October 4, 2012

‘Grading Motivates Learning’ and Other Dead Ideas in Teaching

By: in Teaching and Learning

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In her 2010 presidential address to the Midwest Sociological Society (a published version of the speech is referenced below), Diane Pike proposed three ideas about teaching that she says are dead. She borrows the concept of “dead ideas” from a book by Matt Miller, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash New Prosperity (2009). Pike explains, “Ideas are dead because they are no longer correct, if they ever were. They are tyranny because we cling to them despite the evidence. Thus, we fail to act as we should.” (p. 2) Here are highlights from the three dead ideas Pike discusses in her speech.

Students are not as prepared as they used to be. According to Pike, “The problem is not so much the idea is untrue as it is that the idea is tyranny.” (p. 3) She says she first heard the claim made when she was a student and has regularly heard it since. “If this perception of student decline in college readiness has been operating for at least the last 40 years, it probably does not make sense to use it as any sort of meaningful benchmark.” (p. 4)

When we say that students aren’t prepared, what do we mean by prepared? College readiness is defined differently by the experts, by institutions, and by individual faculty. Pike offers the following as examples of the tyranny that results from this belief: The constant call to raise admission standards (if only the students were better, the problem would go away) and the proliferation of study skills courses, supplemental instruction, developmental courses, and other special courses for beginning students. “We do many constructive things,” she points out. “What we fail to do is examine deeply enough what we teach and how we teach it.” (p. 4)

She concludes with a great question: “What if we acted as if the students have never been as prepared as we wanted, nor will they ever be as prepared as we wish?” How would that assumption change instructional practices?

Grading motivates learning. “By acting as if grading motivates learning, we put both student and faculty energies in the wrong place,” Pike explains. “Does grading represent learning? Maybe … but mostly, grading motivates getting grades.” (p. 4)

There’s an important distinction to be made between evaluation and grading: “Evaluation is the process of making a judgment about the quality of work using either an explicit set of criteria or an implicit one. … Grading is the step of assigning a summative symbol that represents overall performance.” (p. 5)

She objects to complicated point systems, claiming that they get students focused on the wrong things. “Quantifying assignments, docking points for lateness, and [using] intricate point systems of 400 points or 1,000 points that are spread across varying categories distract students from what should be motivating their learning.” (p. 5) Do we know how these point systems affect students? This is a very different question from asking if they like those systems.

Pike continues, “Interesting and relevant assignments, timely feedback, connection between student and teacher, connection among students, meaningful use of time—these things motivate learning. Thinking more explicitly about grading and evaluation, finding out what students experience by asking them, and reconsidering what grading does motivate, we can unleash new practices that just work better for all of us.” (p. 6)

Technology is either saving or ruining higher education. We still have only limited empirical evidence documenting the learning effects of online courses and blended learning or hybrid courses. Pike warns, “There are still not enough people … asking why we should do this.” (p.7) She is not proposing that we reject technology or that we endorse it. After all, she says, “If we could get rid of technology, would we? No. But when we let go of the idea that technology makes or breaks our teaching, our curricula, or higher education as a whole, then we can more easily see technology for its real value—improving pedagogy.” (p. 9)

Pike’s address is one of those fine pieces of scholarship that provokes thinking. Pike acknowledges that not everyone will agree with the ideas presented here. Her purpose is to challenge—to promote a reassessment of what we believe and what we do as a consequence of those beliefs. This is an article well worth reading and discussing with colleagues.

Reference: Pike. D. L. (2011). The tyranny of dead ideas in teaching and learning: Midwest Sociological Society presidential address 2010. The Sociological Quarterly, 52 (1), 1-12.

Reprinted from “Dead Ideas in Teaching,” The Teaching Professor, 25.9 (2011): 3.

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Joyce Hardy | October 4, 2012

Students are "differently prepared," not less prepared. Information is no longer rare, so memorized information has much less value. We need to help our students realize that they must memorize some things — you cannot make a decision without a sound knowledge base on which to judge potential responses. You must also be able to recognize when you do not have sufficient information, how to find information and evaluate its relevance and validity, and how to integrate that into a working knowledge base. I do need to change my terminology….grading and formative evaluation do indeed refer to different philosophies. THANKS for the great discussion points this morning!

Rich Erickson | October 4, 2012

Oh, for an alternative to points and grades. If students want to learn, they will (often in spite of us teachers); if they are indifferent about their studies and are only jumping hoops, then probably not even grades will help (nor have they). We are dealing with "adult learners," who by now should be able to make their own decisions.

B. van Haaften | October 4, 2012

I found this article to be not only insightful in regards to the professorial staff but also beneficial as a means of personal introspection. I am a mid-career student currently dealing with a particularly onerous instructor who subscribes to the aforementioned "Dead Ideas". It now occurs to me, perhaps my strategy in dealing with this type of situation is also in need of revision. To do nothing certainly ascribes to apathy. Thank You for posting this article.

Jan | October 5, 2012

Grading is such a slippery slope. On one hand, I find that if you don't hold students accountable for the work that you give, they will often choose to prioritize that work as low. After all, they are juggling a phenomenal number of balls… On the other hand, I am not proud of the nuanced and detailed grading rubrics I always find in my binders of past courses. I've recently switched to a P, +, nP system and have involved students in the process of converting a collection of these types of grades into a letter grade. It's been an excellent process that foregrounds learning and feedback, rather than numbers…. Rather than retype it, here's more thoughts on the matter: http://teaching-matters.net/hello-world/

@lild35 | October 6, 2012

Diane's approach to teaching sociology is both practical and forward thinking. Her new role as the Editor of the the American Sociological Association's Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology (TRAILS) is evidence of this commitment. Thank you for sharing her words and point of view with us.


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  1. Dead ideas in teaching | Distributed Learning at Fuller Seminary
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