The Problem With Grades

Good little factory workers (Photo CC Flicker Michael 1952)

Grading is the tyrrany of higher education and this week I had to face it full-force and get reminded why we value the appearance of education rather than true learning.

This week I submitted the final grades for my graduate course on health behaviour change. Submitting grades is always an emotional time for me. I’ve watched students do poorly not due to lack of understanding, but circumstance. I’ve also seen students turn things around after having started out slow and ending on a high note. In every case, I end up assigning a letter (sometimes with a + or – attached to it) to assess the quality of the work done, which is supposed to be a proxy for learning. The truth is far from that.

More than any other semester in my teaching history I found myself struggling with grading. Grades are holdovers from a system designed to produce good little factory workers who would have enough knowledge not to hurt themselves and do the job right, but not quite enough to truly challenge the system that said they had to work the way that they did. Unfortunately, old habits are hard to break (which is, ironically perhaps, the theme of the course I teach).

I am fortunate enough to have a room to teach with moveable chairs and tables, although there is really only a few designs open to me given that the room is literally filled to the capacity set by the fire marshall. It’s still better than the circumstance illustrated in the above photo, with students sitting in rows all looking the same. I am pleased that many of the students in my course call me “Cameron” and not just “Dr. Norman” or “Professor”. We’ve made a lot of progress, but at the same time there is much illusion about the nature of education today.

A wonderful illustration of the problems of education and its historical roots can be viewed as part of a TED talk summary by Sir Ken Robinson.

I teach up to 30 graduate students — both masters and doctoral level students — at a time. When you pile 30+ learners (including the TA’s, guest lecturers, guest students) into one room, the type of teaching and learning you are able to do is seriously limited by the size of the class, the room, the complexity of the material being presented, and the time you have available to explore that material. I do my best and the students do theirs, but it is limited. And yet, we call this graduate education. We call it education; period.

It is as if individuals have no prior experience of their own and couldn’t possibly add to the discussion in any meaningful way. As such, we set up a system of evaluation that suggest that I, as the implied smartest person in the room, can truly judge the worthiness of any idea with complete objectivity, precision, and efficiency and that is worth something. Well, when it comes to health behaviour change or systems thinking (the two courses I teach) I can confidently say that I have more codified, structured, academically acceptable knowledge than any one person in my classroom. But do I have more than the class combined? No way. I’m not even close.

So it would surmise that some method of tapping into that knowledge of the 10, 20, or 30 students is a good idea. But doing so means acknowledging that the professor — the said “smart person” in the room — might not have all the answers and maybe some of the students have those answers. Or in the case of complex and novel problems that we see in public health more often these days, maybe no one has the answer. Maybe the answer needs to be generated by collaboration, discussion and bringing diverse groups together.

But what does this mean for grading? If five people help derive a solution to a problem, who gets the grade? Some models might suggest the leader gets more credit than the others as we see in the academic peer-reviewed publication traditions . While others might have some form of negotiated hierarchy of authors. A systems thinking perspective might throw the whole authorship issue out altogether because it was the contribution of the team acting as such that generated the knowledge. Yes, some may have worked longer hours, taken bigger roles, but the entire product is the sum of the whole of the parts, therefore every component is considered vital. If we took this into account, we’d have to award the same grade to everyone if  producing knowledge that was useful was the goal of the activity.

That’s pretty heretical stuff where I come from. Yes, it is true we can have group grades, but this is speaking to a fundamental issue of contribution and acknowledging that not everyone will add the same value and that is OK, because in the end it is what people add in its totality that is most important the whole.

In complexity terms, grading is anathema. It suggests that we can know what is “right” and “wrong” and “effective” and “ineffective” in each circumstance. In simple systems, that might be true. When we have “best practice” that is reliable and valid and can be assessed consistently, then grades are perfectly reasonable. Yet, when we work in spaces where the context changes, the variables multiply and shift, and the outcomes can, at best, be anticipated but not predicted, the idea of assessing people based on concrete, objective standards seems silly at best, dangerous at worst. But that’s what we do all the time.

Complexity does endorse — and indeed, thrives on — feedback. Getting some form of assessment is great so long as it is  provides opportunities for adaptation. Without it, complex systems would become simple ones.

Imagine a system where we gave students feedback, allowed them to adapt, and to take the information they learn and apply it in ways that fit the context they are working in? Consider what that might look like in terms of grades and grading and how the absence of such almost arbitrary assessments could lead to knowledge that could truly advance the health and wellbeing of everyone, not just propose to do so.

This is not just systems thinking, but true systems change and that is what education is all about in my books.

2 thoughts on “The Problem With Grades”

  1. Thanks for the honest and critical thinking about the grading system. I remember when I made my first leap from graded to grader. It was amazing the difference one feels in the other role. However, for those doing the grading, as a person being graded I want to say do not worry to much. I realize that whatever grade you assign me is made up of a complicated mix of what happened to myself, my classmates, and you during the past semester. Although it could, I refuse to let any grade someone wants to give me alter my self-worth and perception of my ability to contribute to the good of others. However, all I ask is that you give a critical appraisal of my effort and provide insight on what is worthy of preserving and what could be improved.

    No matter how you categorizes a grade: percentage , percentile, letter grade, etc. it does not encompass the human capacity to learn, adapt and do good. Teachers and students take heart, we know why we are truly here, and it hopefully is not the grades.


    1. Rob,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on this post. Grading is really one of those things that gets much maligned, but rarely discussed in depth. Grades are largely meaningless in their ability to support learning without some context. Although less enjoyable than an A+, I actually would much rather have a B+ with some thoughtful, articulate feedback than a far better grade with “good work!” attached to it.

      Your request for critical appraisal is both fair and reasonable given your charge as a learner and I hope that more faculty heed that request. I have been both heartened and dismayed by hearing students laud praise on my grading because I offer a lot of feedback on every assignment. Even with TA’s, I ask that they spend a lot of time giving detailed and plentiful feedback to every student. The praise has as much to do with how rare it is for students to get good feedback as it is any statement on the quality of my comments.

      Students earn grades, teachers don’t “give” them as some people say. That means that students also deserve feedback to go with the grades that they earn. And, as you say, hopefully these grades are just window dressing on the real learning, which is why students and faculty are there in the first place.

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