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Grades and what they don’t mean March 25, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, physics, teaching.
Tags: , , ,

I tweeted a link yesterday to a paper titled, “Everyone should get an A,” by David MacKay.  I found it an interesting read because the author’s discussion is quite compelling.

Unfortunately, I just can’t get in line with this argument.  As much as I really do like the idea, I can only assume that MacKay is at a university where all the students really are exceptional.  I hate to say it, but I have seen people enter a field of interest where they literally were simply incapable of doing the work or had no scruples about cheating on nearly every assignment.

GEARS already responded that he disagrees with this, too, although I think we differ on the reasons why.  He mentions the dreaded life or death situation.  I personally think this is a fallacy: school of any type is not adequate training when dealing with life or death situations.  People who are likely to be put in that situation are usually people who go into the military, fire-fighting, police work, etc.  The kind of training they do for real life-and-death situations is significantly different than an exam in school, and exams are completely inadequate indicators of this.

Further, there’s the issue that the kind of skills you need in a life-and-death situation aren’t always the kinds of things you need in school.  Every time someone brings this particular argument up, I always think of the above clip from Apollo 13.  Admittedly, a good part of the movie involves problem solving by engineers that include things they did in school.  However, if you look at the astronauts, they learned their skills through repetition of procedure.  And some of the things the engineers were doing probably had very little to do with what they learned in school and involved some raw-problem solving skills, such as the filter issue.  I don’t buy the argument that regurgitation on exams is indicative of good problem solving skills.

In fact, the book Teaching Engineering discusses some of this.  It mentions that students who do well early on in an engineering program are not always the best problem solvers.  They are the best at learning and reproducing processes, which is a set of skills fairly low on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  However, that behavior may shift: the students who are very good early on in an engineering program may not do as well in higher-level courses because they are not as good at synthesis and analysis.  Some B and C students who struggle early on may be doing so because they tend to function at a higher level on Bloom’s taxonomy, while some of the A students will begin to struggle in classes which don’t emphasize pre-learned processes, rote, and memorization.  While this was written strictly about engineering, I would say this is likely true in most fields.

Finally, I think that grades detract from the purpose of the classroom: learning.  I, just like every other teacher on the planet, have had students come up to me and argue over points here and there.  It has nothing to do with whether or not they understood the material or even cared about it: it was because they wanted a particular grade, and the material was secondary.  There are a lot of smart people who could do so much if they weren’t worrying about their grades all the time.

This, to me, means that grades are not always indicative of the ‘best’ students.  A grade indicates that a student has the skills a particular person wants in the class they’re teaching.  Different classes utilize different skills, however, so I don’t know that grades are really reflective of much except that they met the expectations of a particular class.  Without knowing much about the class, you don’t really have any idea of what skills were actually useful.  And, of course, the whole time, they’re detracting from interest in the material.

I’ve now established that I don’t agree with the concept of giving everyone As but that I also don’t put much stock in grades.  So what do you do?!

I guess that I’ve become a fan of the grading contract.  For those who have never heard of this (and I personally have only encountered it in one class my entire career), it is a contract to receive a particular grade.  Generally, there are different requirements for each grade.  Some professors do this as a flexible agreement with a lot of input from the student while others establish what is required for a particular grade.  In reality, this is very much like business: if you have the work done by a particular date, you get paid so much.  If your deadline slips, then it is a lesser amount.

I won’t go into the details of how it works much beyond that (maybe in a later post), but I like the philosophy.  The student has clear expectations set out at the beginning of the class.  They know what is required to get a particular grade.  They can choose if they feel it’s worth the effort to achieve such a grade or if they’re happier with something else.  Either way, the student is now free to worry about the topic matter and material presented in the course rather than the grade they want to receive and how everything fits into the oft unstated or even shifting criteria.

In turn, the professor isn’t responsible for micromanaging the student’s time.  She knows what she can reasonably expect from students. She also has justification for assigning a particular grade, both if the student abides by the contract and if he doesn’t.

This is a more realistic scenario: the student met the expectations given in class, and the grade is merely a reflection of that reality.  The classroom can then return to a place where ideas are the primary concern.



1. Alek Fleischer - March 26, 2011

That was a good post. First one I read, I’ll read some more. 😉


2. GEARS - March 28, 2011

I apologize for assuming you agreed with everyone getting As. But contract grading is essentially the system we have right now. I think most classes have something on the syllabus that says you need to do Homework, Tests, and Projects (or whatever) to get an A. These are the percentages that they count for your overall class grade.

When I’m teaching, if students don’t want to do homework, that’s fine. That just means the highest they can get is a 85/100. I had that in a class where HW was 5% of the overall grade. I was confident I could get 100s on everything else and still make an A so I didn’t do homework. I made a 91 and got my A 😀

Overall, I don’t put too much stock into grades because they are subjective based on the teaching and learning styles, along with external factors. However, it can give an indication if the interview discussion matches what they did in classes.


mareserinitatis - March 28, 2011

I understand what you’re saying, but with a contract, you get more buy-in from the students. They look at the expectations, make a decision about what they can handle, and then make a commitment to earn a particular grade.

A contract is far more explicit, and the student has a choice, knowing what’s involved in getting each grade. The instructor needs to have a clear expectation of what will be accomplished and needs to provide rubrics as far as how projects will be assessed. In other words, it has a lot of similarities, but it requires that the professor be more explicit in how they are evaluating the student. If it helps, this is a section of a grading contract for an engineering course: http://writing.umn.edu/tww/responding_grading/grade4101contract.html


3. Grading contracts « FCIWYPSC - August 18, 2011

[…] more.  I’d been planning on writing a post about them after talking about how people impute certain characteristics into grades that really aren’t there.  I guess now is as good a time as […]


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