How grades degrade us

10,000 students at University of Sharjah took their final year exams on campus in May. Courtesy: University of Sharjah
10,000 students at University of Sharjah took their final year exams on campus in May. Courtesy: University of Sharjah

I am a college professor but at this time of year – finals week – I often feel like I am assessing the quality of eggs on a battery farm. The process of grading eggs and grading essays are not too dissimilar.

Eggs are categorised by shell condition and interior quality. A clean, crack-free shell and a nice round yolk might earn an egg a double A.

Similarly, a logical structure to the essay and a persuasive argument might get a student an A grade. This is the system we have, a method of evaluation used in education institutions around the world.

I have never though been entirely comfortable reducing students' creativity, effort, and discovery down to a single letter, A through F.

The idea of grading student work is traced back to 1792, when William Farish, a tutor at the University of Cambridge in the UK, borrowed the practice from the factories of his day. These newly industrialised production lines had begun using numbers to rank the quality of manufactured goods. Thus inspired, Farish began assigning numerical values to human thought. The educational grading system was born and soon caught on.

Despite the neat efficiency of grades, however, there are downsides to the system.

For one, they can end up becoming a goal in themselves. Some of us as students can become more focused on improving our grade point average than improving ourselves. If we are not careful, the focus on grades can erode our intrinsic educational motivation: our innate curiosity and love of learning its own sake.

Grades can also promote obsessive peer comparison and hyper-competitiveness. Neither of these traits are good for emotional well-being.

There is also the widespread problem of grade inflation, the tendency for A grades to increase at some institutions inexplicably. Given these concerns, grades are hardly an accurate reflection of a student's academic performance or ability.

The University of Sharjah held its spring semester final exams from May 15- 26. Courtesy: University of Sharjah 
The University of Sharjah held its spring semester final exams from May 15- 26. Courtesy: University of Sharjah

To understand the meaning of an A grade, we have to see it in context: which year was it awarded, at which school, in which discipline and by which professor. Grades are not the universal currency of academic worth or employability that we often think they are.

There are, however, alternatives to grading, such as mastery or competency-based approaches. Within these, students are given time to master a particular learning objective before moving on. We can do it, or we can't, yet. We know it, or we don't, yet. You can fully conjugate Arabic verbs, or you can't – yet.

Other alternatives include encouraging students to engage in reflective self-assessment and compile digital portfolios to demonstrate clearly whether they have met their learning objectives and how so.

Grades are not an accurate reflection of a student's academic performance or ability

We can also combine these approaches with instructor perspectives. Course leaders and perhaps peers can provide constructive feedback, written and oral, on completed assignments or works in progress. Compared to letter grades, these approaches provide a much richer picture of students' academic performance, know-how and future employability.

These alternatives are catching on. A growing number of US universities have done away with the A-F letter grading system, or at least transformed the way it is used. For instance, Brown University allows students to opt-in or out of a grading system. The alternative to a grade is a transcript showing each course status as either "Satisfactory" or "No Credit". Furthermore, students at Brown are expected to build portfolios of their course work, experiences and achievements. The transcripts and grades, if opted for, are viewed as simply supplemental information. And they are not the only ones looking at alternatives to grades.

Reed College, Oregon, makes a positive effort to de-emphasise grades. They are recorded as students pass through the programme but students are not made aware of a grade unless there is a problem.

Several other US colleges, such as the liberal arts centres, Alverno College and Hampshire College, and Antioch University, have eliminated grades altogether. Such institutions typically opt for rich narrative evaluations provided by the course instructor at the end of each course. Evergreen State College in Washington describes this style of assessment as: "like getting a letter of recommendation for each class you take".

But don't employers and graduate schools need to look at grades and averages to inform their candidate selection? Not really. Selecting the most appropriate candidates could be more effectively achieved by employers and graduate schools setting their own specific standardised entrance exams or competency tests. Many forward-thinking organisations already do this.

Innovation often occurs by bringing ideas from one sector into a new context. Google is an excellent example of this. Their innovative search algorithm, PageRank, was modelled after "citation analysis", a practice popular in academia for evaluating an article's worth, or impact, based on how many times others cite it.

Perhaps it is time for educators to look for inspiration outside academia, on how to improve our evaluation of student performance. Some institutions, such as the University of California, have already begun experimenting with the idea of crowdsourcing feedback for student work.

Grades are a legacy of the industrial revolution. It is time to seriously rethink how we evaluate student performance and progress in the information age.

Ideally, new methods of assessment and evaluation should be aligned with the broader goal of education: enriching the lives of young people and improving our societies. Grade eggs, not people.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National

Updated: May 31, 2021 07:26 PM


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