What if there were no grades?

No epiphany there. This notion has been around for quite some time. And if you want to get the gist of the discussions, you can check out the following posts from blogs and websites all over (post 1; post 2; post 3; post 4). So, why not get rid of any type of grading? There have been multiple discussions about reforming the educational setting here in Greece and amidst all of these I started thinking back to my own school years that started around 1988 in primary school and ended in 2007 when I completed my MSc or 2014 if you count the PhD as well (I don’t, as I think the PhD adventure is kind of grade-independent in a way).

Taken from here

As far back as I can remember, my progress in school was always linked to a number or a letter. Straights “A”s and then “10”s or “20”s. The higher you got, the better off you were. Of course, grading within a specific system with its own standards and grading rules, is a completely different discussion. I mean, having 20 out of 20 within a system that evaluates the wrong “things” is of little if any importance. How many of us didn’t we have lots and lots of co-pupils or co-students with an average of 19.8 and so forth? How many of them succeeded in their professional lives after that? Plenty, but not everyone. So, there’s a point there that shows that school grades have a weaker correlation to professional success than the one we anticipated. The same thing applies to the university. The best students to get accepted in my school in 2000, were not the ones that efficiently completed their degree, either judging by their average scores in exams or by the time it took them.

The thing is, that we have been efficiently introduced in this “grade hunt”, and we became pretty good at it. Being myself a very adaptable person, from the first years of school, I always tried to find shortcuts. To find ways in which I would get the highest yield in grades based on the same amount of effort. This is bound to happen at some point. Even in college, I formulated my strategy that involved heavy reading during the exams and some “reading-checkpoints” during the semester so that I could stay afloat, and I did, completing my first degree in four years, with 6.99 out of 10. Same thing happened in my MSc studies, but I got the hang of it, so my average there was improved to 9.04/10!

Taken from here

It’s like showing someone how to play basketball and letting them know that whoever scores the most baskets wins, and then going back and informing them that they should not try to score, but to play for the fun of the game. That’s not possible. Saying to a child that 10 out of 10 will get them into college, this is what they fixate on, and no matter how hard you try, while grades are still there, you can’t make them learn in the process. The only thing that changes is the individual ambition of each one that makes them try harder all the time, or try enough at certain moments. Especially when the grading system is largely disconnected from any proof of learning. If by grading we could efficiently evaluate learning, there would be no problem. But we can’t, and that’s a fact right there!

When you introduce a grading system, you encourage extrinsic motivation, that is the motivation to get better for the sake of the grades, but you don’t encourage intrinsic motivation, which is to get better for the sake of learning, or your own sake. In terms of achievement, having a grade, usually means that the focus of learning is the grades and so, the students focus less and less on what they’re learning or how and more on how well they’re doing. Think of having an amateur javelin thrower that has a natural talent for throwing long shots but no technique. How can you make him focus on the technique when you’re actually judging them by how far the javelin will land? You can’t. He will always opt for the better result, no matter that the way to it (technique of throwing), is not the proper one. And then, thinking the other way around, how can the number of meters that the javelin is thrown can reflect the other qualities of the athlete, like physical condition, technique, etc? It can’t, but it’s the same thing we do in classrooms. We have a grade that is half-designed to measure things that in some cases, cannot be measured. If you have ever found yourself in the giving rather than receiving end of a grade, you know what I mean.

Taken from here

One of the phrases I really liked in one of the articles was: “But grading for learning is, to paraphrase a 1960’s-era slogan, rather like bombing for peace. Rating and ranking students (and their efforts to figure things out) is inherently counterproductive“. And thinking of that, I am certain that if not handled correctly, grade can turn into a gr(en)ade other than an aid in the hands of a pupil. When obsessed about the grades, even the students that easily get them, can be distracted and sidetracked from what’s important. How does it feel for a “Straight-A” student when he/she is faced with the first big failure? When by accident a trimester, his/her grade in one subject falls to 15 out of 20? I tend to think that the negative impact of something like that is far greater than a 12 out of 20 for a mediocre student that is used to lower grades.

How about having some kind of grading system that we never divulge to the pupils/students/adults that take the tests. How about getting some scores but then we share with them only something like pass or fail with some nice feedback on the side? It’s provocative and it will be for years to come, cause our generation and the ones after and before it, are used to be assessed and graded, not only as students, but also as adults. Cars with 5 out of 5 security stars, evaluation in our workplace with percentages in %, etc. It’s embedded in our DNA. We crave grades and numbers, at least the most logic-oriented of us. Even people that were always mediocre at school and had no interest for excellence whatsoever, would jump at the news that they performed at 100% at a test. Why? Cause we were programmed to think so high of grades, as an indication of quality or worth in general.

But why stick to something that is so clearly out of reality? Have you tried hiring employees from the top-grading-shelf? Have you cooperated with all these “Straight-A” people at your work? In most cases, their academic performance says nothing about their skills. Nothing at all, other than some capability of concentration or memorizing some stuff. They are coherent, follow the rules, they are knowledgeable and know stuff about shit or they know shit about stuff (I think I am quoting the great George Carlin here)

Qualities that are absolutely worthless when it comes to creative tasks. Tasks that lie at the epicenter of the modern workplace. The irony is that we are longing to create the new types of entreprises of the 21st century, using professionals that were educated with the paradigm of the 18th century at best! We seek to empower creativity and thinking out of the box and at the same time an HR manager disapproves when someone has a college degree with less than 7 out of 10. Like this is what matters. Or like “puberty” and “college spring breaks” and “getting some time to enjoy life”, only happens to losers that should not be working at all. Or like the examples of great men that impacted humanity that also were college dropouts are not enough.

And of course, within all of this, the promise of Learning Analytics comes. An approach that could lead to the establishment of one way of making sure that a minimum level of learning or exposure to learning has been reached. Maybe then we will have a lesser need for the formal grading system. I mean, if you could monitor a learner’s progress through Learning Management Systems, for the courses that this is feasible, would this be enough to avoid exhaustive testing? How about that? Long way to go still, and lots of privacy issues to take into account, but this could be a step forward in my point of view.

I was raised in the same educational system as you. I know it and I am managing quite well in its boundaries. I have the grades to prove it, you know! But this doesn’t mean that I overlook its flaws. Grading should be taken out of the equation. Assessment is the challenge. Assessment that is constructive and encourages learning. Assessment of the right stuff, in the proper way. Labelling and grading sounds more appropriate for consumer goods rather than people.




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