Grades are a bad system. Before I began teaching, and even for a while after, I considered being against grades to be the philosophical realm of kumbaya-singing hippies (by the way, why is that song such a strong cliché associated with a particular mindset?). Something like “why can’t we all get along” and “minds are like parachutes”. But I’ve only taught for a couple of years, and now I’m somewhat against grades as well. The problem isn’t that evaluation of students is a bad idea. Evaluation of students is a great idea. It’s that the current system of grades is not a very good way of doing it.

The goal of a grade system as I see it from the student’s perspective is to allow the student to signal their ability to others. And that’s fine if someone gets a really high grade, like 100%. We have a good idea of what 100% means. I find that basically everyone who gets 100% in my classes is hard working, has a good grasp of the material, and is engaged.

But say someone gets 83% in my class. That’s a pretty good grade. But it actually doesn’t let the student signal usefully. Here is a profile of several students who got 83% in my classes.

Student A was very bright and engaged, but decided to skip one of the exams. She didn’t have any excuse for this, and also didn’t come and retake the exam even though I offered her this possibility.

Student B was really excited about the subject and worked hard but didn’t come into the class prepared, and so had a lot of trouble understanding the material, especially at first

Student C basically understood the material and did well on exams, but was so sloppy with homework that even when he did it, he got most things wrong

Student D was very hard working and able to remember a lot of information, but had trouble with  some very basic concepts.

What do I do with this if I’m someone the student wants to signal to? If I’m an employer? There may be situations where I would, say, strongly prefer to hire student A over student D. Or, there may be situations where I would instead strongly prefer student D. But the point is, they are very different students, and would make very different employees. What information is that 83% giving? My contention is that it gives nothing at all beyond “it’s a pass, and it’s not 100%”

So from the point of view of a student or an employer, these grades are close to useless.

And yet the difference between, say, 83% and 85% drives students to immense amounts of stress and unfortunate behaviour. This week in class, for example, a student gave an angry tirade during class time in which he said that “people’s lives hang in the balance” because he got an 18/20 instead of 20/20 on an evaluation. I’m pretty sure people’s lives don’t actually hang in the balance over two points, and if they did, that would be terrible. But even the fact that students can convince themselves that they do shows how out of whack and stressful the whole arrangement is.

Are grades at least good for me, the instructor?

From my point of view, grades are supposed to be like karma: a system that motivates the students to learn despite themselves. It’s true that the primary motivation for most students in most courses is getting a good grade, so it’s somewhat useful. However, I think the current grading system manages the allocation of that motivation poorly, in that it diverts all motivation into doing make-work projects. Students always want to do things for extra credit rather than do the assigned work. The problem with extra credit is that while it is easy to demonstrate conscientiousness by doing a bunch of extra work, it’s much harder to demonstrate understanding. As a result, students are basically not necessarily motivated to take the time to understand things. Whereas the stress they experience is pretty real

The current grades system also leads to problems like grade inflation and using student grades as teacher evaluation as I’ve talked about recently. Not to mention how frustrating grading itself can be. So it would be ideal if there was some alternative.

I think in a small class setting like I have, written evaluations can make sense. But even something like a three-axis system where I could write “extraordinary / much better than typical student in class / better than typical student in class / typical / worse than typical / much worse than typical / unclear” for conscientiousness, understanding and engagement. Like yeah, I see the problem with this system. It might end up being extremely biased against minorities. So maybe this is also a bad system. But that doesn’t mean the current grading system is a good one.

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