Dot Physics

And just suppose you had no grade

It would be nice if I could come up with a good rhyme for grade to fit this title.

One of my brothers is a biochemistry faculty at Appalachian State University (hint – he is the one with the same last name that I have). We were talking (and surprisingly agreeing) that grades were dumb. What would happen if we stopped grading? Wouldn’t that be awesome?

So, what would happen if there were no grades? Here are some thoughts.

  • We would only have one job in the class – help students learn. The second job of evaluating student understanding would only be there to help them learn more.
  • It would be painfully obvious to the student that learning was for them and not us (the faculty). Why come to class if you are just going to read the newspaper or surf on your fancy iPhone 4?
  • But don’t grades tell employers and graduate schools how good a student is? How about students are responsible for presenting their own evidence for how awesome they are? Maybe a portfolio or something – something like: these are the things I am good at. Oh, but they would lie about what they can do? What is the stop them from doing that now? Isn’t that what a job interview is for?
  • But if you don’t grade, they won’t do the work! Won’t they? How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat!? Do we really want students that are learning just because we are holding the grade-stick to them? This is college, these students are adults.
  • I think there still needs to be some evaluation – evaluation to know where the students are so that you can help them learn. However, this evaluation should not be the Scarlet Letter grade on their chest. Just some type of feedback.
  • Cats and dogs, living together.
  • /ul>

    Here is my favorite. Would we stop hearing this?

    “Excuse me, Dr. Allain? Is this going to be on the test?”

    To tell you the truth, I rarely hear students say that. But, I do know that it drives some faculty crazy. But I guess I am already crazy – crazy for thinking of a world without grades. Oh – there could be no degree requirements too!

Comments

  1. #1 Alan B
    August 27, 2010

    Are you familiar with Evergreen State College in Olympia? As I understand it, they mostly don’t use letter grades.

  2. #2 delurking
    August 27, 2010

    “Oh – there could be no degree requirements too!”

    Right, so your transcript just says that you registered for a bunch of classes.

    If one university tried it, the results would depend strongly on its size and reputation.

    If you instituted such a policy nationwide, testing services would spring up to allow people to demonstrate their knowledge to potential employers. Universities would be driven by market forces to structure their curricula around the dominant tests.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    August 27, 2010

    Here is my favorite. Would we stop hearing this?
    “Excuse me, Dr. Allain? Is this going to be on the test?”

    Or the more general variant, “What will the test be on?” I have a stock answer for the latter: “8 1/2 by 11 inch paper.”

  4. #4 dean
    August 27, 2010

    Alverno College in Milwaukee is a no-grade school. In the mid-90s they were held up by many as having a good working assessment model.

    Alverno College is a four-year, liberal arts, independent, Catholic college for women, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Chartered in 1887 by the School Sisters of St. Francis, the college offers weekday undergraduate programs and Alverno on the Weekend undergraduate programs for women, as well as graduate programs for women and men. This nationally renowned institution is heralded as an innovative leader in pedagogy, and has received international acclaim as a pioneer in developing a measurable, outcome-focused curriculum in which the individual student can grow as a learner.

    They have the benefit of being a small school, with small classes, so the extra time faculty require to be involved in assessment is available. I attended an assessment conference there many years ago; I think it would be difficult to take there model and use it at a larger school, with larger classes: the per-student time faculty need to have to make it work wouldn’t be a reasonable. However, the school is held in reasonably high esteem, and the teachers they graduate do quite well.

  5. #5 Diana Hagan
    August 27, 2010

    New College of Florida uses a contract system with written evaluations instead of grades. Among the advantages of this system is that written feedback from the instructor is much more informative than a letter grade. This system also better accommodates students with varying learning objectives in the same classes. I’m not aware of any students having difficulty getting into graduate programs or finding jobs because of the lack of a GPA. And yes, it was pretty awesome.

  6. #6 Vicki
    August 27, 2010

    I believe Hampshire College (Amherst, Mass.) is still using this model: students complete projects and, over time, assemble portfolios of their work. Another small liberal arts college. I think (as with New College) the professors write evaluations, but it’s not a numerical or letter grade.

  7. #7 Nick
    August 27, 2010

    I don’t this system would work for the job market. Employers would have to review each portfolio of every applicant, wich would take way to much time, instead of just dismissing everyone with a GPA lower then 3.0 and then take a more in-depth look.

  8. #8 Liz
    August 27, 2010

    From a student’s perspective (although not in the US system), grades are useful! Sure, learning for learning’s sake is great, but without assessment I have no idea of how well I’ve grasped the material – how much I understand and how well I can express it. So as you say, some form of feedback would certainly be necessary to see where students are, but surely it would take longer for you to give individual written feedback than to assign a grade or percentage to a piece of work?

    I don’t think most people are very good at evaluating their own understanding of a topic – you don’t know what you don’t know. Without grades, employers would need to implement some kind of test (facts or skills) to distinguish between job applicants. Many already do, though, in competitive jobs. I guess in real life, grades aren’t that useful in job applications, because they just tell you how well a student learnt a particular subject, not how well they can apply that knowledge to the job, but they are often used to narrow down a list, despite this.

    I’m lucky enough to be at a university where, aside from lectures, a lot of the teaching is done in small groups, with a supervisor (most often a postdoc), setting weekly essays and giving feedback on them. Then we have one set of exams at the end of the year, which is painful, but overall I think that teaching method works well.

  9. #9 Greg Fish
    August 27, 2010

    Actually, I like the grades. They motivate you to keep working and studying to make sure you maintain a high GPA, and if you already have a good depth in the subject, they encourage competitions for best designs, best ideas, and best projects.

  10. #10 theshortearedowl
    August 27, 2010

    Have you read ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin? One part deals with a professor (… sort of) from an anarchist culture (in this case a planet) which did not use grades, only learning for the sake of learning; this professor comes to teach in a capitalist culture which does use grades. The book is definitely worth a read, and not only for this small part.

  11. #11 TomZ
    August 27, 2010

    This made me think of Bill Cosby, talking about his wife, “She has a childhood psych degree with a B average, which means if you ask her a question about a child’s behavior she would give you an 85 answer.”

  12. #12 Farley Gwazda
    August 27, 2010

    As long as we are thinking about grading’s effect on education – what do you think about this lecture on unschooling by Astra Taylor?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwIyy1Fi-4Q

    ?

  13. #13 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 27, 2010

    UC Santa Cruz had a no grade policy for many years, the system broke down for engineering and science and I think is no de facto a grade system for many or all majors, but it lasted a good long while and seemed to mostly work.

  14. #14 Rob (no, the other Rob)
    August 27, 2010

    Just suppose you had no grade
    No way to recognize the efforts you’d made
    No one to see an “F” and go on a tirade
    It’s anarchy, I tell you! Be very afraid!

  15. #15 CherryBomb
    August 27, 2010

    The school I went to as an undergraduate would allow you to take graduate-level courses on a pass/fail basis if you were really interested in the subject. I thought it was fantastic, because you could get an appreciation for why you really, really need to slog through the applied math to do anything interesting. Even if you did not have the background that was really necessary, you could do well enough to pass the course, and it was great motivation to get the basics down.

  16. #16 Rhett Allain
    August 27, 2010

    @The Other Rob,

    I applaud you sir. Very well played.

  17. #17 Jen
    August 27, 2010

    I went to St. John’s College (campuses in Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD). There are no grades at St. John’s. Students are evaluated through a process called a “Don Rag” (a term borrowed from Oxford), wherein faculty verbally evaluate the student and the student is given the opportunity to respond. Participation is expected in the form of reading (lots of reading), papers, and above all, in-class discussion. There are some who don’t bother to do the work; but doing the work serves one’s own education, pure and simple.

    Also, dogs and cats live together.

  18. #18 Sami
    August 27, 2010

    I think there is a big problem with the one approach fits all. Some students need grades and will not do anything otherwise; many students conditioned by the system in fact to respond to grades and only grades… They game the system. Other students hate grades and don’t find them necessary and in fact learn less when coerced by grades. Employers want to see grades as not just a measure of what students know, but how consistently they are able to play a coerced game.

    There may be a point in making the grading system operate closer to life than the existing system… where you can catch up even if you are behind and still receive an A if you messed up something considering you can fix your mistake… etc. The point being that there needs to be an entire debate and discourse about levels of coercion, their necessity, the difference between student behaviour and needs, etc. The one approach fits all is a big problem that needs to be dealt with.

    Ultimately, the schooling system is set up to create employees more than anything else… and their interests come first. Whether those employers are universities or the corporate world. The entire system exists to serve their interests more so than the student’s. Should this be fixed? Probably. Will it be? Unlikely.

  19. #19 Sami
    August 27, 2010

    One more angle I wanted to add was an angle of competition. Grades spur competition and people associate themselves with certain social classes based on the brand of their school and their experience with the games that these schools make them play; i.e. grades.

    So for instance if you went to Harvard and were an “A” student, or whatever is a perfect GPA; then you are the cream of the crop, you are special; you are elite. Girls give you more attention; it’s easier to get dates… Employers give you more attention; etc. In fact I had a friend that used this to his full advantage… and it works wonders. Doesn’t matter whether you actually know anything in fact, but these are social signifier or your position in society.

    So society demands to an extent that we provide students with grades so that some feel better about themselves and their lives because of the grades that they earn. If everyone is the same, what make you special? What makes you strive to achieve, to get on top, and feel good about yourself and what you have “accomplished”?

  20. #20 Jimmy
    August 27, 2010

    Anyone who claims that 18-20 yr old males are adults either is not serious, is not very observant, or is not really a teacher of such.

    Seriously, these kids literally can’t think through consequences a week ahead. Grades have evolved to get them to work. Sure, small sell-selected populations will disprove this, but for the general college population, well, good luck.

  21. #21 FrauTech
    August 27, 2010

    I can see modifying the grading system…but presumably you’d still need some marker of pass or fail. Whether that’s per class, or for an overall placement exam. Why? You have to set some kind of standard. You have to say these people did enough, and these people didn’t. Otherwise, if your university doesn’t have any standards, what’s the point. Might as well be me lecturing out of my garage and handing degrees out to kids who pass by.

    Getting rid of degree requirements seems pretty stupid. As it is now for engineering you have an accreditation system that determines a “core” curricula that colleges have to teach students. If I’m trying to hire an engineer, I don’t want to have to look up that guy’s college and figure out whether he learned fluid dynamics or not, whether he learned basic circuits or not. If you say there’s no requirements and he can take whatever he wants to, how do I have any clue he’s ready to be an engineer.

    Again, unless I have some sort of exam. Like say I require all my applicants have passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. Well at that point, schools would want their engineers to be better prepared to pass that exam. So they would want course requirements that encompass the topics on that exam. So they would require a set of courses very similar to what’s on the exam. And you are back where you started.

    Right now as an employer you can look at somebody’s resume, and even if you don’t see a GPA you know that person “passed” his engineering courses. You know almost all engineering programs have the same necessary core programs that you need to prepare you for work. I don’t want to have to look at a portfolio, or interview that candidate and ASK him what classes he took and whether that meets my minimum standards. I should be able to look at his resume, see the degree, and know it is sufficient.

    I can see where you might want to get out of assigning individual grades per class, but I think the responsibility is still on the college/university for having a “standard” for what a curriculum in engineering, or biology, or chemistry even MEANS, and then indicating to what level that student understood and could use and convey that knowledge. If that means there’s a portfolio at the end or a series of projects that tests that knowledge rather than a grade per class that’s fine, but you still need some way to quickly sum up what that means to an employer.

  22. #22 Michael Enquist
    August 29, 2010

    I attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, class of ’95 BA in Math and Bio.

    Classes were conducted on a “learning community” model. I took a class called “Math Systems” that covered what most schools would separate as “Calc III,” “Diff EQ,” etc. and I took another class called “Molecule to Organism,” which other schools would separate into “Organic Chem,” “Molecular Biology,” “A&P,” etc.

    A small group of us who wanted to focus our A&P credits on other animals besides humans wrote our own syllabus, found our own text, conducted our own lectures, researched and ordered dissection specimens, wrote and graded our own tests, and evaluated each other – all with faculty oversight of course. Of all of the classes in my college career, this one was the most interesting and from which I learned the most.

    In the other classes we did take tests that were graded, but our work from each quarter was evaluated by the faculty and we also wrote our own evaluations.

    I have never seen a job requirement for a biotech (where I used my degree) or any other job I’ve had that asked what my grades were. They only wanted to know what experience and skills I could bring to the work. I have never received a grade in any job I’ve worked. I have received narrative evaluations, very much like the ones I received and wrote at TESC.

    I have seen job postings for jobs in academia that wanted to know grades, however. I think this indicates the difference between the goals of the hiring managers: In companies they want to know what you can do, in academia they want to know what you have done.

    Without issuing a single letter grade, The Evergreen State College has been graduating well-educated people who do good work in the world since 1967.

  23. #23 Andrew
    August 29, 2010

    Are you familiar with the work of Alfie Kohn? Many of his articles are available at his website. He makes a solid, well-researched case that giving grades is deeply counterproductive.

  24. #24 S.K.Graham
    August 30, 2010

    I heartily agree!

    I have long contended that teachers could be much more effective (at all levels) if students did not see them as “police, judge, and jury” and could just see them as “teacher”. The job of a teacher should be to help students learn — put the teacher squarely on the same side as the student and eliminate the adversarial aspect of the relationship.

    This is not to say that student should not be evaluated. Just saying that that should be done outside of the classroom. Standardized tests can evaluate knowledge and mastery of a subject. (and before anyone objects about “teaching just for the test”… standardized tests can be made quite effectively impossible to teach for by having a large (and ever changing, updating) body of available questions, from which the questions on any given student’s test can be randomly selected).

    For evaluation of accomplishments/achievements, students can submit papers and other work to “review boards” — normally made up of people other than those directly responsible for teaching the student.

    There is no reason this general approach to teaching/evaluation should not begin at the earliest age.

  25. #25 Rorschach
    September 1, 2010

    By and large I have to agree with Jimmy @20. I was by no means an academic slouch, but I doubt I’d have pushed myself if I wasn’t getting a very concrete indicator of how I was measuring up. Part of that is simply laziness, I’m sure; the rest is probably the lack of competition. I think most people like to have some metrics of how well they’re performing, and generally I think a grade is a more objective way of doing this than the professor simply giving me an ‘attaboy.’ Certainly there are some true intellectuals who will strive their utmost for the sheer pleasure of learning, but the rest of us bums appreciate a little motivation.

  26. #26 Paul
    September 1, 2010

    I can’t believe the thread got this far w/out a mention of William Glasser, who has been calling for gradeless schools for about 20 years now.

  27. #27 Jim
    September 2, 2010

    The other Rob is pretty cool, but “kool-aid” comes to mind when I think of the way we think about grades.

  28. #28 Kathlyn Carroll
    September 16, 2010

    I actually attended a college that did not have grades. It was a pass/fail system: you either knew your stuff, or you didn’t. In many ways it was much harder than a grade system; there could be exams where you only got one aspect of a problem incorrect, so you had to take it over again. However, when retaking tests, you had to have learned or relearned the material. We were also evaluated by outside assessors. These were professional people in various disciplines in the community who would periodically come in and observe us in some sort of situation, and then assess each individual student on their performance. Perhaps that sounds easy, but I assure you, it wasn’t. These outside assessors were our future employers not just our professors. Sometimes, it was very tough. There were, sometimes, things I didn’t like about it, but I earned my degree. I worked hard for it. I didn’t just earn my degree, I Learned it. I am a 1999 graduate of Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wi. Check it out.

  29. #29 Electronic Cigarette
    November 22, 2010

    I don’t agree with/like the school system. It was designed by Rockefeller to provide an entry level working class and has not grown with our expanding knowledge of how people learn nor our technological advancements.
    I plan on Un-schooling my children (i.e Experiential learning). Learning should NOT be passive (sitting in a desk for 6-8 hours while mindless facts are presented that have no impact on the child’s current world).
    It’s time to revamp the system instead of dumbing down our children.

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