Higher Edge: When the Grading System Misses the Mark

October 6, 2015

The day the school year starts, reading stops feeling like reading. It starts with looking at the number of pages and hopefully ends with a neat bulleted list of discussion points. Reading becomes a matter of extrapolating as much content and symbolism in as small amount of time as possible.

It probably seems like I don’t enjoy reading or that college has ruined all books for me, but that’s not true. I’m an English major and a junior, and I love reading still. I try to read a few books per week over the summer and spend much of my down time at Georgetown reading newspaper and magazine articles. I read these leisurely, without a pen in hand, and most importantly, for enjoyment.

When I begin an assigned reading, however, I switch gears because I’ve been in enough classes to know which type of reading is most effective and which isn’t. Spending a long time reading and engaging with course material doesn’t translate to a higher grade. Participating does, and the only reading you need to do to participate is skim the text for key concepts and highlight a few examples of symbolism. Raising your hand often, even if only to say half formulated thoughts, is rewarded, while listening and slowly formulating your thoughts before speaking often comes across as a lack of involvement. In other words, in conventional classrooms, extroverts earn higher grades while introverts are penalized for being quiet learners.

Although there is a lot to be said about how most classrooms cater to extroverted students, the point I am trying to make is that the current grading system often looks at the wrong variables for measuring success. Regardless of what anyone says about grades or how little our GPAs ultimately matter, there’s reason to give this issue more attention as our grades influence how much effort we put into our classes and consequently, how much we learn from them.

Last weekend, I studied for one of my first midterms with a friend. We covered the lectures and readings for each chapter. I could name all the important figures, their contributions, the theories, and give historical context. When I sat down to take the test, however, most of my knowledge proved to be irrelevant. The exam only covered content from the first few chapters and many of the questions were vaguely worded, but demanded specific answers. Even if I understood the concepts, I found myself lost in the wording. The exam frustrated me. My studying felt useless and my time wasted.

When I expressed these grievances to my friend, however, she said, “Think about how much we learned.” She was right. The knowledge from class was solidified in my head to the point that I’m still thinking about our third lecture: Skinner’s theory of behaviorism. Our behavior is determined and affirmed by systems of punishments and rewards. If we consider the grading system in this context, then students are currently being rewarded for being able to being able to memorize and regurgitate material for a test; they are rewarded for being able to speak in discussion sections. We are slowly being conditioned away from putting in the time required for deep engagement and substantive learning.

The grading system is further obfuscated by curves. Grading curves have been implemented at schools across the country because there’s a fear that it’s becoming too easy for students to earn A’s. Curves are designed to differentiate students so that students can better identify their weaknesses and professors can better identify where the gaps in learning are.

In practice, however, curves stand in the place of meaningfully differentiating students. Instead of writing a test that fairly covers course material and is challenging without being too demanding, professors can simply curve scores. Curves mask a professor’s inability to write a fair test, or, even worse, they can mask a professor’s inability to teach. If a professor doesn’t teach the material clearly and his or her students’ are consequently unable to perform well on tests, then the curve hides the professor’s failure.

If universities want to address this problem and design a grading system that places the emphasis on learning, then they should look to the new college application program, which over 80 selective colleges have already began working on. The new platform will not only consider prospective students’ GPA and SAT scores, but also their grit and engagement. The application will differ significantly by school, which encourages students to thoroughly research their options and engage with each school before hitting submit.  Students will also have the opportunity to submit journal entries and video samples, which will demonstrate their thoughtfulness, their willingness to write, and to create.

As colleges are considering their prospective students in dimensions beyond test scores and resumé builders, they should think about doing the same with currently enrolled students. Grit and engagement are measures that stand up against grading curves, cheating, and poorly written tests.

These variables are not always easy to measure, which is why there should be a demand for more creative assignments and methods for grading students. Georgetown’s Jesuit identity, for instance, calls for insight through reflection. Professors should ask their students to reflect more often on what they’re reading and learning through writing. These types of assignments reward students for putting thought into their work without limiting the breadth of their studies and also allow students to draw out connections between course material and their personal experiences that tests cannot capture. Reflections would also stimulate more meaningful discussion in classrooms as students have already thought about the material before stepping into the classroom. It would begin to become evident when learning is taking place and when it is not.

It’s impossible to force students to learn beyond the parameters of a test, but you can begin by encouraging it. If students’ grades more accurately reflect how much work they’re putting into their classes and how deeply they’re engaging with the material, then the grading system will achieve more than merely differentiating students. It will promote genuine learning and understanding that extends beyond the classroom.


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