I really, really, really hate grades. I think what I hate most is when the focus of the students becomes all about the grades. You know – the what do I need to do to get an A in this class stuff. But it’s not really their fault. I can’t blame them or that attitude. If you don’t get a high GPA then opportunities start to close themselves off to you. We live in a society where we rank, order, and sort our students. They have to take lots and lots of tests. Tests in K-12 that are supposed to show what they have/have not learned. Tests to get into college. Tests to get into graduate school. Our obsession with numbers and sorting is everywhere.
So we can’t blame students for wanting to know what they have to do in order to get as high a score as possible. There are just too many potential consequences otherwise.
Yes, I have to grade students as a part of my teaching, and I have to assign a grade at the end. I don’t have a problem with the act of grading in and of itself since that involves me reviewing student work and providing feedback. That’s fine. Feedback is great.
But here’s where I start to get stuck. I want my students to take risks in their learning. Now think about what it means to take a risk in anything. If you take a risk you might: (a) succeed, (b) utterly fail, or (c) something in between what you thought would happen and utterly failing. But, regardless of the outcome, you should learn something, right?
Let me give you an example from the yoga world. Twice now I have entered into yoga asana competitions. Let’s not go down the path of debating the concept of yoga and competition. Let’s focus on the grading and the risks aspect of it. I had to do seven postures in three minutes. Each posture is evaluated and scored and can obtain a certain amount of points.
So, to compete I have to get up on a stage in front of three judges and 100+ people while wearing a leotard. You tell me that’s not a risk in and of itself. And for the two times I have done this, do you know where I placed?
Dead last. Well, at least among the women.
And you know what?
I don’t care. I don’t care that I placed dead last because I learned so much about myself as a person, I learned a lot about nutrition, and I learned a lot about fitness. But of course who really cares if I placed last two years in a row, right? I mean, what negative consequences did it have for me? The answer is none. It had zero negative consequences for me. I didn’t want to win the competition (for real) because then I would have to go compete on a national level. That was not for me at all.
So obviously there are differences between grades and a yoga competition score in terms of negative consequences for me and probably most people. But I want us to focus on the larger point here. When we construct a culture around grades, then the response is people are going to do what needs to be done in order to get the high grades because doing so has it’s consequences. So while taking a risk might be worthwhile in terms of learning and experiences, it may not pay off in terms of the overall grade. Sometimes staying safe is what you have to do in order to get the good grade and the more positive result.
And I get that. I really, really do. It’s unfortunate, and I try to construct an environment that is more focused on learning and risk taking and less focused and hung up on the actual grading part of it. In fact, I’ve gotten so caught up in not emphasizing grades that on the first day of one of my classes this semester I forgot to talk about them almost completely! The information is all there in the syllabus. I explain how each assignment is graded and then how the grades all add up. And I think I kinda went over how each assignment is graded. I know I explained what to do.
But later that night, I realized I never explained how the grades all added up together to create one big final one. And I then realized that no one had asked me to explain it.
Could it be everyone had read what was on the syllabus and understood it? Maybe.
Could it be no one was overly stressed about the grades or it just slipped everyone’s mind? Sure.
Could it be that I put such an emphasis on the learning and experiences that course was intending to provide that we all kinda forgot about the grades in that moment?
I hope so.