Last week, while I was still trapped in Grading Jail (busted out at 2:46 AM last Tuesday), I saw these discussions of grading in In Socrates’ Wake and Inside Higher Ed, and thought that they deserved some attention.
Michael Cholbi at ISW is pretty straightforward about his problems with end-of-term grading, which can distract both teachers and students from the real goals of education. In his view, end-of-term grading becomes an end in itself, rather than a means, and cuts off possibilities for further interaction.
For those who understand teaching as a process that develops organically between students and teachers, end-of-term grading interrupts what may well be the most valuable part of the process: the meta-discussion that allows both sides to recalibrate their behavior. As Cholbi says, “Grading too often ends an inquiry rather than keeping it alive.”
In my experience, I will teach a class over 15 weeks, and students may or may not attempt to absorb the materials during that time, but for me final grades represent the least satisfying feedback I give all term. This is because those final verdicts go off into the unknown, wherever my students go after they finish my classes. Since many of my students never pick up those final projects or portfolios, I am left to wonder what effects my teaching had, in either the long- or short-term, on my students. Until they return for a letter of recommendation.
And yet, as Cholbi points out, “The time spent rarely justifies the meager contribution to learning.” It’s worth reiterating how time-consuming and stressful end-of-term grading is for teachers as well as students. This is because grading has a dimension that reaches past the private, essentially motivational questions of individual performance, and moves into the institutional, collective dimension of peer comparisons: how should we rank one student’s classroom performance relative to his peers? This is where we conceive the “audience” for our grades not simply as the student herself, but our own peers, locally and nationally. In other words, grading is one of those points at which our teaching goes public, but not in a pleasant or particularly controllable way. Who wants to known by the performance of our weakest students?
Sommers in his IHE piece raises a lot of interesting issues, but ultimately I agreed most with the commenter who observed that “[end-of-term] grading has little to do with teaching or learning and a lot to do with ranking and sorting.” This accounts, I think, for the stress everyone feels during the final stage of the process: because the teacher’s grade assignment represents not merely the quality of the work done in class, but the student’s chances at gaining external rewards like scholarships, credentials, honors, etc. In this respect, I thought that Sommers’ notion that he could just do the teaching and allow someone, or something, else to do the evaluations a bit strange, like many other social science notions of objective, uncontextual assessments.
Ultimately, the work of Alfie Kohn, whose work is summarized in this website, gets referenced in both discussions, because grades are the clearest reflection of an educational system that emphasizes the arbitrary power of teachers and the rewards they hand out, rather than, say, intellectual collaboration, generosity, or independence. If we want our own teaching to operate outside such a narrow set of values, then we should probably rethink how we are grading and why.