October 29th, 2012

Gimme an A! Confronting Presuppositions about Grading


Sometimes, in informal conversations with colleagues, I hear a statement like this, “Yeah, not a great semester, I doled out a lot of C’s.” I wonder, did this professor create learning goals that were unobtainable by most of the class or did this professor lack the skills to facilitate learning? I present this provocative lead-in as an invitation to reflect upon our presuppositions regarding grading.

Most of us hold deeply rooted presuppositions about grading that have rarely been confronted, and this makes sense. We became specialists in our fields without having learned a variety of grading strategies, purposes, and theories. We never had to interrogate our presuppositions about grading nor have our institutions supported us doing so. At our college, for example, we have a grading percentage chart, suggesting a range of grades might be used for a class, and a line that appears on all official course outlines stating, “Evaluation and assignment of grades will be based upon the quality of work produced relative to the objectives of the course.” This, of course, is vague enough to confound students and to allow the use of just about any grading strategy.

I began confronting my own grading presuppositions with a somewhat radical idea that I’ve now tested over three semesters, with the full approval of our Dean. During the first class of an upper-level course, I go over the course outline and grading rubric with the students. Afterward, I ask them if they will do all the work. They usually give me perplexed looks while agreeing. In response, I inform them that they will each receive an A for their final course grade. Some students loudly proclaim, for the sake of peer witnesses, they are writing it down.

In undertaking this pilot-project, basically a form of contract grading, I was required to deeply reconsider the way I understand student attainment of outcomes and my role in their meeting such outcomes. In each class that I have tried this approach, I have observed that students’ attendance, energy, intrinsic motivation, and level of work are equal to or higher than that of classes where I have used typical grading strategies. (I have had less luck with contract grading variants at lower levels.) Students are quick to provide feedback. They state, in ongoing feedback forms and in their end-of-year course evaluations, that the lack of stress regarding grades and not having to figure out ways to please the teacher really allowed them to engage, express themselves, immerse themselves in complex material without always worrying about the correct answer, and, most importantly, to learn.

This pilot-project makes some of my colleagues uncomfortable. They suggest that an average grade, a C, is good and they speak of grade inflation. Or they say I have the luxury of this project because I teach in the humanities field and this grading strategy can never work for the hard sciences. There is lots of room for discussion. The main point of objection is to bring up the hypothetical student who won’t do the work. So far, there has been no such student in these classes. If there were, I would intervene early and often, and if that failed, the contract is based upon the student’s agreeing to do the work.

Generally the arguments against giving all students an A seems to stem from a main presupposition: that all students cannot succeed at a high level, that the purpose of grading is a process of selection. The idea, when pressed, seems to be both vague and deeply held and is usually exposed by phrases like, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “All students do not have equal abilities.” The philosopher R.G. Collingwood would call this an absolute presupposition of which he wrote, “people are apt to be ticklish in their absolute presuppositions” meaning they don’t enjoy being confronted about them. Imagine if teachers were called into the Dean’s office and the conversation went something like this: The fact that many of your students are only reaching an average level of work and comprehension is a reflection of your ability to facilitate learning — what can we do to improve it? (I told you at the beginning of the article that I would be provocative.)

I am suggesting that, regardless of whether one agrees with my position or not, we all hold presuppositions about grading that affect the way we use grading to support learning. If our job is to deliver content, facilitate learning, to scaffold difficult material, and to assist all students in achieving the outcomes of our courses, then from my point of view something is wrong with what we are doing if most of our students are not achieving the top levels of comprehension. I think it’s worth thinking about, deeply.

Reference: Collingwood, R.J., (1939). Essay on metaphysics. Chicago: Henry Regnery, (p. 31).

Christopher Willard teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design. He is currently working on his PhD in Educational Research at the University of Calgary.

  • bob

    If all get A;s, why bother with grades at all? It would be more logical to simply abolish them.

    • Bob

      One step at a time my friend.

  • blake

    I agree with Bob. It sounds like Christopher is trying to win teacher-of-the-year at the expense of his students. I have no objection to rewarding students whose work outperforms that of other students. Unless the rubric says "I will achieve top levels of comprehension in all of the assignments/work that I do for this course," I am not seeing how his argument makes sense. If that is the case, the author should probably stress that in his article. But then we would be right back at being able to grade based on performance.

  • Unfortunately, most instructors are not able to accommodate mastery learning regardless of our training (or lack of) in instructional design and delivery. Given that university students are more academically homogeneous than most student populations, time constraints and the amount of materials covered dictate more direct instruction methodologies rather than constructivist. Students must be responsible for their own learning at all times, regardless of whether they are compatible with the instructor's instructional delivery. Removing student responsibility is the bane of our preK-12 public schools.

    • @instructorg is the poster of this comment.

  • Steve

    This sounds like an "A for effort". But what about performance? The rewarded outcome here is "doing the work and making the effort". There is no explicit expectation for achievement or for rewarding excellence. It's seems to be setting the bar pretty low, which may be way so many students like it.

    How would you react if your physician "did all the work" but your loved one still died because the work was flawed or of low quality?

  • mk801

    Christopher. It's fine to be provocative if there is a value to your argument. Unfortunately, your argument falls short.
    "If our job is to deliver content, facilitate learning, to scaffold difficult material, and to assist all students in achieving the outcomes of our courses, then from my point of view something is wrong with what we are doing if most of our students are not achieving the top levels of comprehension" – contains a fallacy. In that outline of our job responsibilities you do not list that it is our job to ensure that most of our students achieve top level of comprehension. That would be impossible. So your leap is illogical and faulty!

    I begin my semesters by stating that every student MAY get an "A". What I mean by that is that I have a finite set of learning outcomes (which have been developed by thousands of other professionals in my field over the years and designated by professional societies) and if students achieve those – they will receive an A. I will not "curve" my grades, and I will not make the tests harder to ensure that only the brightest get As. I just want them all to demonstrate competency at a certain level. However, (and predictably) the distribution of grades in my courses ends up to be a fairly standard curve.

    I wish that was because I was doing something wrong, and the Dean called me into her office to roast me on that. Because then I could at least do something about it! Your missive completely ignores the learner's input. In your courses the students just need to "do work". Really?? Is that what you see as the purpose of higher education?

    The only logical way to end your proposal is to set the level of learning outcomes so low, that they all get an A, indeed. The terrible consequences of such an approach are being felt already! Finish your PhD and work for a while, then let's talk again.

  • Gary Barton

    Grades: A Reflection
    Grades are always a touchy subject with students because everyone wants to earn A’s. This level of student motivation seems like a good thing. The only problem is that I, as the instructor, have to consider the meaning of grades. I think that most people would agree that A grades should be reserved for the very best products, and that lower grades should be given out for less successful efforts. If all students were given A’s, who would make an effort to excel? Because the quality of work varies, it is essential to recognize those products that represent superior quality. Is it correct to say that an A grade represents superior quality—i.e., quality that is well beyond the expectation for the average student? If A grades are given for merely completing an assignment, what does an A really mean? Similarly, B grades represent high quality work that is better than what would typically be expected. C grades might represent work of average quality—that which would normally be expected from students on a particular assignment (i.e., completing the assignment, providing correct information, showing a basic understanding of the concepts involved).

  • Gary Barton

    Grades: A Reflection–Cont.
    Some students want to be graded on effort, but how does a teacher/instructor know how much effort went into an assignment? Often, the shortest results take the greatest effort (Einstein’s elegant equation, E=MC2, required considerable effort). Some students are glib and can write fluently, giving the impression that something took a lot of effort. I know in my own case, the number of revisions will often show the amount of effort that went into something (assuming all the revisions were written—many take place in the head). It seems to me that grading students on effort is almost impossible because there is no way for an instructor to get into the heart or mind of the student.

  • Gary Barton

    Grades: A Reflection–Cont.
    Since effort cannot really be accurately assessed, what can be measured and graded? One of the easiest criteria to use for grading is accuracy in the use of English written conventions (grammar and spelling). This is certainly a part of the quality of a product. Unfortunately, all too often, mechanics become the standard for grading papers, but this really misses the point. Often, rubrics are used to determine the quality of a product. These divide the grade into a series of elements and then indicate the quality of each of those elements. Rubrics are good as guides, and they really help students stay on track when developing their products. Rubrics, of course, cannot cover every possible element that might be used in evaluating a product. Some of those elements are intangible.

  • Dr. W

    The presumption here is that doing "all the work " means doing all the work well. In my experience, there are some students who are either incapable of doing the work well, or disinterested in investing the effort to do the work well, even if they do all of it.

  • Caedmon

    I think the author has some valid points. The corporate world has long since given up on grading for their training needs, and embraced various forms of mastery or criterion-referenced instruction.. As a provider of classes to these companies, I was the one at fault if a student did not meet the criteria required at the end of the course. Of course these students are prequalified by the company, and are motivated by wanting to keep their job or get a raise. But I had to take my part of the process very seriously or risk not getting paid.

  • Caedmon

    However, our college students are paying rates very similar to what corporations pay (about $2000 for 40 hours of training per person), and our students certainly deserve value for their money. Yes they have to put in effort, but I am just as concerned with the A student who put forth little real effort to obtain that grade as much as I am the C- student who put in minimal effort just to pass the class. Neither one learned much in my class and learning what we are about. So what is the point if we are offering little real value in the end? How are we much better than a diploma mill in the end? Watch the news stories in the last few months. Many commentators are questioning whether families should bother sending their children off to our esteemed institutions. We might want to be ready with some good answers.

    • dr.a.

      I think some families and some students should question why those students are in higher education. I think students need tangible goals when they enter higher education. Without motivation, students may not graduate. Even if they graduate, without a clear goal in mind, they may not be able to get a job, especially in this economy. You mention that our students deserve value for their money, but that value cannot be of any use to them if the student is not interested or motivated to learn (what we have to offer) to begin with.
      Note: In my mind, "what we have to offer" is not just the content knowledge but the important life skills (communication, problem solving, ethical reasoning, teamwork, etc.) that is hopefully (assuming we intentionally plan for those skills goals) attained during the process of content knowledge acquisition.

  • Caedmon

    To those who comment that it is up to the student to do the learning, then are you not suggesting that you as the teacher are now superflous to the learning process? If it is information our students are looking for, they can get information from a vast number of sources these days and are not dependent on us as educators. We already have a number of students "testing out" of classes they don't want to spend time sitting through. So we may want to think more about this or risk becoming obsolete.

    • mk801

      "you as the teacher are now superflous to the learning process?" Yes! and No!

      Yes: we can all learn by ourselves, without teachers, instructors, professors, coaches, etc. It will likely be inefficient learning for most of us, but humans can do it.

      No: you are there to point them in right direction, to set up proper learning experiences (through discussions with other students) and to provide feedback on progress. No automated system, not even IBM's Watson can do that. So no need to be alarmist. You are not going to become obsolete, if you are good at doing the above. But institutions and professors that churn out A students who "did all the work" but can't do a darn thing – those will become obsolete, Corporations don't want As. They need people with real skills (i.e. mastery).

      Where is mastery in Christopher's proposal?

  • dr.a.

    First let me note that I am a mathematician. I believe as a teacher my role is to facilitate students' learning. I provide them guidance in the form of lots of work to be done. If my students do all the work I assign in the way I expect the work to be done, they will learn the topic well enough to satisfy the objectives I set ahead of the time (like the learning outcomes mk801 mentioned). But some of them will not believe me when I say that reviewing their notes daily will help them understand the topic. Some of them will not believe that they need to think carefully on each problem before they solve them. There is no tangible way for me to see the difference between the students who study the way they need to and those who don't, except for assigning grades to the student output. Just doing the work is not enough to show that the work is done in the right way, which is essential to the objectives of my course.

  • Dr. Erasmus Chirume

    I thank you sincerely, for calling upon the profession of teaching to start confronting some of its most serious bad news. Reading your article gives me hope in the future possibility for continuous improvement of teaching and learning in our schools.

  • Clifford E. Knapp

    I believe that Chris is on to something. I've been an educator for 50 years (29 at the university level). Discussions about grading over those years, have been very sparse, especially among university professors. That is a tragedy. It seems that most university professors were never educated well in pedagogy and the accompanying philosophical concepts. That's too bad. We need to be expert in teaching because that is what we are paid to do (when we are not doing public service work and research). If we have to live with grading systems, we need to give them serious thought. That's what Chris is saying. He has many good points that should not be dismissed quickly. Those who don't want to think seriously about the meaning of grading are not doing their job, even before they step into the classroom to teach and assign grades. Let's keep the discussion going.

  • Jane

    As a person who has taught science, I have many misgivings about the idea of contract grading. Chris himself admits that while he hasn't had great luck with this with lower level courses, where students may not be motivated in that particular subject. I do think that students who perform better should receive better grades. I also believe that it is the instructor's job to intervene "early and often" if students are not performing well, and should have a definitive plan to intervene, like an "intervention rubric". A contract can then exist between student and instructor that if the students follows the intervention plan, a student will be given the opportunity to help themselves out of failure by doing other work which supports the learning of that subject. Early failure in a course should not remove hope that the student can still succeed. Not all students can be rescued, and I do not believe that all should receive A's based on effort.

  • DocJ

    Not one mention of the Hawthorne effect? Let me be the first, then. You might wish to adopt a more skeptical position toward this new grading system until you have more effectively demonstrated to yourself and to others that any changes in student attitudes and performance are in fact the consequence of a shift to contract grading. Absent that, you may find yourself adopting a new policy every few years, always with amazing positive results, and none of those results lasting or replicable over the long term. The scholarship of teaching and learning needs good research design every bit as much as any other substantive endeavor.