Is a course grade a measure of a student’s learning? Is a course grade merely a way to rank students for whatever gateway comes next? Can a course grade be both and do a good job at each task?
Recently, a good colleague sent me a link to a New York Times Education article on grading at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The article begins like this…
It could be a Zen koan: if everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean?
The answer: Not what it should, says Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade,” Mr. Perrin said. “If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship.”
The article author Tamar Lewin goes on to explain that UNC is considering adding more context to its grading – a median average to accompany the mean average, as one example. In my opinion, the more context that can be added to a grade, the better! A grade devoid of meaningful context is not worth much. Why? My answer: because grades mean so many different things to different people.
Just read the article to get a snapshot of the confusion surrounding grades. I am not sure that such a thesis was intended by the author, but that is what the article concisely points out for me. For the schools that declare something like “no more than 35% of students can receive A’s,” they are clearly siding that grades are merely rankings. Relative achievement numbers so that the students can be lined up against a wall from “best to worst” – at least as well as such can be done with the likely imperfect instruments used to evaluate student learning (in theory).
But shouldn’t grades be real measures of learning? In the ideal, shouldn’t a grade give a learner an indication of how he/she performed relative to a clearly articulated standard…a mutually visible quality criteria (mutual in that the teacher and the student can see the same target equally well)? In this case, a grade is an absolute achievement number, not a relative achievement number. Such a grade would indicate to a student how he/she measured against a clear learning goal – NOT how he/she measured simply relative to other people.
What if Mr. Perrin taught a seminar course of 20 students, and all twenty students happened to be the “best” 20 students on campus? (Just go with me for a minute.) If Mr. Perrin had established and made known to his students (better yet…established with his students) the clear learning targets, AND if the 20 students had all achieved at the highest levels according to those clearly established targets, THEN shouldn’t all 20 get “As?”
Granted, if all 20 got As, it would make it very difficult for a receiving institution to know which one of the 20 students was “the best of the best.” But don’t grades fall short of their true meaning and intent when we use them as simple, imperfect rankings? If used for their true meaning and intent, shouldn’t the grades be for the primary purpose of the RECEIVER of the grade?! Should not the grade be an indicator to the receiver – the earner – of the grade that “Oh, I understand this material and this set of skills – the grade indicates that to me’? Or should the grade just be…”Oh, I am ranked 8th of 20 in this course. I was not in the top 35%. I must not know the material that well”? What if all of the top 8 MASTERED the content targets…the course objectives…the quality criteria? Is it just “too bad” for that 8th student?
Maybe the course instructors don’t really know what the clear targets are. Or maybe they don’t know how to articulate clear targets to the students. Or maybe they just didn’t articulate any targets to the students. Or maybe the targets are complex enough that simple numerical averages are not enough to communicate one’s understanding of the material and skills. Does my weight, alone as a number, indicate my level of health? Does my BMI, as a stand-alone number? Or would more context be helpful?
More context of the learning objectives is needed. Kudos to UNC for realizing that more context is needed. I hope Mr. Perrin considers that grades might be best used for communicating to the learner rather than to the next gateway through which the learner must pass. No wonder students “grade grub.” If the grade is just a relative benchmark for lining me up so that I can be “assessed” for the next program, then I would grade grub too! I am a learner – why would I not learn such a behavior if the grade just indicates a ranking. To grub a point is the most simple way to increase my rank – a decent plan A to move up the ranks. How can we blame students for such a behavior if we create the system that promotes such behavior?
BUT…if grades were a measure of my learning compared to clear targets, then “grade grubbing” might come more in the form of such questions as, “What did I not know as well on this content?” “How could I learn it better next time?” I love it when I hear these types of questions!