By Alison Walls
I have a firm suspicion that grades are one of the greatest hindrances to learning. Their purpose is more administrative than educational: to sort and funnel students from preschool to graduate school. Private tutoring for which affluent parents happily pay $100 or more is just one example of the way economics can trump academic integrity in such a system (and when the pressure is on, the tutor’s “guidance” may well be more “hands-on” than is pedagogically justified). Once in college, the GPA requirement for certain courses is often a mere culling device, determined primarily by the desirability of the program. Success in the prerequisite courses may be no indication of a student’s aptitude in the sought-after field. In short, there remains a real conflict of intent between student progress and the enforcement of academic standards.
Admittedly, I am simplifying the issue, and various studies from the Community College Research Center indicate that there are factors which may complicate the relationship of grades to aptitude, including the discipline and the nature of the prerequisite. A large 2014 study, for instance, does suggest that although SAT and ACT are poor predictors of academic success in college, there is a correlation between high grades in high school and high grades in college.
Yet this still begs the question of the intrinsic value of grades. Any grade-norming session will reveal significant (and occasionally massive) discrepancies between one teacher’s assessment of student work and another. Seduced by the transparency and clear articulation of grading rubrics, I embraced one for a couple of semesters, only to later abandon it with a sigh of relief as being unhelpful to either my students or me. Not only did it fail to mitigate the problem of students zeroing in on low-order, yet alluringly identifiable reasons for a less-than-stellar grade, like grammar, but I also found that only the best and worst students fell neatly into my carefully designed categories. It is easy to describe an A or a D essay, but the variables of a B or C essay are far too many to put into a tidy grid.
Nor does it surprise me that the “A student” in high school goes on to be an “A student” in college; it’s just that often the main knowledge which that A truly reveals is knowing how to get an A—what Blythe McVicker Clinchy calls “procedural knowing.” More saddening are the students who have internalized their identity as “a D student,” who consistently feel that they don’t understand their teachers and that their teachers don’t understand them. These are often the students who will sit there in a total fog, without raising the question that may help them, because nothing has given them the confidence or motivation to do so.
Not only are grades not useful, then; they are actually harmful. In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain discusses the work of psychologists on the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic interest—the effect of grades, for instance, on curiosity about the subject matter. What they’ve found is that an extrinsic reward (such as a grade) actually reduces intrinsic interest. Performance, too, declines, partly due to the sense of being controlled by others implicit in any reward and punishment system. These findings gibe with my own experiences of learning—and surely that of most academics, who tend to be motivated by interest, love, and passion; the good grades just come along with that. And yet we continue to use grades as both the carrot and the stick, despite our own experiences and the research telling us that this is useless.
I believe this problem is intensified at community colleges. As I attempted to articulate in my previous post, the stakes of academic achievement are higher for many community college students. An “A” in my ENG 101 class might represent not only a welcome pat on the back, but access to competitive vocational programs like nursing or a four year college—and ultimately, a stable future. Not to mention that additional factors, like discouraging experiences at high school, or difficulties with some of the more cosmetic aspects of writing, can act as further barriers to good grades, only increasing their psychological weight. It is almost a catch-22. The students for whom grades loom largest are the ones who stand to benefit the most from forgetting about grades.
It’s not easy for either teachers or students to forget about grades. Despite my convictions, faced with a silent class, I have found myself reminding them that “class participation” is a substantial portion of their final grade. Does it enhance class discussion? No. Does engaging them with complex questions in which they have some real interest prove to be a better strategy? Yes. (Note to self: make better use of first-day icebreakers and exit notes.) I have found that scaffolding assignments helps also helps align students’ learning with assessment requirements, as do opportunities for self-assessment and reflection, and getting students to each provide at least one reading or other material for discussion. I’m tempted (if not allowed!) to hold off on showing students any any grades until the end of the semester, offering only feedback. I’m convinced that if I can help my students forget about grades, they will earn better ones. They will also get the far more enduring and transferable gift of learning to learn, entirely for themselves.
Alison Walls is a Ph.D. candidate in Theater at the Graduate Center and a Humanities Alliance Teaching Fellow.