Competitive grading still sabotages good teaching

December 4, 2008 at 7:27 pm Leave a comment

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TWELVE years ago a professor and a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford wrote a paper entitled Competitive Grading Sabotages Good Teaching. I found the paper this weekend and read a depressingly accurate description of how my school works today.

Assigning competitive grades “skews teachers’ values” and affects teachers’ behavior in five basic ways argued Prof John Krumboltz and Christine Yeh in their 1996 paper:

❏ it turns teachers into students’ opponents,

❏ it justifies inadequate teaching methods and styles,

❏ it trivializes course content,

❏ it encourages methods of evaluation that misdirect and inhibit student learning, and

❏ it rewards teachers for punishing students.

Below are some quotes from their damning indictment:

Teachers become opponents

“To assign grades, teachers must become critics whose focus is negative, always seeking errors and finding fault with students’ work. Moreover, students must be compared with one another, because there is no accepted standard for a given letter grade. A performance that earns an A in one classroom could earn a C in another classroom because of differences in the teachers’ standards or in the composition of the two classes.

“When judging the relative merit of students’ performances takes precedence over improving their skills, few students can feel good about their accomplishments. Only one student can be the best; the rest are clearly identified as less able. Comparative grading ensures that, unlike children in Lake Wobegon, half of the students will be below average.”

Grading justifies inadequate methods of teaching

“When students fail to achieve course objectives, whose responsibility is it – the teachers’ or the students’? Current grading practices put the onus squarely on the students. Teachers can use the most slipshod of teaching methods, discover that many students do not understand the material, and then assign grades accordingly.

“Current grading practices do not encourage teachers to help students improve, because only the students are blamed when they fail to learn.

“If every student achieved all the objectives of a given course, every student would earn an A – an unacceptable state of affairs in the current view. Thus teachers are reinforced for using methods that ensure that some students will not succeed.”

Grades trivialize course content

Which of the following questions is more challenging to a student?

❏ When was the Declaration of Independence signed?

❏ Would you have signed the Declaration of Independence if you had lived in 1776? Why or why not?

“The answer seems clear. The first question requires students to memorize a date. The second question requires them to think — to imagine themselves in another time and place and then to justify an action that would profoundly affect their own lives and the lives of others. However, many teachers might hesitate to include such thought-provoking questions on a test.

“If assigning grades were not required, teachers might opt for the second question. Thus course content is determined, at least partly, by the need to grade students. Teachers would be liberated to teach toward more consequential goals if they were not obligated to assign grades.”

Grading inhibits constructive evaluation

“Ideally, the evaluation process would help students discover how to improve their achievement of important goals. Grading defeats this purpose by discouraging the vast majority of students, who receive below-average grades, and by not challenging students who could improve on what they have already learned.

“Pressure to perform well often causes students to attend only to ‘material that will be on the final’.

“Students develop learning styles that they expect to yield good grades. They quickly learn that the operational definition of a course objective is ‘what appears on the final exam’.”

Teachers can take pride in failure

“Some teachers feel proud when a high percentage of their students fail. They want others to believe that a high failure rate signifies a difficult course and an intelligent teacher. To a large extent, they succeed.

“There is a common assumption that taking a ‘tough’ course is more prestigious than taking a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course. Some teachers believe that giving students low grades adds luster to their own reputations. Such teachers may choose to include excessively difficult material in their courses simply to enhance their own self-importance.

“One way of guaranteeing a high failure rate is to present material that is too difficult for most of the class to comprehend. But the inclusion of material for this purpose stands education on its head. Teachers deserve shame, not praise, if their students fail to achieve.

“Teachers who take pride in giving low grades blame the students, not themselves, when course material is not mastered as quickly as it is presented.

“The students who fail are blamed undeservedly, and the teachers who fail them are esteemed undeservedly — but the real culprit is the grading system.

“Competitive grades turn educational priorities on their head. Classes in which most of the students master the material are perceived as unchallenging. High grades are often dismissed as “grade inflation,” not as a sign that the teacher and the students have successfully achieved their mutual objectives. Meanwhile, prestige is accorded to teachers who are unable to help most of their students learn the material.

“The situation is ridiculous.”

And in conclusion they added “…under the competitive grading system, teachers are not required to help every student learn, but they are required to judge every student. Judgment is mandatory; improvement is optional.

“Competitive grading de-emphasizes learning in favor of judging. Learning becomes a secondary goal of education. Clearly, then, the need to grade students undermines the motive — to help students learn — that brought most of us into the profession.”

Click to read the full article by Prof John Krumboltz and Christine Yeh.

Similar points were also made in From Degrading to De-grading by Alfie Kohn… nine years ago.

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