Archive for July, 2013

Grading and Its Discontents-Via Negativa

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

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.  The first suggestion was posted in May, 2013.  The second was posted in June, 2013.  Below is the third of those suggestions.

Via negativa. I want students to understand that there are certain functions that grading is not designed to perform. For instance, grading cannot measure a student’s effort.

Sometimes a student complains: “I worked so hard in this course and spent so much time studying but I only received a. … ” That student is probably assuming that grading is intended to gauge the time and effort that students invest in their studies—an assumption that clearly isn’t true.

Professors rarely observe their students outside of the classroom or lab, which is why we are in no position to judge how hard or long someone has studied. We can only assess their actual performance. A student using ineffective methods of study would have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than a student who is using effective methods. Similarly, a student who is trying to do multiple things simultaneously, or is being constantly distracted by technology, is likely to accomplish much less in the same amount of time than a student who is giving full attention to the task at hand.

Grading cannot measure a student’s progress either. On the first day of classes in any given course, some students are already ahead of others because they have a special aptitude for, or a particular interest in, the subject matter. And some students are already at a disadvantage: Perhaps they grew up in an intellectually impoverished environment, or their personal inclinations don’t match the subject matter of the course, or they bring to the class deeply ingrained misconceptions that will inhibit them from fully engaging with the material.

Typically, professors do not take such an initial advantage or disadvantage into account when evaluating students’ performance, mainly because such factors cannot be realistically quantified. Some students must invest more time and effort than other students in order to receive the same grade. That may seem unjust, I tell students, but it simply mimics the way “real life” functions.

Even academic performance in the form of exams, presentations, and essays provides the professor with no more than a cross-section of all that a student learns during a semester.

Consider this common student complaint: “I learned so much in this course but I only received a. … ” It is true that the quantity of what a student learns is one of the main factors that determine his or her academic performance and grade, but it is also true that not everything a student learns in a course can actually be tested, measured, and graded in a reliable fashion. Indeed, the most important skills that any student can acquire—abstract thinking, self-awareness, empathy, perspective, personal maturity, respect, love of learning, curiosity, and responsibility—are all unquantifiable.

I try to help my students realize that learning is its own reward. No amount of accolades, trophies, diplomas, and money can equal the worth of one’s actual learning. It is impossible to reduce the full richness or value of a genuine learning experience to something as bland as a letter grade.