On a plane flight earlier this summer I was trying to get this out of my system. I am absolutely bedeviled by assessment.
I don’t like grading. Well, no one enjoys marking papers. It is tedious and deflating work—endless stacks of repetition makes the tedium; focusing on errors, misconceptions, and failures leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
But I don’t really want to complain about marking papers, per se. Much good can come from interacting thoughtfully with written student work. A well-crafted assignment and thoughtful comments from an instructor provide students with the feedback required to generate reflection and intellectual growth.
The part I take issue with is the grading by assigning some sort of score. One might use points, one might use letters: I want neither.
I suppose that what would make me happiest is some sort of narrative dialogue of evaluation. That way, the students and I can keep our eyes on what is important—striving for personal improvement.
What is it about grades that I dislike? They poison the enterprise. Focus shifts from learning for its own sake to “making a grade.” Students perceive school as a game and then they “play it” instead. This leads to point grubbing. I am too lazy to look for the links: but I have heard of studies demonstrating (1) that students will ignore comments if a paper has any kind of summative mark on it, and (2) that enjoyment in an activity dissipates after being paid to do that activity.
The problem remains that everyone expects grades. Whole subsystems of modern tertiary education depend upon the A-F system we use: scholarships, graduation requirements, grad school apps, the dean’s list, etc…
So, what can be done? How do I turn the system on itself to my advantage?
- Provide only narrative evaluations unless pressed.
- Avoid legalistic “contract-type” language on a syllabus.
- Give meaningful feedback often and in person.
- Share with students my goals for their personal growth.
- Design a system where students can see this in a positive light. Sell it.
- Ensure my “standards” cannot be gamed. That is, if a student really sees the external motivation of a certain grade as primary, then an attempt to structure work to improve to that grade should lead to behaviors for personal growth and authentic learning. (Whatever that means.)
So, I’ll have to put together something coherent in this direction. Soon, I’ll share what I have been doing.
Added After Publication: Well, I didn’t expect this to be the most popular item today, but twitter seems to like this one. I did get this
— Jennifer Borgioli (@DataDiva) July 8, 2013
I admit, there is a valid point here. I don’t actually have a problem with the fact that we do assessment. But I still have a problem with how I do assessment, so I am going to leave the title alone.