• Edwin Lin

Learning vs. Grading

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Musings on teaching pedagogy from my first time as a graduate student instructor.

As a first-time graduate student instructor (GSI), I have to take a seminar course on teaching pedagogy. Today's topic of discussion was grading.

I had some serious thoughts about the stuff brought up in class...

  1. Asset vs. Holistic Approach to Grades

  2. Grade Fixation

  3. Idealism vs. Pragmatism

Asset vs. Holistic

This refers to how people conceptualize their grades in their minds. An asset based view is one that believes you earn your grades; in other words, the grade you "get" is earned through the quality of work that you put forth. The holistic view, however, takes the approach that you start off at 100% and work your way down from there. If I haven't revealed it already, I believe in the former and am pretty opposed to the latter.

There's a great article in the NY Times about how today's students are expecting that as long as they do the work, they should get an A, instead of the grade evaluating the actual quality of their work. This is totally ridiculous. I can honestly say that I have never complained about a grade or asked a professor/teacher to move up my grade because I thought I worked hard and deserved it. Now this is of course different from asking why I received a particular grade and understanding how I can improve.

Grade Fixation

This somewhat leads into another discussion about grade fixation. The majority of the students today (me included) are completely fixated on the grades that they receive in class. This has lots to do with the system of education and academia we live in. An A means you can get into a top 20 school, a B means top 100, and a C means local colleges and things not on any list (besides maybe a list of the top party schools in America). It's sad that the education system (as with most things in the human world) is based completely on hierarchy. Students are under so much pressure from parents, worldly fears, and social norms that the grade means everything and education (read: learning) means nothing.

I would have never categorized myself as one who is grade fixated. After all, I never asked to bump up any of my grades, and even committed myself to not doing so when I was dissatisfied with the grade, believing that the class was about more than that. But it was not until I entered a phd program that I realized how subtly grade fixation can creep in. In my sociology phd program, grades mean nothing. One of my professors went so far as to say that in the decades of his academic career, he literally had to show his phd program gpa once. Furthermore, my dean of graduate studies states openly that grading is a formality, and you're essentially assured some kind of A unless you really just don't try at all.

With the pressures of grades completely alleviated in my current situation, I suddenly become far more aware of how everyone (absolutely everyone) is somewhat/somehow grade fixated. We simply can't help it. Just by the very existence of an evaluation (especially in the form of a hierarchical, standardized, and comparison-based system), we are distracted and concerned about it. Learning may not take a fully backseat role to the grade, but certainly we can't ignore the elephant in the room.

And studying with an elephant in the room, is probably not the best learning environment.

Idealism vs. Pragmatism

So if the system is such that grade fixation is rather inevitable (and as much as I hate that word, see Dublin in '92, I would certainly describe the current state of the educational system as deterministically fostering grade fixation), what do we do?

In my pedagogy seminar, the professor discussed how grading everything can often encourage and increase grade fixation and although we should keep a record of the things that will eventually receive a grade (e.g. how often someone participates for a discussion section grade), we should not necessarily divulge this information to the students.

The problem is, this view point goes against what I have so far been doing in my discussion classes. I have pretty much graded everything in the class and have revealed the grades to my students. I have even give out participation grades (with numbers out of 10) to let my students know how they are doing so far. I think my line of logic was that when I was a student, I loved having a clear picture of what grade to expect in my classes and hated getting the "surprise" grade where at the end of the semester, I could get anywhere between a C and an A+! In other words, I liked knowing where I stood.

And herein lies the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. I can empathize with the students. I completely understand their grade fixation. But now, looking back, I can see how grades don't at all (despite popular belief) encourage actual learning. Case in point: my learning habits in graduate school really aren't any different/worse despite not having any grades to worry about.

So the idealistic side of me says that I can attempt to shoo the elephant out of the room by posting grades less and at least try to keep my students focused on learning as opposed to grading. But my pragmatic side says 1) my students are going to be grade fixated regardless, 2) being transparent about their grades enables (some of) them to concentrate more on the material, and 3) I empathize with my students and hate those classes where the grade is always a mystery.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that reason 1 doesn't justify encouraging grade fixation. It does, however, mean I shouldn't just completely ignore the elephant in the room. Reason 2 is probably describing a tiny minority of students, and reason 3 is primarily emotive and can be avoided anyway through a balance of grading some and not grading others.

So for now, I've decided to stop grading absolutely everything. My students already have an idea of what it takes to do well in the class. They should know my expectations for all their assignments and I'll still be available to talk to them about their grades in office hours. We'll see how the rest of the semester goes...