Category Archives: Grades

These are posts about grades, grading policies, and the unsatisfying and counterproductive effects they can have.

[Grades]: BS and photocopies

About a month ago, I wrote this and this, detailing my experiences with grades and the events that brought me to teach at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed.

Well these damned grades are still around, and they continue to drive me crazy.  Here’s a few more stories about how silly, misguided, misleading, harmful, and uninformative grades often are.

* * *

How many points is a photocopy worth?  I mean, if you assign a homework problem, and someone photocopies the proof from the book, how many points is that worth?  I only ask, because this just happened.

A couple friends are working on their Masters at NYU, and this term they are in the same Complex Analysis class.  They’d like to discuss homework together, but Justin tends to put things off to the last minute, while Liz is a more meticulous student.  When Liz wants to chat, Justin usually hasnt started, which drives her a bit crazy, especially when he gets better homework scores.  This week it came to a bit of a head.

Put off and put off again, Justin’s homework was overdue.  The last problem said something like, “feel free to use your text and the following property.”  Looking through the text, he found a solution to the exact problem, property and all.  “I could copy this down by hand, verbatim, or I could just photocopy the proof,” Justin thought, before heading to the copy machine.

So how much is a photocopy worth?  FULL CREDIT!

Justin got full credit for photocopying a proof from the book and citing the reference.  Despite Liz having worked this problem out and thought her way through, she earned a 4.9/5 on the homework to Justin’s 5.

Liz in a half-dejected tone – “I’m just not as smart as you.”

* * *

I’m wrapping up my own Masters program, though the luster and appeal of academic training are certainly fading.  For whatever reason, I have little motivation for the two classes I’m taking this Fall.  Note taking has been minimal, homework pushed off, and I spend most classes on my phone, texting, tweeting, and playing Whale Trail.

In keeping with mathematical tradition, most exams ask for replicated proofs from lecture.  I’m usually very good at this kind of thing, because I listen to the lecture and make sense of it in real time.  When the exam comes, I simply retell myself the story of the lecture and write it down, but having paid little attention this term I sensed impending doom.

As I walked in to my Field Theory exam, I was confident it would go terribly, and looking over the questions, I was certain.  Unlike the good students who had memorized the notes, I knew none of them.

I just wrote down whatever I thought could resemble proof and put down any shred of detail I could recall.  For one I simply included all of the premises and said things like “this contradicts the maximality of n, hence we see that f is irreducible over F,” without much attention to the absurd lack of mathematical rigor or value.  About an hour later, I was the first to leave.

The professor must not have read the thing, because I got an 80, while friends I know to have strong command earned 60’s.  Worse yet, I have an A at midterm, despite knowing for certain that I only sort of know the field theory.

* * *

How much do I need to say about how ridiculous these two stories are?  Obviously Justin’s points were not earned for clear knowledge or mastery, not even for hard work.  The very same is true of my exam score.

The first thing people ask about schools without grading is “if you don’t give grades how can colleges tell how good the kids are?”  (The answer is obvious, you just tell them by writing about each child.)  My question is this – If schools are going to continue giving grades as meaningless as these, then how can we tell anything?

We can easily blame these professors and say they’re “grading poorly.” Perhaps Justin deserved a zero.  Perhaps I should have failed.  If there’s any case to be made for grading, I’m certain these teachers have got it wrong, but these two stories point to a fact that is true across the spectrum of graded environments.

The central lesson: It’s about doing the work and not about the learning.

When we ask students to memorize and replicate for tests, this is surely the message.  Even worse, we equate the work with learning, when they are plainly distinct.


[Grades]: More recent experiences

This last week I had two minor scrapes with grading, but when I sat down to write it up, this came out.  I figured it was important to share some background, since grading is such an important issue to me.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about this week.

* * *

I’m in the last year of a Masters program in math, so each term I take a couple courses at Hunter College.  Hunter, like most colleges, gives letter grades to its students.  That’s fine by me for the most part, mostly because I usually do well in school, especially when I’m studying math, my personal fave.

I guess I like my program in general, but my experiences have certainly been mixed.  I’m extending my expertise by learning lots of stuff, and it feels really good to be surrounded by knowledgeable math nerds.  On the other hand, a lot of the chalk-and-talk lectures are pretty boring, and the head of the program once said “my job is to beat you up.”  Usually my job is to do the homework and regurgitate proofs on exams, which is not my ideal learning experience, but thankfully, I can do as expected, follow lectures, and also think on my own, make my own connections, and ask my own questions.  This doesn’t make me a genius.  It simply means math is where I connect with my “element.”  (Can you tell I’m reading Sir Ken Robinson’s book?)

Homework is my chance to take on tough problems and share my mathematical work with my professor.  These are graded, of course, and in my Real Analysis class, only 8 out of 10 will count for our grade, so last week, I simply didn’t do my homework.  I put it off, then said “forget it.”

Systems like this all head the same way – towards me calculating what I can get away with not doing.  (And I actually like math!)  I totally could have done it, and it isn’t like grades made me not do the homework,  But really, I can’t help but beat the system.  In highly structured systematic schooling, I suspect students spend a considerable portion of their energies trying to outwit the designers.  I’ve seen it at that boarding school, and I’ve done it all my life.

* * *

I spent a year in a graduate program for Education and in one of my classes, I had to create a powerpoint presentation as a major component of the course.  Unfortunately, and somewhat ashamedly, I calculated that I wouldn’t need it to pass, so I wrote the teacher and explained I wouldn’t be doing it.  I’m not proud of this, but it is one from a long list of similar stories.

At EdcampNYC a teacher asked about how Saint Ann’s worked without grades and said,  “in a pass/fail class, students never try as hard as the do with grades.”  He’s right, but that’s only when pass/fail is the alternative to grades.  Outside of that system, a great deal is possible.  Students can surprise you and themselves when school is simply about learning and development.

Salman Khan of Khan Academy was recently quoted as saying “school is a game,” (and by implication ‘I’m here to help you win.’)  Grades and grading systems epitomize the game mentality of schooling.  When school is about doing what it takes to make the grade, economizing energy and investment is what makes you successful.  Really though, passionate, meaningful learning experiences requires the opposite relationship to investment.  The more of you that’s there, the more you absorb.

* * *

Finally, Justin showed me a neat little game called RayRay that some of his fifth graders played for free-choice time.  I suggest you try it out.  I didn’t really get it at first, so I clicked around until I figured it out.  I started thinking about group theory applications (Each table of n RayRays is a subgroup of (Z2)n, so which subgroup is this?) and didn’t really focus on doing the puzzles perfectly.  I was happy when I solved each one, and when I beat them all, I was proud, even if it was the easy level.

The RayRays betray me - F on Easy

Then, out come the cute little RayRay’s in perfect formation to inform me of my “F” ranking.  I was crushed, betrayed, and angry.  I went back and tried to find simpler solutions, and earned a C.  Then I gave up.  I realize it’s just a game, and I have faith that I could improve, but honestly, do I really need to get an F on a dinky little flash game?  My colleagues will tell you, I was actually affected by this.  Am I just being thin-skinned, or is there something unnecessarily negative in grading like this?

* * *

Grades are not inherently evil, but if grades constitute the core of a feedback system, that system is inherently weak.  The system can be scammed, and the feedback is less valuable. (more proof here.)

No grading system should allow you to dump the hard work that will help you grow in the ways you care to grow.  No system should thoughtlessly hand out grades or ranks without meaningful, helpful feedback, and careful consideration.

When we communicate more freely, one person to another, we have a richer opportunity for understanding and growth.  Really, what is the argument for grading?  Can it possibly come out of a student-centered mentality?

[Grades]: Some personal history

I work at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed, but I used to work at a highly structured all-boys boarding school with what I would call an uber-grading culture.

Not only were students graded in each of their classes twelve times a year, but they were also given “effort grades” on everything from their academic classes to dorm life and sports.  These two combined to place the student in one of five groups that would determine their freedoms and privileges at school – everything from required breakfast and study hall down to when they could visit town or even go home for the weekend.

The school believed firmly that this was a very explicit and fair way to control boys and get them “on track.”  After all, all they had to do was put in more effort, and the marks would surely rise.  The sad truth is lots of guys were bottom group guys, term after term, and this became a part of the language used to describe students.

Though I loved and respected my colleagues (and many of those students), I perceived a systemic lacking in the intellectual culture and treatment of young people.

* * *

I grew up with grades, and did mostly fine with them.  I’m convinced that they shut down my dreams of being a poet (more on this another time), but I found academic success anyway.  Typically, if I did my homework and paid attention in class I could earn A’s and B’s, and that didn’t even involve taking notes, studying, or even doing the English or History readings most of the time!

Steve Miranda wrote a nice post recently about complete contracts and why they’re rarely used, except in school, of course.  Complete contracts indicate precisely what must be done, so the rest is omitted.  The simple fact is grades define “good enough,” and if I could earn B’s without even reading the books, and if I would rather spend my time biking, singing, playing piano, or tinkering with speakers and electronics, than why would I ever read those books?  I got my B.  That was good enough for me.

This is the behavior I observed in the “middle group” at that boarding school, and it’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy.  My relationship to everything I listed above (and more) was very different from my relationship to most school subjects, but it was there, on my own time, guided by my own instincts, that I had grown the most.

Can school be more like that?

* * *

People are always fascinated by Saint Ann’s.  How can a school work without grades?  How do the kids go to college?  How do their parents know how their doing?  How do the kids know?  I get these questions, especially the second one, all the time, but trust me.  Kids do go to college, and it does work.  In fact, Saint Ann’s is not so different from a more typical school, despite our love of the quirky, funky, odd, and eccentric.

Saint Ann’s is not the intellectual utopia it might seem, but based on my experience, I’d say we’re getting a lot of things right on the fundamental level.

By extending great autonomy and flexibility to the faculty, the school puts faith in the intellectual capacity of its teachers and their ability to inspire action and growth in their students.  By placing arts on equal footing, the school points towards a larger view of intelligence and potential.

The school believes in the almost sacred value of children, and that grading them or using grades to derive authority would be demeaning to the potential within them.  By eschewing grades and almost any strict sense of propriety in favor of passionate intellectual pursuits, the school has made plain that earning good grades and learning are not tied well together.

I could be equally critical on the small-scale, but for the foundations of a school, I’d say this is a great place to start.