Heading into a new semester and assembling the syllabi (well, one–the other, once again this term, is in the hands of the students), I’ve decided to give up on my short-lived “no grades” policy. At least nominally.
What happened? Well, at least pedagogically, I was fine with it. To recap, I was concerned that students were more interested in grades than they were in the actual material. I speculated that replacing the grades with badges would at least move them from focusing on entirely arbitrary markers (letters) to markers that were more explicitly tied to learning objectives.
I still think grades suck, of course. Grades are grand for beef, and actually pretty handy for deciding what restaurants to avoid, but as a tool for learning I think they take away more than they add. Realistically, though, I can’t get away from grading on my own. Unless I can convince all my colleagues to move in that direction, my experiment threatens to be merely a distraction for students, or in the worst case, a good way for them to ignore my course. Purely in terms of learning outcomes, I think being able to get totally away from grades would be great. But that wasn’t the case here.
Not learning, but ranking
The main problem is that more than just the students see the grade. It acts–in fairly limited ways–as a reflection on their skill. Now, to my mind, we simply shouldn’t graduate students we can’t stand behind. I frankly would have no problem “advising out” those students who are not performing at an elite level. I think it would better serve both those who left and those who stayed. But that’s not a realistic option (at least not in that extreme a degree).
Without getting into details, since I can’t simply unilaterally make a course pass/not pass–which is at least closer to ungraded–I ended up saying you get either an A or an F. Really, I intended to give As to everyone, short of really utter non-completion. I think I can say, without naming names, that people got As who really weren’t doing graduate-level work. I was clear in my narrative summaries of their work that this was the case, but they still ended up with As. At least one of my fellow faculty members found this contrast to be wrong, and I can understand why.
Pass and Forget
Many of the courses in our online programs are taken serially, and so I don’t have to compete for attention with other courses. That wasn’t the case this summer, and I suspect that students paid more attention to the courses where they were still “fighting for a grade.”
A lot of the work on pass/not pass grading going back several decades looks at courses in similar contexts. Being the P/NP course in a world of graded courses means that for some students (generally those who are not already high-achievers) the time and effort will be put to the graded courses, as they are afforded a certain degree of prestige as well as attention from students simply because of their grades.
Don’t Picture an Elephant
My intention was to make students think less about grading, but because they needed to keep track of the number of points each badge was worth, and whether they had crossed a certain threshold, they ended up thinking more about it. For some, the idea that the grade would be either an A or an F, and nothing in-between, raised their anxiety level, even after I made clear that an “A” was granted for even minimal completion of work.
In the end, by doing something out of the ordinary, I ended up focusing students more on the grades and grading structures, not less.
The (Non) Solution
So, what’s a person who hates grades to do? I’ve always been considered a “hard grader.” Perhaps that’s why people have been so focused on grades in my classes. Clearly going the other way, and becoming the Oprah of As (You get an A! You get an A!) hasn’t worked out. Two possible alternatives:
Maybe the simple solution is to provide a grading rubric, but simply make it easy to get an A. That doesn’t seem like a good solution. It seems like it contributes to the “menace” of grade inflation. But if I don’t really care about grades, I’m not sure why I should care about their inflation. More importantly, although I don’t get the issue of people dwelling over an odd grading structure, I still have to contend with pulling attention away from courses with a stiffer climb up the grading ladder.
The other alternative is to go old-school. The course is graded on a curve. The top 20% of points-earners get an A, the next 40% get a B, the next 20% get a C, and the next 20% get a D or F. (Come on, you don’t really expect me to curve around a C, do you? I’m not that old.) Of course, this means that students are going head-to-head Paper Chase style, rather than cooperating and collaborating nicely. That sucks, but maybe it is what is needed to get folks to step up their game.
So, for next semester, I’m back to grading meany. A curve (and not a saving one) it is, at least in the course where I’m dictating the policy. That will be more familiar ground for me, and probably also for the students.