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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Tipping the scales: Grades (in)effectual

My good bud Austin Frerick ’12 likes to say that at among the handful of taboo subjects at Grinnell, talking about our GPAs is at the top of the list. In light of upcoming finals week, I’d like to talk a bit more about how grades frame our academic experiences and perhaps offer different ways of measuring intellectual achievement.
In a recent op-ed piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Do Grades Keep Children From Learning?” author Lisa Belkin argues that grades ultimately harm students. While the article is aimed at K-12 education, I still think it’s valuable because a larger majority of us have been subjected to using grades as means of evaluating our academic performance. Even if we have parents who have encouraged us to look past our grades, we are still nonetheless trapped in a system that sums up intellectual achievement in a singular number. Belkin cites a recently published article by Alfie Kohn in the journal Educational Leadership that contends that grading is ‘inherently problematic’ and suggests that the practice of grading reflects larger values not conducive to the personal enrichment that results from a deep engagement with learning. In the following passage, Kohn highlights the struggle that comes from attempting to provide students with an investigative and individualized academic experience in a society that values a more prescriptive means of measuring success: “Still, it takes courage to do right by kids in an era when the quantitative matters more than the qualitative, when meeting (someone else’s) standards counts for more than exploring ideas, and when anything ‘rigorous’ is automatically assumed to be valuable.”
The main problem that I have with using grades to evaluate student’s learning is that they are static fixtures representing something that (presumably) should not have been a static experience, but rather a semester-long engagement with ideas. With grades, we lose the personal connection that we have formed with the material we have worked with. To a large extent it also de-values any sort of progression or steady improvement. How does a B- adequately represent the experience of a student who was failing the class at the beginning of the semester, but then puts Herculean effort and masters the material at the end of the semester?
We are fortunate in many ways to attend an institution where professors give us constant feedback on our work, but in my experience this most often happens in upper-level classes. One could argue that because the material is much more complex, constant feedback is needed to make sure that ideas are being tied together effectively. However, I think that it would be profoundly beneficial to give copious amounts of feedback to students in intro-level courses (especially first- and second-year students) because it inserts a notion of personal accountability and establishes a working relationship with the professor.
This also meets the needs to students who are having personal struggles, but are still managing to perform at an ‘adequate’ level. I think that we tend to figure good grades as benchmark that suggests that an individual must be coping ‘well enough’ to be producing such good work. This is not always the case though, because it does not relay the physical, mental and emotional struggles and sacrifices that could be accompanying that level of exertion.
I would not go as far as suggesting that we get rid of grades; to some extent, we must understand that many Grinnellians go on to do things after Grinnell that require a transcript. But despite that, I think that we can improve the way we learn through this avenue which emphasizes constructive feedback and thus motivates students to engage with ideas in a more meaningful way. It would also be very valuable if professors, in addition to giving us letter grades, wrote performance evaluations that highlighted our strengths and weaknesses and suggestions for improvement. It would be even more valuable if this was part of an ongoing dialogue, especially if that course is of particular importance to the student’s academic interest. Of course, this requires that both professors and students invest additional time in writing feedback and spend time discussing performance. It might be worth considering cutting down graded material, and instead emphasize larger assignments that take weeks to develop. That way, professors spend less time grading tests and instead focus on a handful of assignments a semester. It would also be worthwhile to explore how we can translate a model like this and encourage more communication between students and professors.
In general, Grinnell does a really great job of evaluating students in a way that is fair. However, it is worthwhile to consider additional ways of receiving feedback that is not limited to a letter grade, but instead provides a more nuanced account of a student’s trajectory in his or her class.

-Camila Barrios Camacho

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