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Grading and Learning: a Paradox

I read something recently that said, “By acting as if grading motivates learning, we put both student and faculty energies in the wrong place.” Grades are supposed to assess learning, not be the goal. Students too often see the grade as the thing they go to class for, when they are supposed to go for learning and practice. And it’s the professors’ faults because we hold grades over their heads.

Or is it the professors’ faults?

I wrote this in class. I sometimes use Sondra Perl’s composing guidelines as a pre-writing activity. Many a Chronicle blog post has arisen out of class time with Perl’s guidelines. About five steps in with this one, I looked up and saw about four students studying for another class and at least one sleeping (or close enough to it).

No matter how many times I tell them that this process can help them if they want it to; no matter how many times I remind them that they have a paper due soon; no matter how much I urge them to just try with an open mind, I get students who just don’t see the value yet.

It would be easy to write off this episode as a problem with Perl’s guidelines if this were the only time in class that it had happened, but it’s not. I suppose it could be me, and I guess I am partly to blame. But students need to bear some of the responsibility.

So what did I do about this? Mid-guidelines, I stopped everything and turned them into a graded assignment. Students had to show me they had done the work before they left, and they would get a 100 quiz grade. If they didn’t, they would get a zero. Amid sighs, students put away their other work and began writing. (The one student didn’t really wake up.)

I did the thing I’m not supposed to do. I threatened with a grade. It was a reward for work and a punishment for not working, but no assessment of real work. I guess I “assessed” whether or not they did the work, but I didn’t grade content at all.

Those who may know about Perl’s guidelines know it would be impossible to grade content, but that’s not the point. The point is, I didn’t want to grade this, but what was I supposed to do to get them to at least try it?

I wanted them to want to write, to work. Why this aversion to work, to things that will lead them to knowledge and give them practice in becoming more productive members of society? So sometimes I use grades.

I take that back. Sometimes, I use their desire for good grades as leverage to get what I want. What I want is for them to try, so they will have the opportunity to learn. I also want them to want to learn. Ironically, holding grades over their heads will get us only so far.

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