Rethinking the Grade: Risky, but Necessary

One of the most unfortunate feelings I experienced in my undergraduate courses was the feeling of disappointment, and really outright betrayal, when something that I had learned for an exam never actually appeared on that exam. “Well, dammit, why did I waste my time learning it if I wasn’t going to be tested on it?!” I would think to myself. I felt as though the teacher had tricked me into learning something and taking up valuable space in my already crowded head.

Of course, this is the opposite of what learning is all about. Learning should not be valuable only if it is necessary to some immediate goal, but undergraduate Jackson didn’t see it that way, not when he had to cram for three exams in one week (or even one day, at times). The assessment system as the majority of students have experienced it is broken and backwards, emphasizing rote memorization for the purposes of getting a good grade rather than actual learning.

Of course, this isn’t a secret; most educators will readily admit that the way that student learning is assessed is fundamentally flawed, or at the least in serious need of retooling. Yet, changing the grading system that is now fundamental to US education is a monumental task and one that requires great acts of bravery and defiance. That may sound dramatic, but think about it from the point of view of, well, me!

I am going to complete my PhD program soon, and am beginning the process of applying to institutes of higher education, with the goal of teaching as my main focus. In crafting my teaching philosophy, a large part of me wants to passionately espouse how I am going to reinvent learning and integrate all these newfangled active learning techniques while doing away with categorical grading. However, unless I am applying to an institution that does not use standard grades, I will be required to supply a letter grade for each student, and, more than likely, have a three exam a semester normative syllabus, especially if I teach introductory biology.

I want to get a job, more than I want to be a champion of change. I need to provide for my family and heralding a massive upheaval of the current education system is not likely to help. And, when I do hopefully get that job, I will want to get tenure, and not cause waves by teaching my introductory classes differently than the other sections. So, what do we do, as new teachers do we risk derailing our careers, or not even getting a career in the first place, by championing for change? Do we only apply to institutions like Warren Wilson that already “get it,” thereby changing nothing? Or do we wait patiently until we have our valuable tenure and then begin implementing the changes that we desire, that is if we have not already become mired in the standard grading system and too disimpassioned to change?

I only bring these questions up because I think they are important to consider. Of course we can champion change in smaller, bite-sized amounts that hiring committees will see as appropriately progressive, and departments will not balk at. My passion may scream out “To Hell with anyone who stands in my way! We need to change the entire system NOW!” but change, especially on an individual teacher basis, needs to be both strategic and iterative. Instead of giving exams, for instance, have students write review papers on a topic of their choosing (within the greater subject) and have their peers review those papers for quality and accuracy. The student then may make changes based on their peer review or not (though have them defend their decisions in a written statement) before presenting their paper to the class. In this way, you may assess whether concepts are being sufficiently learned while mimicking the real world of scientific discussion. There are no standardized exams in the real world, and you do not get a grade for each paper you write or talk you give. That being said, it may be a good idea to give weekly quizzes to ensure that the basic, necessary factoids are sinking in, but make them pass/fail.

As I apply for positions, I must keep in mind that I can make change, and stand up for what I believe, without doing away with everything standard at once. As future educators, it is our duty and responsibility to improve how we teach, and how students are assessed. There will undoubtedly be pushback from fellow faculty, the administration, students, and even parents, but we must be firm in our convictions and loyal to the success of our students.

14 Replies to “Rethinking the Grade: Risky, but Necessary”

  1. Let me start off by saying that i do agree the grading does have an ugly face. However, I think changing the grading system needs a good reliable and sustainable alternative. By that i mean a system that is fair to everyone, cannot be easily manipulated and can objectively characterize the understanding and learning of students. As to what that alternative might be, that is a question beyond me. However, i like the idea of getting tenure then experimenting, after all tenure was put in place for situations like this.

    1. Hey Jackson!
      The way you talk about wanting to shake up the system, yet are timid to do so in the face of applying for jobs on top of the responsibility to take care of your family resonated with me. Playing the game is hard, right? The perception is that for us to get a tenured faculty position, we have to play it safe and fit a mold. As you look toward the future, I hope you stay encouraged and inspired about teaching. We are emerging as professionals at a special time in history. The world has never needed us so badly as it does now and we are positioned to make meaningful and positive impacts on future thinkers and leaders!

      1. Hey Sara, thanks for the comment. It’s good to stay positive, but we need to stay realistic first if we want to get positions and tenure so that we can create change and impact the world.

    2. It would be super interesting if there was a think tank of experts in education assigned the task of reshaping how we teach. I bet they would have trouble agreeing on basically everything. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Jackson,
    Good post. I like that you dealt with the real life considerations that go in to how we go about setting up our classroom. I also agree with your approach of implementing small changes while working within the general system of grades. This may not always feel like enough, but at least we know that we are doing what we can to make a difference.

    1. I’ll just keep slowly increasing the anti-traditional aspects of the class until I am forced to retire. If I do it incrementally enough I should be able to retire around 63.

  3. Jackson, I agree with Heath. Make small changes to push the boundaries out a little bit. If your department head is fine, keep pushing just a little bit more. At least until you get tenure, and the thought of a bad semester of student evaluations doesn’t put you at risk of losing your job. That way, you can try a few things out and see what works for you. I think we are a long time away from getting rid of university-required grades at the end of the semester, but that does not mean we are required to tell students a number or letter grade for every single assignment between the first day of class and finals. For example, look at this class. We haven’t had a grade yet, but I still feel as though I’m learning. Perhaps in an introductory biology class, you could try ungraded homework, where you provide feedback on correct answers, but it’s a completion grade to balance out the weight of test grades.

    1. That’s a great idea! You could also have the homework be optional (but encouraged) with the understanding that by doing the homework they will receive comments that help with their studying. Good suggestion!

  4. Jackson, I really like the idea of trying to make a change. I’d also like to share a little story that my former advisor experienced. My former advisor taught biochemistry back to that time and he dislikes the way the course used to be taught, thus he chose to teach the class very creatively. However, the class did not go very well as expected, and surprisingly, the complaints are not coming from the department or other instructors but mostly from students. Turns out the students feels the set up of the class is too different from a typical class and feel uncomfortable dealing with it. One of the big worries, ironically, is they worried about their scores.
    Making change could be really difficult not only from the perspective of changing up a system but from the perspective of how the student can digest the change as well.

    1. That’s a really good point Qishen, that I had not considered. I think it’s important to be as transparent as possible with grades, and definitely would need to explain to the class why the course was graded or taught in a unique way. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Jackson, I really admire your enthusiasm for making a change to the education system. You raise very important questions that don’t have one answer. I agree with you that change should be both strategic and iterative. Since the assessment outcomes are key indicators for the overall institution performance, changing the grading system may require an overhaul to other components of the educational system.

  6. *round of applause for paragraph five*
    My thoughts exactly! In my opinion, you nailed the key questions for me. The question that I ask, that I don’t necessarily get an answer to: what does a given university require from a course? I think most classes I have taken at least have two exams, with various levels of difficulty—for instance open note/everything. Are these teachers trying to beat the system? I’m not certain.

  7. Hi Jackson- You nicely and succinctly capture what isn’t working and also the uphill battle towards changing the system. I definitely agree that change should be strategic and iterative, having had to manage change in organizations. That said, do you consider leadership to be an important part of teaching, becoming part of an institution, and modeling for students? There is inertia in the current system, but students, colleagues, and administrators respond to counter forces as well — something which requires no small amount of leadership and foresight. Can we also not use science to drive decision making? How can we expect to teach students if we don’t stand up for what’s possible and shown to be better than the status quo? Thank you for bringing your perspective to the discussion.

  8. I think making students understand right at the beginning of class that this is not about grades but about gaining skills and knowledge for their success for decent life. Instead of emphasizing too much on grades educators can focus more on goal and how to reach those goals during the first contact with students. In this case students can avoid disappointments resulting from not being evaluated on something that they studied hard for

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