Grading Grades: Our Grades are Failing

As of late, I’ve been fascinated by assessment and evaluation, especially in mathematics. I’ve been condemning the time-testing (and currently failing) arbitrary grading system, yet I found myself sitting on pins and needles waiting for my grades to come back from my final semester of my undergrad. I guess it’s out of habit that I waiting anxiously to see if my grades were going to go up. Everyone dreams of boosting his/her average, which I managed to do, but why did I care about my average so much? I was so proud of all the learning I was able to accomplish during the last four months. What does it matter that I arbitrarily received an 86 for it? I’m not sure, but it does matter somehow.

I can honestly say that the courses that I’ve received seventies in, with a few exceptions, have forced me to work way harder and learn more than any class I received a ninety in. Doesn’t that seem just a tad backward? I’m all for assessing learning based on a standard that must be met (rather than assessing perceived effort), but let’s not kid ourselves. Why is my extra effort and greater volume of learning worth less than something I already find pretty easy? I will say that this semester, this isn’t the case, but that’s because I stopped working for marks and started learning.

So I guess where I stand right now is that students need to understand that there is a big difference between working for marks and working for learning. In theory, learning leads to good grades, since grades were designed numerically represent the degree of learning based on a common standard. The converse, however, is not true. Working for grades doesn’t necessarily mean learning. I  can attest to that. I can’t tell you how many times a friend has asked me a question about a course they are currently taking that I took a semester to two ago and I can’t remember a thing about it. Why? Because working for grades is easy. By nature, we all want to find the easiest route possible. Often times, we can power through an essay in a couple of days (or a couple of hours), cram for a big exam the day before, or get “help” from a friend on that math assignment that we didn’t quite finish, but how much of it really sticks?

The biggest gut-wrencher this year happened while I was eagerly waiting for some feedback on my final presentation from my math history course. I emailed my professor to see if he could send me his feedback, since he gave lots of good feedback (and grades) for our other presentations throughout the semester. He responded promptly that I received “17.5 out of 20.  Which was good.  The report grades ranged from 13 to 19.5. ” That was the end of that. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, and been rather happy with that. But as I read the email, somewhere between “ranged” and “to” I realized that I was happy about a mark, a mark compared to my classmates at that. Ooops. I knew less about how my presentation went and more about how many classmates I “beat.” Ugh.

To make sense of this: my new mission is to get students to realize that grades don’t equal learning. Grades are just numbers. Learning is what is important. It will be a very long process, since I am still stuck in the grades-hungry mode. It will take a long time to undo this thinking, but boy, oh boy, it will be worth it.

One thought on “Grading Grades: Our Grades are Failing

  1. This is the paradigm we are all mostly in… Very hard to transcend it. I think learning and working in a school where digital portfolios are the focus rather than a grade card would be a big step forward, IF the contents of each portfolio could still allow for a great del of autonomy and freedom.

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