Thursday, February 5, 2009

Want to Get Rid of Grades?

A recent article at Inside Higher Ed, entitled "Imagining College Without Grades," raises the issue of not assigning letter grades in college courses. The alternative would be Pass/Fail designations or narrative evaluations. This story reports on a workshop at an annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Indeed, this is a complicated issue that would require a shift in teaching and assessment. Below, I have listed a few pros and cons that proponents and opponents of this idea have put forth:

-students will have greater academic freedom to take a variety of courses
-students can focus on learning, instead of worrying about grades and scores
-in the pass/fail system, faculty will spend less time grading and more time with students

-the amount of faculty time it will take to write narrative evaluations, especially in large classes
-many scholarships, graduate/professional school and job applications require a GPA
-students may lose the motivation to learn the material

I am sure that you can think of more Pros and Cons of this approach. So, click COMMENTS below and share them with us!!


Jess said...

Hmmm... In the our program we have some experience in the pass/fail grading tool. Our students that perform skills in local facilities are given pass/fail scores. In addition to the pass/fail score is a 1-5 evaluation from the instructor on the individual's specific skills... I believe that this evaluation tool is beneficial for both the student and educator b/c the 1-5 scores keep the student interested in performing well, while at the same time, not labeling him/her as a "B" performer or "C" performer, etc. If a "1" is scored in one skill more than three times, an automatic failure of the lab is the result... I can see how getting rid of grades, in certain disciplines, may be a positive thing???....I'm eager to see what everyone else has to say...

Ian said...

The problem with a narrative assessment is a complete loss of objectivity in the grading process. If I gave grades based on my own feelings and intuitions about students' abilities and contributions, they would often not correspond to the numerical grades I assign. Does that mean the grading system is flawed? Maybe. But more likely, I am flawed. The numerical system protects us (to a degree) from our own judgmental biases (which are very, very well documented) at work.

If anything, I would call for more numbers. One thing that has always bothered me is that a student that squeaks by with a 70 gets the same grade-point as one who just falls short of a B. Given the error inherent in measurement, it is likely that the former is a "D" student and the latter a "B" student. Yet this difference is entirely obscured in the grade-point system. Why not go to a 10-pt. system, in which the former receives a 7.0 and the latter a 7.9?

Dr. K said...

Like Jess, our labs are pass/fail but the evaluation of the pass/fail is based on a 1-4 numeric scale of criteria from our practice act. As for the didactic portion of the class, our graduates are required to take an exam for licensure after graduation. I don't forsee a licensure process without some exam as a means to determine whether the students have mastered the information. Research tells us that students who prepare for their licensure exam by taking practice exams are more successful. The other piece is the students need for affirmation that they are not just passing, but excelling.
This idea also raises more questions about selecting those students who excel for honors and graduate school. Then there is the focus on outcome measures in education. If the only outcome we have is our subjective sense of whether the student knows the material I think we will be hard pressed to defend our budgets. There are lots of questions to be answered before this kind of paradigm shift. As much as I would like to have a course where I don't have to test students I can't see it in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ian. A 10 point scale would give a clearer picture of a student's knowledge of the subject. I have had the experience of missing an A by .01 of a point. That translated into a single question on 1 test. The 10 point scale would have a positive impact on my average. However, I suspect more students would be hurt than helped.

Paul Walker said...

I have thought a lot about what a required composition course would be like if it was a pass/fail course. Because it is a universal prerequisite, the grade itself only matters for GPA, but passing it opens the gate to the rest of a student's education. The problem with the current grade scale for grading writing is that it attaches a value to a student knowing "how to write," which is a much more complex phenomenon than we like to admit. What is the difference between an A student writer and a B student writer? We have set up rubrics for these distinctions, but there is still lots of subjectivity and variance among supposed experts.

A better model for composition might be what is suggested here. A pass/fail course grade with a numerical/narrative evaluation of the skills addressed in the course. So, a student will pass the course, but will know, for example, that her strengths are analysis and persuasive writing, but she needs to improve her ability to synthesize sources to support her arguments. But if a student shows no improvement over the semester in any of the skills, or just slight improvement but not enough for the instructor to deem the student "prepared to learn the more esoteric elements of writing in their chosen disciplines," then the student would take the course again, though with some feedback, by the skills scale, of which areas to focus on to pass the class.

Is this a pipe dream? I don't know, but seeing articles like a recent NYT piece that reported on a grade study that students expect an A for showing up and doing the assignments means that quality is being replaced by effort. Sometimes they match, but they can't be equated. Students really believe that the A is theirs to lose, rather than theirs to gain.