WIDLM: Grades

I don’t like grades. I haven’t liked them for a while, and not for the usual kid reasons of having bad ones. I’ve had a lot of grades in my life, more than most, and a lot of A’s too. More than most. And I still don’t like grades. I will ramble about why… now.

By grades I mean the big A or C or whatever you get at the end of class that sums up the whole year or semester. I am not against the concept of assessing ones learning, like, on a paper or test, but the report card grades put an unnecessary barrier between education and the goal of education, which is learning things. Since people only look at the grades, it becomes more important to get good grades than to actually know anything. I guess the purpose of grades must be as a way to communicate to the world how well you learned a subject, so let me go over all the ways grades are really bad at this. I’m sure you know them, but still.

As an indicator of whether someone knows anything the grade is only as good as the tests it is built on, and those mostly suck. Grades are temporally locked, so I can get an A one day, and forget it the next, but the A will never be changed. Grades are limited in scope. There’s no way to distinguish between the prodigy A and the just scraping by with cheating A, and there’s no way to distinguish between the got a C despite raising two kids C and the got a C because I was drunk during the final C. This limitation pigeon holes people, causing a self fulfilling prophecy. People are not motivated to do more than is necessary to get an A, so most don’t, and a similar situation exists for people on the cusp of the other letters. Teachers have complete control over grades and are pressured to have high scoring students, so that further skews grading, reducing its value. Grades are often given for group activities, but are only ever viewed on an individual basis, causing an unaccounted for delusion of credit. There are no universal standards between schools, disciplines, or teachers, so an A from one place is not the same as an A from somewhere else. I’m sure there are other’s but I grow bored with this.

Grades are bad at what they’re designed for, but they’re bad for a bunch of other reasons as well. Grading on a curve encourages competition instead of collaboration. They encourage teaching to, and learning to, the test. They stifle the great, since there’s nothing better than an A, and they discourage the struggling, since they get labeled permanently. They’re forced onto fields that they really don’t make sense for, any course where objective measures are not possible or desired. Grades are also stifling teaching creativity, since if they can’t grade it then they aren’t allowed to teach it.

Grades are not serving their intended purpose, or any other I can think of, and they’re making life a lot harder for pretty much everyone involved. I’m not sure I really have a solution to this problem, though. If I was asked to come up with something to try I’d say that we start with a system somewhat similar to what we have now. Several small tasks during a course, punctuated by a few bigger ones, each with grading similar to what is used now, although it could be tweaked to the teachers preference since it will no longer need to add up to a big letter at the end. Each course will end with a final project, and possibly a presentation of some sort. This final project must demonstrate the students understanding of all of the core principles of the course, the learning objectives. That project itself will be the grade. So, when you apply to college or whatever they can ask you for your Calculus project and your Junior and Senior English projects, or whatever they want. Physical projects will be a bit of a challenge, but photographs/videos should serve for most purposes. Some projects will likely require the presentation be included as well, as the students explanation of the project will be as important as the project itself.

In thinking about this project idea a little more, I come to like it better in that it’s not temporally locked. There’s nothing to say you couldn’t improve on your project. In fact, it seems it would be quite common in some fields to use a previous project as a starting point for your new project. After the course is over one could continue to work on the project and/or presentation to better reflect one’s current understanding. If a college or interviewer wanted a current snapshot of your abilities they’d simply demand a live presentation on the subject of whatever project they were most interested in.

The projects would be open ended, so they would be more interesting to the students and more informative to an interviewer. They’d function somewhat like a portfolio, but of your entire life. The artists have always had less use for grades, it makes sense that they would have figured out a good alternative.

Plus, added bonus, some of these projects would probably actually be useful. Like… leading to inventions and new companies. Unlike our current system which has us cranking out 1 million nearly identical papers on Romeo and Juliet every year.

As for cheating, I think it could be easily rooted out by just having a question and answer section in the presentations. Any student who had their project done by someone else would have to be intimately familiar with it anyway to answer any potential question, so the effect would be nearly identical, regardless. In fact, it would be nice if there would be some way to encourage mixing of projects when appropriate. For example, in computer programming classes, each student could code pieces of one greater program. Or students could work together to design and conduct a more complicated or extensive experiment than they could do alone, but would each still have to be responsible for a presentation and a QA session.

*shrug* seems pretty good to me.