grading, teaching, and ranking

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.



8 responses to “grading, teaching, and ranking

  1. While you raise a good point, I think it’s a bit misguided to separate the role of the university as a place for intellectual engagement, lifelong learning, and all that jazz from its function as a machine for reproducing existing conditions of production and power relations. Grading is one of the mechanisms the university uses to separate future cadres from future janitors. (In France, for instance, they’re a lot more explicit about this–almost all powerful political and executive jobs are literally closed to anyone who did not make it into a Grande Ecole, and further grade-based qualification levels restrict managerial and white-collar positions as well).

    The point is, any attempt to make grading go away or make it more touchy-feely will not only endanger the university’s only redeeming quality as far as the people with money are concerned, but also further ideologically camouflage the sorting process. Everyone, the students as much as the professors, will know that this process is going on–that some people are doing well enough (which is not to say learning more) in the appropriate areas to get a ticket to law school, while others are marginalized and pushed out. The only difference will be that the process will require another level of interpretation, and, made palatable by Newmanite ideals, will ideologically legitimize the sorting function. If abolishing grading manages to abolish sorting along with it, the university will become an irrelevant burden to the power structure and will soon disappear.

    The only solution, I guess, is coordinated sabotage that retains grades but makes them meaningless. Thankfully, there is already an excellent way of doing this: grade inflation. (I’m not sure if I’m joking or not.)

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Greg,

    If Bonjour Paresse is any indication, I’m not sure I’d follow the French model, though it certainly shows that our own approach of squeezing employees is unnecessarily degrading. But I think the French experience does show the problems of deciding everything by exams and institutional affiliations.

    As for grades and the sorting function, it seems to me that our ranking need not be done for the sake of a giant mechanism dispensing cultural capital. For one thing, who would stay up late working for such a machine? (I suppose I did, but that’s not how I was thinking about it) So this kind of functionalist explanation, if you were indeed in earnest, still doesn’t tell us very much about the motivations of those inside the giant machine, or why anyone should work in such places. I would find it hard, for example, to improve things if I really did believe that the university’s only function was to serve this kind of sorting-function for middle managers.

    Ultimately, I think universities and public education will continue to be supported as long as they assume certain public functions and responsibilities of guaranteeing educational access and “quality.” At the same time, the key seems to be who gets to define this function and its attendant responsibilities, and how such concepts are understood. My opinion, at any rate, is that we in the university have allowed those public responsibilities to be defined by a small sliver of the public for too long.



  3. I hate grading, of course, but I tend to find that the only times when it really disturbs me is when a student who has been doing fine all semester suddenly turns in a very bad (or plagiarized) final project. Usually, end-of-semester grading is somewhat of a treat because my spreadsheet has only one empty box, and I tend to see that it doesn’t matter, within about 15 percentage points, what grade a student gets on the research paper because it won’t affect her final grade. So I read the paper to make sure it’s within that range, taking special note if it’s above the expected range, enter an appropriate number, and call it a day. I don’t have to agonize over whether it’s an 83 or an 86, the way I do at the beginning of the semester. If they ask for comments on the final paper, I am happy to do it, but most of them don’t want them at that point.

    And largely, I feel the grades end up reflecting some version of how much that student contributed, worked, and learned. I know it’s ridiculous that we have to sort our students in that way, but it’s hard to imagine another model that would be more fair for evaluating students’ undergraduate performance for graduate school applications.

    I’m not sure what the substance of this comment is except that I’m feeling rather zen about grading this semester. It could be because I’m finally taking my oral exams on Wednesday, and have no option but to de-stress everything else in my life.

  4. Dave Mazella

    The end-of-term plagiarized final paper feels crappy for all sorts of reasons, not least for the disruption it causes for me as I try to track down evidence, arrange for hearings, etc. Interestingly, I didn’t have any this term, largely because I’ve been breaking down the writing process to submission of a topic/claim/secondary sources, then an optional conference about their drafts. The more work I see upfront, the less chance of receiving a plagiarized paper at the end.

    And yes, spreadsheets would have been great. I’ve just never learned how to use them.

    Good luck on the orals, too, Carrie.



  5. I’ve been doing that, too, Dave: mechanizing the research process to the point that plagiarism is fairly impossible. What this means is that I have to grade a lot of boring “article review” assignments, in which my students write 3-5-page overviews and responses to critical work on poetry and novels. My students don’t really like doing them, and I don’t really like grading them, but they’re really the only way I can think of to teach, in small batches, how to incorporate quotations and summaries of someone else’s work into one’s own writing. I think these skills are supposed to be taught in composition or Intro to the English Major, but they don’t really seem to stick. This kind of assignment forces them to be really super-careful about attribution, which is a hard habit to develop.

    In the end, I see better research papers, and I haven’t had an honest-to-God plagiarism case this whole year, which is great. But I do spend most of the semester apologizing for the boring writing assignments. They post them to the wiki, so that their classmates can use the article reviews to find more materials for their papers. At least that’s a little fun, maybe.

  6. Dave Mazella

    That article review assignment sounds really interesting. I’m assuming that it’s designed to get them to master the contour of someone else’s argument, but in a more expansive way than an annotated bibliography. Is that right? 3-5 pp is a very difficult length for them to concentrate on someone else’s writing. I know my students would find it a challenge.

    I’d love to see an example of such an assignment, at some point. Are those done in tandem with more conventional essay assignments, or as stand-alones? And do the other students use them, when they do their own research essays?


  7. I’ve sent you an example of one that received an A-. You can see how the student is really working on doing the difficult labor of citation, attribution, explication, etc. In time and with practice, I think a student writing at this level will grow to be a really remarkably good academic prose writer, but I truly believe she can only get there by doing this kind of “mill-grinding” work first.

    I think for many English majors, the problem is they know they can write with facility when floating around in their own thoughts, and sometimes that stuff is really entertaining and fun to read. But if they can’t focus on a text, specifically a non-literary text, for a few pages, I worry about their future ability to write longer, more complicated pieces of literary criticism, which many of them aspire to do.

    Generally, I encourage them to use this assignment (they do one on poetry and one on prose, so they can choose) as a basis for their final paper. They’re really relieved to discover that, when they have an 8-10-page paper to write, they’ve already got a nice 2-3-page chunk to anchor the middle with.

  8. Dave Mazella

    Yeah, I read it, thanks. This looks like a really good exercise in learning how to “translate” scholarly arguments into their own prose. And encouraging them to use previous work from the semester for final assignments is always a good idea, because it encourages them to revisit their earlier thoughts on a subject.