Lead a horse to water…

But you can’t make them drink. Or, why grades are not enough.

I’ve been teaching heavily the last month or so and been rather disparaged at the focus on grades and things ‘for points’. It seems as though a chunk of students (and a rather large one, I might add) might do anything I said if I simply attached the words ‘worth X points’. Although the maniacal part of me wants to cackle and see how far this might go, all other parts of me react with pretty strong disgust. Are points really enough? Do they cloud creative and practical thinking? Do they hurt, rather than help, students to master material?

Now, to be clear, I think feedback (early and often!) is a good thing. I just don’t know if needing to attach point values is a good practice. This semester alone, as an advisor, I’ve dealt with at least two issues of students breaking down about their self-worth because of their grades. It never occurred to them that they could be measured by other means, or that the act of measuring up in grades isn’t necessary to be ‘enough’ as a person.

That’s the negative side for low-earners: to internalize they are low-grade, instead of that they got a low-grade. The focus isn’t on improvement. If the goal is to help students understand where their understanding needs refinement, grades aren’t functioning as intended there. But what about the high earners? Do they really ‘get’ grades, or just get graded?

For the high earners, I fear that grades give them an over-inflated sense of what they understand and to what depth. This is especially dangerous for those preparing for cumulative exams, where a misreading of one’s scores from past exams can derail even the most promising student. Worse yet, it can make a student think narrowly, rather than in ways that benefit them most in the long term.


In trying to prepare students for their final exam, I recently held a class session where the students could write exam questions based on the learning objectives for each lesson of the course. I worked ahead to make sure the next and final 5 lessons were complete; this meant they’d have the learning objectives for those sections and the ability to write questions for the entire content of the course. I created a shared document for these students to put their questions into, along with a template that asked for the lesson the question came from, which objective it addressed, and the general topic. Since the class is about double the number of students as there were lessons, they could choose to work in pairs or individually and cover the content of the entire course.

I started the class and pointed out to them that they could and should work together on this shared document of questions. Since they only had that class period, whatever they came up with in that time could be eventual questions on the exam, so sharing with one another and dividing up the work would be the best way to ensure mutual success amongst the group.

So what’d they do? Not work together, that’s for sure. Rather than devise a way to best help one-another (and themselves!), they each acted as if silos had been built. Most wrote 1-2 questions (a few wrote a couple more), but they almost all overlapped in content, leaving large chunks of the course untouched. Unfortunately for the students, this now leaves lots for each of them to go back and review individually for the cumulative final. That’s lots of hours to spend instead of putting their heads together for 50 minutes.

So what gives? These are really smart students. Why do they do the suboptimal? Well, devising a plan requires thought and stepping back, and my hypothesis is that taking those few moments to think a problem through are the critical steps students tend to skip in point-based thinking. Those steps aren’t directly rewarded in the same way. For example, you write a question, and if you’re hopeful, you’re assuming your question will be chosen and you’ll instantly get 3 points. Those seem more tangible than the class set of questions which you contribute to, but which could, by the end of 50 minutes, amount to over 30 points, and at the very least, far less study time if they can be used as a study aid.

In looking over the questions which were written, admittedly a bit disparaged from what I’d witnessed, I was happy to see that there were indeed at least a few good questions which got to the meat of the material without being needlessly detailed. In looking the questions over more, I noticed an interesting pattern: the students who had done the best job of working together and splitting up questions weren’t my high-performers/A-students, but those students on target for B’s/C’s. Since the activity wasn’t worth points, these students weren’t just looking for a boost; rather, it seems as though they ‘got’ what the activity meant broadly and didn’t just try mindless plugging-and-chugging to complete the task.

Who knows ultimately how these students grades will turn out. And honestly, what do grades really mean if the students can master the course material, but can’t think broadly enough to apply it in ways that solve real problems? Grades aren’t enough. Or perhaps our ways of measuring growth in thinking outside of just the material aren’t enough. We need more ways to push students to work smarter, rather than just harder, and to do so in ways that are healthy. Grades aren’t a measure of you as a person, but they should be a better reflection of how you as a person holistically think.

Yes, I know this is another teacher lament, and yes, there are data to get at some of these issues. But there also needs to be systemic change so that we’re not simply training students to perform doggie tricks, but really to see and solve problems in ways that aren’t necessarily always the easiest.

I’m willing to put in that work and try new methods for the collective good. I bet you are, too. Let’s go to work.



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