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3 Use Cases for Grades
… that are not really all that useful
… that are not really all that useful
Not grading student work seems like a radical proposition. How can we possibly know whether students are learning?
But is that really the question? Implicitly, what we usually mean is — How do we know who the good students are? We assume that our definition of good matches up with how we are grading, but is that really the case. Just like any other technology, grading may have some use cases, but how useful are they to learning?
One use case may be to identify good job candidates post-graduation. Grades don’t necessarily match up with hirability or workplace performance. Grades are simply one way that employers sort job candidates (Adams, 2015). But most of hiring managers will admit that it is a way to “manage recruitment,” not find the best candidates. If you have 200 applications, GPA can be a great way to get that list down to 20. Are these the best 20? That is harder to say.
Grades are useful… if you want to sort people. That is a modern reality. I will be the first to tell students that the professional world will sort them by the quality of work that they do (along with many other factors). Too often, though, what we grade has little to do with the ways employers and teams “sort” people.
With a quick web search, you’ll find all kinds of articles and blogs enumerating the skills most valued by employers. Alison Doyle (2021) of The Balance Careers lists the most common:
If teachers are honest with themselves, grades rarely measure any of these things… and frequently discourage these attributes.
See my early blog on ungrading for more on this.
So let’s look at some use cases for grades, what they measure, and whether that connects to these important attributes.
Three Not So Useful Use Cases
So, what do we exactly mean by “a good student” or “a good employee.” Do grades measure learning or what we need in “good employees”?
Counting Mistakes: Is a good student someone who makes the least amount of grammar mistakes?
As someone who makes grammar mistakes and publishes work, I can say that grammatical perfection has little to do with any of those valued attributes that employers are looking for. At one time, scholars and teachers thought that grammar reflected the quality of our thinking. If your grammar is good, then your thinking is good. In school, it is the exact opposite. Grammar mistakes usually mean students are trying out something innovative or learning a new way of writing.
Some of my absolute best students have been Chinese… who made more grammar mistakes than usual. Even as they learn to use English in their own way, they can communicate some fascinating ideas if encouraged to do so.
But grading grammar is a great way to make sure we don’t get too many “non-native” students in our classrooms. In the end, grading grammar is a sorting mechanism, not a learning tool.
Measuring Efficiency: Is a good student really someone who can solve a math problem in under 5 minutes by themselves?
In writing instruction, we rarely do timed essays now. What skill does that actually measure? Perhaps the ability to think quickly on your feet, but I didn’t see that on any of the “good employee” lists… and it is certainly not a writing outcome for most of our courses.
Perhaps this works better outside the writing classroom. But in what world does anyone have to do that outside of school? Perhaps if you are troubleshooting an Apollo malfunction in real time… but again, not something you see on these “good employee” lists.
Timed tests are a great sorting mechanism. I have 100 students who can solve this problem. I can’t give them all an A, so only those who can solve the problem in 5 minutes get an A. But what are we really measuring there?
Determining Content Retention: Is a good student someone who can memorize all the parts of the body?
Knowing discipline-specific terms, theories, and ideas is certainly key to success in any professional area… but to what end? My students can easily memorize the three rhetorical appeals (ethos, logos, pathos), but can they make those appeals in a piece of writing? They are more likely to remember these terms if they actually use them.
Certainly, this is true of any other field, like biology or chemistry. We can use grades to let students know how well they know the material… but do we need grades to do that? On the other hand, if I have 100 students applying for 20 spots in my program, testing their memorization is an easy way to “manage recruitment.”
In the end, grades point to a bigger problem in academia… laziness. Instead of finding more authentic ways of managing recruitment, we rely on grades to make it easy. You don’t necessarily see this in the professional world. Good employers interview candidates… get to know them. Sure, GPA might play a role, but it is not the end all be all.
The One Useful Use Case
The best argument for grades in the writing classroom is that students will be graded in other classes. Even if I don’t grade their work, other instructors will. Grades have always been a way for me to help students better understand academic expectations. Except for trained writing instructors, we are terrible at communicating our writing expectations to students.
For example, the most common comment on academic writing is something like this: “Needs developed.” Too often, we don’t tell students what that means or give them ideas on how they might achieve this. Perhaps this is why we frequently rely so much on grammar. It seems objective and quantifiable. But I’ve seen many “underdeveloped” papers that are error-free in my lifetime. It is much easier to mark grammar mistakes than to teach students how to develop a thought.
Of course, this does not consider Dr. Grumps down the hall, who has some weird obsession with semicolons. We think we have standardized notions about writing, but how we judge good writing varies across disciplines and contexts… and can sometimes be idiosyncratic. I can help students understand this without grades.
I’ve used grades in this way for most of my teaching career because I want students to know whether their work is something that will pass muster with other instructors or even the professional world. Furthermore, I want to avoid giving the idea that a particular piece is worthy of publication in a portfolio or website by giving them an A, no matter how much they learned or improved. So, my grading scale went something like this:
An A means you’ve demonstrated excellent achievement of all course outcomes. Much of your work is publishable or can be used as examples for other students.
A B means you’ve achieved all the course outcomes and much of your work is publishable or usable as examples with a little more revision.
A C means you’ve achieved most of the course outcomes. You will need to make a few major revisions before publishing your work.
A D means you’ve achieved one or two outcomes. You will need to review course material and make major revisions before sharing your work from this class.
I can do this without grades, right? This is why I stopped giving grades in Fall 2021. I was just pretending that they measured something. One might think that writing quality might go down if I take away this scale. It was the exact opposite. Quality went up. More on that in an upcoming blog.
So, I still have to hand in grades for my students. University culture is steeped in grading. You can’t get away from it… and that’s mostly what students are thinking about. Though I’m still working out my approach, you’ll be able to read about some ungrading strategies in my next blog. Meanwhile, there are problably other use cases for grades that I haven’t thought of.
Can you think of other use cases for grades… useful or otherwise? Let me know in the comments!
Adams, Susan. (2015). Do employers care about college grades? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2015/07/08/do-employers-care-about-college-grades/?sh=5adf0aaf4b07
Doyle, Alison. (2021). Top skills and attributes employers look for. the balance careers. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/top-skills-employers-want-2062481