Grading ruins teaching

I do not want to hear one more word about grade inflation. I do not want to hear one more word complaining about today’s students. I want to hear about why so many professors and teachers have decided we are judges and hangmen rather than encouraging mentors. I want to know why we have stopped teaching and instead simply sort students by things that boil down to wealth and opportunity. Why have we stopped helping people learn? What has happened to our schools and universities?

This may be long-winded, but I am talking about something very important and do not know how to do it another way.

Imagine a child learning to tie her shoes for the first time. She knows this is something worth learning and has come to you to learn it. She wants to learn it.

You might show her how you do it with your shoes. Then you will break down the steps. First you make the cross, tucking one lace under the other and pulling tight. Then you form a loop. I learned to then wrap the other end of the lace around that loop and pull a bit of it through the hole left by my thumb to make the other loop and pull tight. Voila! Two loops easily untied by pulling on either end. You could make a simple knot of the two loops to hold the bow tighter. You could tie the shoe in a different way, by forming two loops and then simply tying them together, one over the other, the way my husband learned.

A child might not learn how to do this all at once. She might learn the first bit, then get you to do the bows. She might have trouble holding the first loop in place while she wraps the other lace around it. She might have started trying to tie her shoe before she could master it and get frustrated. She might put this aside for awhile and then return to it. But ultimately, she will tie her shoes easily, rapidly, and well.

Many things we learn are like tying your shoe. These include learning the connection between written words, speech, and meaning, often called reading. Riding a bicycle, flying a kite, pouring milk over cereal, cooking an egg, buttoning your shirt, calling your grandmother on the telephone, planting beans, combing your hair, making your bed and sweeping the floor are all things we learn how to do. You might think these are simple tasks that can be learned easily and in ways that have little to do with the kind of learning we hope goes on in our universities. But I disagree.

To do any one of these things you have to follow a series of steps. I think you have to want to learn them too. I suppose these steps can be broken down in a lot of different ways, but here is one dissection.
1. Understand the point of learning to do the thing. With this you learn to want the outcome.
2. Understand both the starting point and the final outcome. If you don’t know where you begin and where you will end up, it will be hard to learn the new thing.
3. See clearly how to break the activity down into specific steps. Doing anything can be hard at first if you cannot see that it is made up of easier steps that can be learned one at a time.
4. Have the time, the space, the materials, the independence, and the encouragement to practice. No one gets much of anything right the first time.
5. Have a teacher that is patient, responsive, encouraging, and knowledgeable. You have to want the learning but having someone that can help show you the steps and answer your questions is key.

There are other important things about learning, but these are essential. But what if every time you started something you got graded on your performance? How many times would you fail tying your shoe before you finally got it? Or, to make a more precise educational analogy, what if you did not figure out how to tie your shoe, but the teacher simply gave you a low grade on it, then moved on to buttoning your shirt, zipping your coat, and riding a bike? What if the mentor marched you through those activities too, grading as she went so you never learned any of them properly? Your shoes would be untied, your shirt unbuttoned, your coat unzipped, and you would fall off your bike.

I know this sounds ridiculous. I know these activities do not necessarily get learned in this order, or even get learned at all. But the point is, any child wants to master them. Anyone who effectively helps them learn will keep at it until they do. If what you teach is important, why do you rush on to the next topic when everyone has not mastered the earlier one? How will grading help? I do not think it will.

What are we supposed to do? We can’t throw out the whole university system, can we? After all, they pay us. They also let employers rank their future hires. Have we really become the servants of the employers rather than the inspirers of brilliance?  Students learn differently, some fast, some slow, some are better prepared, some are worried about something at home, some lack confidence, and some do not want to learn something specific. All of these things come into how fast we learn. Do we want to teach our students they are simply no good by giving them low grades and rushing them ahead before they master earlier material?

I haven’t even talked about creativity, about learning to push back the borders of knowledge, or creating great art. We fail in teaching so long before that.

Do I have a solution that fits in today’s framework? I think I know where to start. It is to throw out competitive grading and to give evaluations based on what the students ultimately accomplished, not how fast they did so. This could result in grades that look just like grades, but everyone could get an A, some more quickly than others.  Simply let students work on material until they have mastered it. You think this isn’t practical, but it is. Focus on the student and let them keep trying until they get it. More later.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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