At Now-Times Alexei has opened an interesting discussion by firing a shot across the bow of grading: he’s not sure it serves any good purpose, he sees that it’s prone to ideology, and he’s concerned that pedagogically useful failures will be discouraged by failing grades. In short, he thinks grades aren’t good for much. I mostly agree, but only because I think we tend to do it wrong. I’ve begun to comment there and I’ve also said a lot of relevant stuff here, here, here, here and here. But I’ve also had this conversation in other venues and wanted to use this opportunity to retrieve a point I made a while back at the excellent but now-dormant Paragraph City:
I don’t get complaints about grades, for the most part. Of course this might just be the luck of the draw, but I think it’s because I do explain, in great detail, exactly what I’m looking for in their work, why I’m looking for it, what’s in it for them, how to do it, and what consequences to expect if they don’t do it (including ‘failure’). All of that is explicitly open to negotiation by mindful students who can explain the equivalent value of a different set of tasks or criteria. If they learn nothing else from my classes, they learn how to connect desirable skills and knowledge to standards and standards to performances.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that for many of my colleagues the strategy seems to be to present themselves as authorities pronouncing mysterious olympian judgments, which is not very ‘human’ either; and students with even a smidge of critical thinking do well to question this authority. If we teach standards as reasons, not just rules or arbitrary commands, we get much farther into recruiting the students into the kind of thinking that we know how to do and wish they could too, by enabling them to make their own principled judgments.
It would be great if grading turned out to be the reason our students don’t learn and we could turn them into eager learners by not grading them. I believe actual experiments along these lines have been programmatically conducted with mixed results, e.g. at U.C. Santa Cruz. It’s worth talking about why the results were mixed. But in any event, as part of a mindful pedagogy grades can be useful. Given that they’re the industry standard anyway, I think we should figure out how.