Let’s return to the grading standards used in the Olympics and their application to educational assessment. As I suggested, the upstanding students – those who will become the elite of the students in the program – quickly become subject to a different set of grading criteria from those who don’t stand out. Assignments from the latter students are generally graded on some kind of rubric that identifies major points to be addressed in the assignment, the kinds of references and arguments that ought to be brought into a discussion, certain standards of writing and presentation, and the internal logic of the presentation. A certain number of points is generally allocated to each of these areas. Actual feedback may vary, but students are generally congratulated for complete coverage of a point and cautioned for improvement on those areas of the rubric where there performance leaves something to be desired. Points are totaled up, and a grade determined, which oddly enough turns out to be pretty much the same grade they got last time around, although maybe for different issues.
Processing a paper from one of the elite students is generally a different order of business. You begin with the assumption that the student has written a complete and careful treatment of the subject, and therefore will probably receive an A. But rather than totaling up a number of points, more commonly you concentrate on things that you find inexplicably missing, or on the occasional lapse in logic. That is, as you read through the paper you’re basically doing the same thing that Ms. Biles’ gymnastics judges did – pay particular attention to the little things in the paper that detract from perfection. With the outcome of an A grade virtually certain, it’s not unlikely that the elite student’s paper may actually receive more negative comments than a less successful paper from a less successful student. Feedback becomes less direction and advice to the student than it is the hoped-for start of a conversation with a potential colleague about professionally meaningful issues.
I don’t think that this difference in approach to assessment and feedback is necessarily a bad thing. I wasn’t even really aware of this difference at the time I was actively teaching and putting it into practice, although I can in retrospect easily see how and why I did so. When a student comes along who stands out as potential colleague material – and they are not all that easy to come by – then it’s only natural that they should receive more reinforcing feedback than a student you don’t see as having this potential. Once a student establishes himself or herself or hirself as one of the potential elite, generally by a strong performance on an initial assignment, then the new grading standards – “points off for imperfection” – come into play.
This dual approach to grading highlights, among other things, the fundamental ridiculousness of trying to use the same grading scales and procedures for graduate school that we apply to first and second graders. We spend vast amounts of time over many years using what amounts to operate conditioning to get children to respond to letters as academic incentives – and then we wonder why graduate students seem to be so fixated on grades, often to the exclusion of actual learning. It’s worth remembering that the process of assigning letter grades to academic performance is really only about 75 years old; for most of human history we managed to avoid this fixation while still managing to learn quite a lot. Letter grades were adopted when class sizes increased enormously during the baby-boom, as an easy way to provide a degree of feedback on performance without actually pushing the teachers to be specific with each and every child. There is absolutely nothing magical and necessary about letter grades.
There is been considerable handwringing in recent years about “grade inflation” and the increasing tendency to give As as the modal grade. This is particularly true in graduate schools, where the creditable impulse to keep standards of performance high has set grade-point requirements for retention in the program at about the B+ level. In practice then, this means that there are in effect only three grades that can be given to passing work – A, A-, and B+, or in effect, high, medium, and low. Grades given on this compressed scale are not particularly helpful to students , unless accompanied by fairly detailed narrative feedback. But particularly in larger sections of classes, this is often the only feedback students receive on their assignments.
All students deserve feedback that is as effective and helpful as we can provide. Learning is inherently an interactive event. For the vast majority of students at present, however, letter grading is neither particularly helpful nor worth the levels of aggravation it causes to all concerned. I suggest that we take a close look at how we evaluate and provide feedback to our very best students, and see if we can’t learn from that experience how to improve the feedback we provide those we know will never reach the top ranks of our profession. Everyone deserves to have their educational accomplishments respected and appreciated. Let’s see if we can’t do a better job of extending this to all students.