Grading and Its Discontents

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  Below is the first of those suggestions.  More will follow in subsequent postings.

“The nature of grading.

Grading is a tool, I tell my students. And like any other tool, it is meant to perform certain specific functions. To explain those functions, I like to use a simple analogy.

Consider a car’s speedometer. It is a tool that performs two interrelated functions: (1) It measures speed, and (2) it communicates that information to the driver. In a somewhat similar way, grading is a tool that also performs two interrelated functions: (1) It assesses academic performance, and (2) it communicates that information to the student. When driving, you glance at the speedometer to determine the speed of the vehicle—if it is what you want, you try to maintain it; if not, you make appropriate adjustments. That is analogous to how students are supposed to use, and benefit from, whatever it is that their grades are telling them.

It’s perfectly normal to desire good grades since they serve as evidence that a student has demonstrated competence in a particular area. But problems arise when students assume that their primary goal in college is to earn good grades so they can achieve or maintain a certain GPA. That is like believing that the primary goal of driving a car is not to reach a particular destination but to achieve or maintain a certain speed.

Since grades have only instrumental value—rather than any intrinsic value—they must be treated as only means to some end, and never as ends in themselves. I tell my students: If your primary goal in college is to receive good grades, you will probably view the required work as an onerous obstacle and you’re not likely to feel very motivated to do the work. But you are most likely to receive good grades when you are so focused on learning that grades have ceased to matter.”

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