Abolish Grades? I Don't Think So
Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.
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“I wish we didn’t have to get grades,” moaned one student as the first week of school came to a close.
For a moment the prospect of completing activities and taking tests without receiving grades may sound desirable. If we think of grades as the tangible indication of performance, however, few of us would be satisfied if we didn’t receive grades. To perform our school work and other tasks without receiving some kind of feedback would be like talking to someone who remains silent throughout the whole conversation; who never nodded, made eye contact or managed even a single grunt. It takes a high level of maturity for intrinsic rewards to be enough. Most of us aren’t there yet. I doubt, for example, that many of us enjoy the intrinsic rewards of our jobs enough to work without pay.
“Grades are the currency of the teaching and learning process,” begins an article from the University of Manitoba . They reflect achievement, abilities and often potential for future success. Although some students take grades very personally as signs of approval or disapproval, it would be difficult to give students a clear assessment of performance without them.
Grades are the motivating force behind learning. Let’s face it: without grades few students would even read the assignments, much less try to absorb the concepts. I always give a test on my course syllabus on the second day of class. Not because I’m an evil witch (as has been rumored), but because it assures that everyone reads the syllabus with heightened interest.
Assessing performance seems better understood by students when it moves away from the classroom. My grandsons, for example, enjoy their Play Station games and seem to happily accept that only when they achieve certain maneuvers will they receive the password or code to proceed to the next game level.
There are certainly no rules or principles of grading upon we would all agree. How a teacher grades reflects a lot about the teacher’s background, values, assumptions and philosophy. How a student reacts to grades reflects a lot about the student’s background, values, assumptions and philosophy. But since they are an integral part of education, there are some steps students can take to insure that grades are fair, equitable and meaningful as possible.
1. Determine the role grades will play in a class. Some teachers give a variety of ungraded assignments prior to tests or essays that will be graded. Other teachers give quizzes to help you see your progress, but only count the big tests as part of your grade.
Other teachers barrage you with essays, quizzes, and tests almost every class meeting--all of which count toward your final grade.
2. Determine the grading procedure. Will you be graded on the curve or on your individual performance? Will you be able to drop the lowest test score in computing your final grade? Will tests be returned so you may study them in preparation for future tests? You should be clear on these points during the first week of class.
If the teacher does not clearly articulate these on a syllabus or in discussion, ask.
3. Follow the guidelines and procedures for assignments, but look for opportunities for flexibility, variations and exceptions. Make your assignments fit your interests, learning style and lifestyle. If a history teacher assigns a research paper on World War II, for example, don’t just grab the first string of information you spot in a reference work. Think about what interests you most and tie it in with your assignment. Let’s say you love music. Perhaps your teacher will approve a topic on the prevalent themes in the popular music that evolved during World War II.
4. Make your hard work count for more than one subject when possible. One summer I was taking three graduate courses in a six-week session. Each based our final grade on a major project. I immediately decided that strategic planning was necessary. The media class required a slide-tape presentation, but the teacher didn’t care what subject we chose. He would be looking at the technical aspects. The library science class required a survey of one genre of literature that we would share in an oral presentation. The psychology class required that we explore one type of therapy and give an oral presentation.
While browsing the psychology literature, I discovered a type of therapy called bibliotherapy where the reading and discussion of books was found to promote healing in clinical settings. I also decided to delve into adolescent literature in my library science class. Can you see where this is headed? I made slides of a group of adolescent friends surrounded by the top 100 adolescent paperback novels that I had them discuss that day. After plying them with pizza, I asked about their interests and which books, if any, had had an impact on their lives and why. With only some changes in the tape when I played it for the psychology class, I used the same slide presentation for all three.
Can you guess the result? The only class I was worried about was the media class where my technical ability would be exposed. The other two teachers saw my production of a slide show as an indication of initiative, enthusiasm and creativity. They all rewarded me with an A. I rewarded myself with a pat on the back for ingenuity.
This solution is not for the lazy. It does not avoid work. It actually requires a lot of work, but you are maximizing your effort by making it serve in more than one class. I am not suggesting that you write one paper and turn it in three classes. I am talking about creating three assignments out of one body of research.
Don’t ask your teacher for permission to do this, however. Some will consider this cheating. I don’t. Just be sure each submission is tweaked and differentiated to meet each class assignment. And by all means, create a fresh cover page for each with the appropriate course title and teacher’s name on it.
5. Don’t overemphasize grades. Although grades are an important indicator of your performance, they are not the only factors. How you feel about yourself must eventually outweigh how someone else assesses you. It is reported that Sammy Davis, Jr. once insisted that Caesar’s Palace return the admission price to the audience as they left the room as the end of one of his shows. He was so dissatisfied with this performance that he didn’t believe the audience should pay for it.
6. If you’re ever unhappy with you grade, visit your teacher in her office. Ask for suggestions on improving your grade. Perhaps you’ll be allowed to rewrite a paper, or do an additional or alternative assignment. Then keep your agreement with the teacher on how you will rectify the situation.
Grades need not be the bane of your existence as a student. Go after the highest grades possible, but don’t be undone by them. View your teachers as partners in helping you assess your learning and as coaches who reward your achievement.