills as a teacher. It's so nice to hear that full profs can put a positive spin on what others might deem grade inflation. I like to think the generally high marks in my classes (along with high attendance and excellent participation) reflect students' sincere interest in the course material, not my wishy-washiness. That is, ultimately, what the best profs strive for, isn't it (or should, anyway)?

cantdance said...

The conversation idea is a great one. Do you ever encourage students to do that on graded papers? There'd probably be some takers. Don't do away with the "graffiti" either, I always liked having a written record of my progress. Which, as squadratomagico points out, makes the whole thing pretty demanding. Do professors need sleep too?

Michael Gustafson said...

I would say that there is some responsibility to communicate how well a particular student is doing with respect to understanding and applying the material. That does not mean that "grades," per se, are required, but some mechanism for providing feedback (of course, I'm a controls engineer, so feedback is everything).

The other question to consider with a binary scheme of up/down is whether there is some responsibility to those who get the students next to pass on our assessment of their performance in and understanding of our materials. Again, not sure if grades as exist now are the best way, but something. After all, we require our admissions office to scour all kinds of metrics to produce for us a first year class of folks who have been so measured - what would happen in high schools took the same approach, and how different is the high school educational experience from the undergraduate one (and again that from the graduate experience)?

Sisyphus said...

I recognize all of those grading experience and the scenarios! Yes, yes. And while I do think current system of grades and grade-grubbing is incredibly flawed, I still think they're necessary at my school, a public U full of people who are more interested in their jobs, parties, and just getting passed on through to get a degree than developing their intellects or learning new things.

Grades are so important at these places, as sticks to get the students just to show up and do some of the reading --- the carrot of how interesting the topic is on its own merits isn't effective here, which is one way that I think elite private schools are different.

Thing is, I'd much rather talk about this stuff because it's so interesting and I like it, rather than beat people with sticks.

So would grades have to be revamped in different ways for differing schools/student populations?

Horace said...

I will say, as someone who has in the past advocated a pass/fail option (particularly for composition courses) that the carrot/stick function of grades can be a useful (if not ideal) pedagogical tactic at institutions whose students are not enculturated to value academic work the way that I'm guessing many Zenith students are.

I am a hard grader, and I think if many of my colleagues knew how hard I grade, they'd perhaps try to mentor me out of such a tactic.

But routinely, students say, on evals, on RMP, to my face, that they know that I'm not just being an ass, that they appreciate that they can't get away with b.s., and that they feel like they're "getting their money's worth," which is important at this land grant institution in a very poor state.

When I was at a top-50 urban institution named after Flavia's boyfriend, sure, I'd go for pass-fail. There, students were not only motivated to achieve for the sake of achievement, many of them had the luxurious means to do so without one or two other jobs.

And sometimes, the threat of a poor grade is the only incentive one can offer when two absolutely necessary jobs offer their own threats.

I don't like this scenario, but sometimes, I feel like I'm fighting my students to keep them learning, and if giving a D or an F on work that is unsatisfactory is the only way to make students pay attention to what they're working so hard to attend anyway, well, I'll stick to that tactic.

That said, grading saps my will to live. every paper takes 45 minutes, and I firmly believe that writing less than a half page single spaced comment is not enough for me to get the point across, so I do despise the task.

LumpenProf said...

Abolish all grades! They are a pedagogical abomination (not to mention a personal nightmare for me this weekend)!

Lesboprof said...

I hate the grade inflation diatribe and think we should no longer indulge in discussions about it. Hopefully, we have moved beyond the "if you surprise me, you get an A" school of thought that used to reign amongst professors. If I establish criteria, and students meet the expectations outlined in the criteria, they get an A. Case closed.

As for abolishing grades, I see the arguments for and against it. There is something nice, as a student, in having a measure for yourself. While comments and discussions are useful, the actual grade (and a grading criteria) helps students really understand where they stand in terms of their accomplishment. That said, grades become something vastly different in our economy, and grade-grubbing is a result of this.

Anonymous said...

What would be your final grade for someone whose four (equally valued) assignments were rated as "B," "B," "F," and "F."

Anonymous said...

As a Wesleyan student of the social sciences, I can attest to the sheer pressure placed on the student whose only form of assessment has for most of this college experience has been paper-writing. And I think after writing quite possibly over 70 papers so far in my college career (literally, averaging 3 a credit, 24 credits so far), I've lost all pleasure in writing them.

I don't understand why professors continue to rely on them when all I ever hear is how much they hate grading them. Every professor knows by now that even if you assign a brilliantly creative essay topic, the student is going to agonize over it.

Papers are not the labor of love they're idealized to be and everyone on the god damned planet realizes this.

I'm convinced there are ways to assess a student that don't rely so heavily on papers in the social sciences.

Bardiac said...

I'm totally in sympathy with the desire to drop grades, though the practicality of it seems impossible, especially in schools where we teach larger rather than smaller numbers of students.

But I'm also disappointed to see comments from people (faculty?) talking about how superior students at elite private schools are compared to students at public schools. I'm unconvinced that all elite school students are there just for the education and focused totally on learning. Seriously, do you think Bush was that sort of student at Yale?

moria said...

In the meantime, a suggestion: a great (tenured, full) prof of mine refused to grade our papers, even though our final grades for her "gateway" class determined our eligibility to become majors in her department. Of course, she had to assign a course grade at the end of the semester, but not assigning paper grades allowed us (well, me) to keep our (my) eyes on the ball with neither despair nor laurel-resting entering into the equation. The system also acknowledged openly that grades are (gasp) subjective and sometimes even arbitrary. My GPA at the time was abysmal, and the uncertainty completely freaked me at first, but it worked out brilliantly. After that experience, I asked all my professors not to tell me my paper grades. Worked wonders. Something to try?

Anonymous said...

i can only imagine what would be like if you had 10 minute sales pitches, errr. discussions with students

Anonymous said...

i went to a high-school where you received both grades and written evaluations at the end of each semester. i then went to a college which gave no grades, but instead evaluations, and currently in a program that's pass or fail.

the latter two approaches i would say allow many students to slip through the crack and also change the nature of courses for other students who maybe are more involved.

i'm not sure what the best solution would be. i think there definitely needs to be a reform in academia not just grade-wise but just overall both the students' and professors' attitude towards education.

(as a personal footnote, i would say receiving evaluations motivated me just as much if not more than grades, however i think to get proper feedback from a professor at least 30 minutes are necessary)

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the "no grades will free us all" plan. There are two issues here that I see:

1. At the institution where I teach, if grades were done away with there would be a less than 10% attendance rate across the board. 5-10% of people would do the reading. And papers would roll in later and later.

On a Pass/Fail model, everyone here would assume that showing up once would get them a P. Trust me, I just got done having a paper meeting with an irate student who demanded to know why she got a Zero on one assignment and a 1/2 on another. When I said, "You got a Zero on this assignment b/c as I wrote on the bottom of the page the assignment was to write a review of a short article of your choosing from the book. You wrote an essay about your relationship to the subject, you didn't even mention an article. You got a 1/2 on the next assignment because as you can see in your own handwriting, there were two questions, you only answered one." Her answer: But I wrote something! I deserve something! And she is one of my smart students! Another example, lest you think she is alone, a student enrolled in my class and missed the first day. The second session she came and picked up a syllabus and then told me she was not feeling well and had to leave. A month later she demanded to be given an excused absence for the entire month b/c I had moved the class and she could not find us - it was posted on our class site, available at the main office, and on my office door. When I didn't respond, she stuffed a series of poorly written, off-topic, musings in my box with a note "This is my homework. If it is not done correctly, it is because I can't find the classroom." She finally came to class, three weeks before it was over. She came once, failed the exam, and did not return. Three weeks after the end of the term, I found her final shoved under my office door with another note "I know this is late, how many points will I lose?" When I gave her a WF in the class, she challenged the grade claiming: I came to class, I did assignments even though I couldn't find the class, and I turned in my final. I deserve a passing grade!

On the feedback model, I would have to deal with angry and resentful students all semester long (well at least from the ones who showed up). I write feedback now. The basic model I use is to put the grade in the corner, write at least one positive comment and then give "help for hints for improvement." My colleagues and the current Director have all told me the best way to avoid the series of complaints that roll in whenever they get their papers back is to stop putting comments on their papers. I've been instructed to "just give them a grade" b/c the ones who don't like the grade will come ask why and everyone else will simply suck it up, but when I write comments I am basically inviting them to critique my pedagogy, get angry about being told they need to improve on things they think others (non-comment writing profs) have thought was just fine, etc. A veteran professor once told me: You cannot expect these kids to care what you think about their writing or their participation. They don't come here for that. They come here to make friends, get a piece of paper, and get mid-management jobs in the only well paying industry in this town.

On the other side, I can just see how petty professors would use the comment system to belittle their otherwise intelligent students and praise their favorite students. Yes, I know, these types of profs do the same thing with grades, however, they have to prove the grade if questioned. How do you prove a student "seemed distracted and sullen regularly and this impacted their ability to participate in discussion" true or not? Add to that issues of racism, sexism, homphobia, etc. I've heard my colleagues described as "angry" and "hotheaded" without merit regularly enough to imagine horror stories from students on the margins about what has become part of their permanent record.

The problem is not grades. The problem is the ever decreasing interest and social (not economic) import of an education. All though those who work at institutions where the vast majority are there to learn might be able to be as lax as you in their interpretation of students performance sans grades, those of us in the underfunded, rural and poor achiever serving, warehouse universities know that education as the pursuit of knowledge and the life of the mind is a vastly shrinking commodity amongst the majority of students.

These problems are exacerbated by the ways in which grades have become emblematic of EVIL. A friend of mine often talks about the shift at Columbia Teacher's College where suddenly they stopped training teachers to set a series of expected outcomes for their classes and then provide the skill set necessary to meet those outcomes and instead to embrace whatever work their students turned in. Those who could not spell were not to be seen as people who should be directed to a dictionary and various spelling exercises but instead to be seen as "writers in the vernacular." Those who could not read . . . "learners from an oral tradition." etc. Though those days are gone, I hope, their legacy remains. Grades are no longer seen as measures of your success and signals to gaps in one's learning but instead are measures of ones social standing, ability to produce rigorous classroom, etc. When I give a B or lower at my University, my students enevitably respond with "I am not a bad person!" B does not stand for the first letter in the word bad. Whoever taught them this makes it impossible for me to use the B for what it is, a sign that they have some truly good ideas and some that need work, an encouragement to clean up the minor gaps and move forward, etc. It prevents me from giving a C without the agony of knowing I will have to deal with a disruptive bitter student for the whole rest of the term. That same C, in this context, prevents the student from seeing what I am really saying which is that they have done the bare minimum required and they should want more out of their education and themselves, that maybe that have gaps in their knowledge that are bordering on the serious and they need to fix them for the future, or maybe their disinterest in the subject matter is showing and they may want to consider an alternative class. I find it funny, and telling, that when you give a C it means they will drop the class. Again, this highlights the difference in the students you teach and the position you hold with them. When I give a C, they get belligerent and spend an entire semester turning in ever decreasingly intelligent work while declaring what "good people" they are and then at the end of the term they march into the main office and demand to know my credentials and to be given a different grade.

I went to schools with grades and I was not traumatized. I did not harass or ignore my professors. I took grades for what they were, an overall indicator of what I did and did not know. I worked toward learning not toward the grade.

I also went to a school with evaluations and took courses pass/fail. I have experienced all of these systems and in my estimation it still all boils down to how you approach the subject matter, the classroom environment, and the reason you are enrolled. My expectations, assumptions, and sense of benefit or loss from lectures and discussion trumped grading (regardless of which type was used) every time and I suspect the same can be said for most students.

Michael said...

In science and engineering, it's easier to be objective about testing and grading so I'd leave grading in those disciplines. It's really needed to provide feedback to the students and to the professor early on so that kids don't get behind. In many science and engineering courses, getting behind early in the class can be fatal.

In the 1980s or 1990s, I read about a writing toolkit from AT&T that evaluated writing samples. How about something more modern to reduce the amount of work in grading papers using mechanization?