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Making the Grade Without Being Graded
September 28, 2006 10:52 AM   Subscribe

"I hate grades.... [But] I am obliged to follow the rules set forth by my employer and the larger education industry in general. Consequently, I assign grades."
posted by grumblebee (97 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
[Note: this is my second attempt at this FPP.]

This Metatalk thread reminded me that there are schools that don't give grades.

The most famous is Summerhill in England (founded in 1921). Summerhill has often been at war with the British government but in 1999, Summerhill won a major battle in court, allowing it to stay open. According to this Wikipedia article, "The pupils who were attending the hearing that day took over the courtroom and held a school meeting to debate whether to accept the settlement, eventually voting unanimously to do so."


Summerhill has been plagued by some non-PC statements made by its founder, A.S. Neill, such as "Summerhill has not turned out a single homosexual... because Summerhill children do not suffer from a guilt complex about masturbation." (but remember that he was saying these things in the 20s), so Neill's daughter has worked hard to soften his statements.

As a young man, one of my ambitions was to become a teacher at Summerhill. Neill's book -- warts and all -- changed my thinking about education (the previous link is to Amazon's page about the book, which is out of print. The reader posts are illuminating Here's a link to the new version). Alas, I never realized my dream, but I still hate grades and requirements, both of which make true learning difficult in my opinion.

I know of at least two well-respected universities that don't grade: Evergreen in Washington State (Wikipedia) and New College in Sarasota, Florida (Wikipedia). I went to New College for three years, but I consider it a failure. It may not have traditional grades, but it has a pass-fail system that might as well be grades.

MORE INFO:

A 1949 Inspection of Summerhill.

"Summerhill: education for democracies" an essay by a former student and teacher at the school.

Myspace page of a Summberhill grad.
posted by grumblebee at 10:53 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


I will elaborate a bit on my New College experience here, perhaps urging the GYOBers on even further:

At New College, there are no letter grades. Instead, each student has a Faculty Advisor. You don't choose your FA, he gets assigned to you. It IS possible to change your FA, and, in fact, I did so, but it was very awkward and it backfired on me in a number of ways. There are only 500 students at NC and a small number of faculty, so such a move definitely goes noticed and can win your enemies. The school is highly political (by which I'm refering to intra-personal politics, not students who are activists).

In any case, you and your FA create a Contract which spells out what you'll be doing that Quarter. In theory, that could be anything you both agree to. It COULD be taking a traditional course load. But it could also be traveling to Europe and visiting museums. Or writing a Novel. I wanted to study theatre, and NC didn't have a theatre department, so one Quarter, my contract allowed me to volunteer at a regional theatre. Another Quarter, it allowed me to direct a play. In spite of the possibilities, most students (while I was there) just took traditional courses.

At the end of the Quarter, you and your FA both draft writeups, outlining how the Contract was fulfilled or not fulfilled. And both parties mark the Contract as SAT or UNSAT (satisfactorily completed or not). I'm not sure how this is different from pass/fail, but we all pretended that it was.

In theory, both you and the FA have to give you a SAT in order for you to have passed the Quarter (and you MUST pass four years of Quarters in order to graduate). In practice, no student ever gives himself an UNSAT, so your "grade" is under the complete control of the FA. And you only have ONE FA. So he's in complete control of whether or not you graduate.

If you're lucky enough to get a good, fair one, all goes well. If not, you're screwed.
posted by grumblebee at 10:53 AM on September 28, 2006


I've never bought into the no-grade system. I certainly don't think the current system of A-F is perfect, but as far as I can tell it's necessary. Given a subject and workload, some students will learn the information better, through effort or ability, and can prove it through testing - and the score on the test or on reasonable amounts of work or papers determines their overall score in a class. I honestly don't see what's wrong with that.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:57 AM on September 28, 2006


Does New College encourage its Students to capitalize random Nouns, or is this something you picked up on your own?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:59 AM on September 28, 2006 [3 favorites]


Stanford University has a subset of courses (restricted to a certain percentage of your total work) that may be taken for a simple "Satisfactory" mark, with no letter grade associated.

I believe that when my wife attended Stanford (1990-1995), it was still possible at that time to have all of your coursework so graded.

This link explains the Stanford policies, which are remarkably "unorthodox" for a university that is arguably one of the top ten in the world.
posted by scrump at 10:59 AM on September 28, 2006


I give this post a C.
posted by rocket88 at 11:02 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


When you note that "this is my second attempt at this FPP.", do you expect us to be more lenient on you, Mr. Grumblebee? If so, why?

this is good, again.
posted by boo_radley at 11:02 AM on September 28, 2006


I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz during a time (early 80s) when few, if any, of their classes offered letter grades. What students got instead was a narrative evaluation of their work in the class. It must have been (from my later-life perspective) an ungodly amount of work for the instructors, but the experience left me unable to ever again take letter grades seriously -- they are, in comparison, such a thin and impoverished source of information. I value even just one of my undergrad narrative evals far more highly than all the straight A's I earned in my MA and PhD programs.
posted by Kat Allison at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2006


Does New College encourage its Students to capitalize random Nouns, or is this something you picked up on your own?

They certainly didn't teach this at New College, thought I may have started doing it there. But I don't think it's random NOUNS. For instance, I capitalized the would "could," which isn't a noun. I sometimes use caps as a form on emphasis, instead of italics. I write a ton of ASCII stuff in non-rich text editors, so there's no way to italicize. (I capitalized FA, because it's an acronym for Faculty Advisor, and in the "longhand" version, the individual words are capitalized. I capitalized SAT and UNSAT because, to the best of my memory, that's how they were written at New College. Which makes them seem even more like grades, since we generally capitalize A through F.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:07 AM on September 28, 2006


When you note that "this is my second attempt at this FPP.", do you expect us to be more lenient on you, Mr. Grumblebee?

Nope. Jessamyn emailed me, explaining what was wrong with the original and asking me to repost. So I did.
posted by grumblebee at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2006


Stanford University has a subset of courses (restricted to a certain percentage of your total work) that may be taken for a simple "Satisfactory" mark, with no letter grade associated.

Yes, this was true when I was at Stanford 20 years ago. Don't know if it still is.
posted by blucevalo at 11:08 AM on September 28, 2006


Harvard Business School had to adopt the following policy because students were focusing too much effort on grade competetion instead of learning the material:

"Since 1998, HBS students have not been permitted to communicate their individual grades to recruiters before a job offer was extended. In addition, recruiters had to agree not to use a student’s individual grades as a condition of employment. "
posted by StarForce5 at 11:09 AM on September 28, 2006


Personally, I thought the link at the bottom of his page is a lot more interesting.
posted by c13 at 11:10 AM on September 28, 2006


Prof. Staeck's little explanation reminds me of the kind of soliloquies given at the end of Frank Capra movies.
posted by gcbv at 11:12 AM on September 28, 2006


"For instance, I capitalized the would "could," which isn't a noun."

I wouldn't consider an all-caps word to fall under the "capitalized" umbrella, at least in the context of my comment, so we will have to agree to disagree.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:12 AM on September 28, 2006


Some interesting books on school/grading:

Derrick Jensen's Walking on Water.

Glasser's The Quality School and The Quality School Teacher.
posted by dobbs at 11:13 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


some students will learn the information better ... and can prove it through testing - and the score on the test or on reasonable amounts of work or papers determines their overall score in a class. I honestly don't see what's wrong with that.

Me neither, but I would emphasize (using caps) SOME students. A good school is understands that different students learn in different ways. If being graded honestly helps a student learn, then a good teacher will grade that student. But a student who learns LESS when graded should not be graded. This is assuming that the goal of school is learning.

A school with such a goal MUST used multiple methods of teaching. A single method won't work, because learning styles vary too much.

In my experience (20 years as a student and 20 years as a teacher), grades don't work for most students.
posted by grumblebee at 11:13 AM on September 28, 2006


I have an interesting grading story, my mom taught a sociology class and she had set up a system whereby after missing class three times, your grade dropped half a letter every class you missed.

Some guy wrote an email to complain about his grade. He'd done OK on the homework, but it turned out that he'd missed almost every single class. Actually my mom gave him a passing grade, because he had some sob story about how he needed it to graduate, etc, and he had learned the material, just not followed the rules.
posted by delmoi at 11:13 AM on September 28, 2006


Is it just me or does it seem like women and girls are much more likely to contest and succeed in contesting grades? Lots of girls I've talked to have talked about whining their way out of grades, whereas I've accepted every grade that I've gotten (even one where I think I was robbed.)

I think a cute girl, doing the exact same work level as I would probably have a higher GPA.
posted by delmoi at 11:18 AM on September 28, 2006


crash_davis, I assume you're talking about "writing a Novel." That's a mistake. "Quarter" is purposeful, though I feel a little shakey about it. My reasoning is that it's an official, named time period, like "January." But I'm probably wrong. I guess we don't usually write "a college Semester."

"Contract" is another typo. Sorry.

Thanks for pointing it out.
posted by grumblebee at 11:20 AM on September 28, 2006


I think a cute girl, doing the exact same work level as I would probably have a higher GPA.
Don't feel bad, she'll only make 75% of your salary.
posted by verb at 11:22 AM on September 28, 2006 [5 favorites]


I went to a college without grades or (typical) majors: Hampshire College. When I described it to people, those who had little imagination figured that no grades meant no evaluations of our work, which could not have been further from the truth. In reality, our work in each course and over the course of our time at school was measured by extensive written evaluation. Not only were my individual papers, projects and exams evaluated, so were the classes of which they were a part, and then the larger project (major) of which it was, in turn, a part. So, in contrast to the limited grading evaluation advocated and described by BlackLeotardFront, students at my school were much more extensively and thoroughly evaluated during college. And, not incidentally, that evaluation was all part of their academic record, which wasn't limited to a letter or series of letters, but was rich with descriptions of expectations, ways in which those expectations were fulfilled, and evaluations of the intermittent steps leading to the final evaluation. All in all, looking over my transcript from college gives a much clearer idea of what I did during my studies, how I did it, and how well I did it. If I did something for extra credit, it would say it right there in the eval. If I never attended class, but wrote good papers, it would explain that in the eval.

It wasn't a perfect system, but it was far better than grades. And, if you really wanted to (if you're lazy or unimaginative or incurious), it was pretty easy to read an eval and know what the letter grade would have been.

On preview: delmoi, read verb's comment to yourself again and again.
posted by OmieWise at 11:25 AM on September 28, 2006


I have students coming to me bitching about a 1 point question that I marked wrong on their quiz. Disregarding the fact that the answer is wrong, 1 point constitutes 0.14% of their final grade. Apparently it's worth a try...
posted by c13 at 11:25 AM on September 28, 2006


I also went through a program that used written evaluations rather than grades (the Residential College of the University of Michigan). It did offer some traditional majors, but also had a "design your own major" program, which is what I did (I created a playwriting major, which at the time was not offered by U of M, although I believe one is now.)

In retrospect, I consider both the written evalutations and the grades I could have otherwise gotten to be equally pointless. Not a single person has looked at them since my graduation, and I can't say either one did or would have told me anything I didn't already know at the time.

The design-your-own-major program, on the other hand, was incredibly useful. I was able to take a wide variety of fascinating courses in all different fields, many of which I would have been unable to take had I been bogged down by the rather stringent course requirements U of M imposed on traditional majors.
posted by kyrademon at 11:34 AM on September 28, 2006


NewCollegeFilter: Hey grumblebee, what year did you graduate? '97 here.

I liked the New College system. It allowed me to wander a bit and figure out what I wanted to do to graduate. I eventually ended up doing a sorta-thesis on virtual reality, with part of the project being a QTVR tour of the campus (which is still somewhere in the thesis library, on a Zip disk, waiting...).

Not having grades forced me to pay attention to things more, and to have discussions with my advisor/professors on how things were going, rather than just getting a B or something and having that be the end of the exchange. It's not for everyone; I knew one girl who had to leave because she had too much freedom (she ended up ditching all of her classes and MUDding for ten- to twelve-hour stretches), but the majority of folks there enjoyed it.
posted by Shecky at 11:40 AM on September 28, 2006


I feel like the real problem with most of places that don't have grades is not that the lack of grades, but the overall of educational philosophy of the places that tend to eschew grading.

For instance, while a evaluation might be an excellent picture of your work, this is frequently paired with allowing students a wide degree of freedom in selecting what work they want to do.

Omiewise, as I understand it, there is a great deal of freedom as to what you do for projects at Hampshire. Sure, your evaluation is a good picture of the work you did, but if the work you did is a making a board game, it's hard to take that degree seriously. And as long as the college is turning out students who graduate based on making board games, it'll be hard to take the graduates of that college seriously.

I'm not sure there is a college with a good rigorous academic program, and no grading.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:40 AM on September 28, 2006


My alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, neither distributes grades to students nor do most professors offer tests. Coursework consists of copious reading and paper-writing in conjunction with faculty conferences and independent study. This sort of educational system is rare in the U.S. but more common in the U.K. See OmieWise's comment for an excellent explanation of why this system can be a very positive experience.

Students receive written evaluations at the end of each semester. Apparently equivalent grades are assigned and kept in the students' files and are available upon asking (for curiosity, I suppose, but more importantly for external institutions - i.e., grad school), but they are not distributed to students. In my 4 years at SLC, the only time I "saw" my grades involved needing proof of my academic status (not a transcript) for another college's overseas program. The official document was printed and the grades crossed out with a black marker.

Upon closer reading, I see SLC now says that their practice is "The use of written evaluations by faculty of each student’s work, in addition to a traditional grading system. These end-of-semester evaluations are the culmination of an ongoing dialogue between teacher and student in class and conference and, therefore, stress individual strengths and weaknesses and give students a more complete sense of their progress. The College maintains a record of student grades for external purposes." I do not know if they currently offer grades to students, but I suspect I would have heard the cacophonous outrage of alums if this were the case.

Do I ever wish we'd had grades? Exams? No. I learned to write, to organize my thoughts clearly and to research what I didn't know, as well as to present an argument both verbally and in writing. The only negative aspect of not having grades is that I'm daunted by the thought of taking a standardized test if I want to pursue a graduate degree. I haven't taken a test in almost 20 years; the thought of re-learning the methods for test-taking and so forth - things that don't have much to do with any actual eventual field of study - intimidate me.
posted by hsoltz at 11:45 AM on September 28, 2006


Bulgaroktonos - the RC at U of M has been accused of many things, but not having a good rigorous academic program is not one of them. There's a wide latitude in what courses you can take, but the courses are excellent.

Anyway ...

I think it's important to remember that people go to college for different reasons, all of which are valid ones, and that for some of those reasons grades are useful and for some they are not.

If you go to college to develop qualifications, grades are useful. That is to say, if you are going to get a certificate that says, "This person is qualified to be employed as a mechanical engineer", then grades, of at least the pass/fail variety, are essential. They are not for the student, but for the prospective employer, to guarantee that they have learned the material necessary for the job.

If you go to college for an education, grades are pointless. If you merely wish to take courses and learn interesting things, and have no other purpose, then whether you pass or fail is completely irrelevant. This is what I did.

If you go to college for a degree, then grades are an annoyance. This is different from qualifications; students who go for a degree have no stake in learning the material, they want a piece of paper which will allow them to get a better or higher-paying job, with no necessary connection between the material supposedly learned and that job. In that case, all grades do is get in the way.

If you go to college to stroke your academic ego, then grades are the entire point. I have met people who are clearly doing just that.

And so on. Of course, you can go to college for multiple purposes, in which case the situation gets muddier.
posted by kyrademon at 11:47 AM on September 28, 2006 [3 favorites]


I went to Hampshire just before OmieWise. One of the other things that was sort of great about it was that you could take classes at the other schools in the Five College area so you could have a transcript that included both grades -- for people who seemed to like them -- and a stack of evaluations. You could also ask teachers at the other schools to write evaluations so I got an evaluation from David Foster Wallace from the fiction writing class I took fromhim at Amherst College which I treasure to this day.

A few other bonuses were not feeling that pre-test stress. Sure, there were papers to write and it was sort of important to do okay on the, but that "oh shit here we go..." feeling was absent, totally, from my college experience. I don't have those test anxiety dreams that people seem to have, though I vaguely remember having them in high school.

I got a linguistics and writing degree and had very little trouble getting into grad school even with my non-traditional transcript. Satisfactory progress is checked by completion of a series of course- and writing-based (except for the artists, etc) projects with faculty advisors. I think I graduated in four years only taking maybe 16 classes, but that seemed the right amount of classes to take for what I was doing.

I've accepted every grade that I've gotten

Maybe that was a mistake? If the cute girl is better at understanding and working within the system than you are, maybe she deserves better grades? Unless you're claiming that she took advantage of some cuteness-factor that was not available to you. However, you claimed you never tried to challenge or contest your grades, so you can't possibly be saying that. Can you?
posted by jessamyn at 11:48 AM on September 28, 2006


The quote used for the main FPP links is pretty much exactly what one of our (best) tutors in university told us during the very first lesson he taught. But then again, he was an inspirational figure (to students and staff) and didn't need to threaten people with grades to get them to be honestly excited about our field of study...

Of course this was art school, so it's not like it's a real degree anyway.
posted by slimepuppy at 11:49 AM on September 28, 2006


It wasn't a perfect system, but it was far better than grades. And, if you really wanted to (if you're lazy or unimaginative or incurious), it was pretty easy to read an eval and know what the letter grade would have been.

Heh, I don't think using quantitative descriptors versus qualitative ones is a measure of imagination. It's a matter of effeciency, and an effort to standardize measurements. You know, like that lazy and unimaginitive metric system.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:50 AM on September 28, 2006


Hey, I know this guy! We had fun storming the castle once upon a time.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:52 AM on September 28, 2006


That would be "unimaginative."
posted by kid ichorous at 11:52 AM on September 28, 2006


Rojstaczer agrees: "We've made a transition where attending college is no longer a privilege and an honor; instead college is a consumer product. One of the negative aspects of this transition is that the role of a college-level teacher has been transformed into that of a service employee."
For me this is the root of the problem with the current grading system, and what seems to me to be the major problem with undergrad students (I work at a major urban University in Philadelphia).

The problem is not so much that they simply crave high grades but that they believe themselves entitled to them simply because they have paid their tution.

The best bit is when they pulll the "hey, I pay your salary" routine. I worked out once that the tuition of each student contributes approximately 5 to 10 cents towards my salary (depending how I calculate it).

So when they're done saying that, they've already exhausted all the time they've paid for. Telling them about how the rest of my time is charity to them is pure, but rare, gold.
posted by illovich at 11:57 AM on September 28, 2006


"Don't feel bad, she'll only make 75% of your salary."

Then she shouldn't have gotten her cute ass knocked up and had to take time off to give birth.

There's more to male/female wage disparity than whether or not someone has a penis.

And yes, I was just kidding (about getting knocked up).

As for grades, well, if you graduate does it really matter? Probably not in most cases.
posted by MikeMc at 11:58 AM on September 28, 2006


I completely disagree with the notion that grades are pointless if you are seeking an education. Grades provide an incentive, which is necessary if you really want to get an education. Education is hard work, and without an incentive to perform, most individuals, and the certainly the group as a whole, are going to lose their focus and education will suffer.

The whole point of a college is the community, otherwise you can just read some books. Without the grading(evalutions would probably suffice here as well) this community will not focus on learning, even if everyone there is intelligent and honestly cares about their education, which is hardly every the case today.

As for my point about academic freedom, I tend to think that giving students a great deal of freeom is a bad idea. 18 years old are not qualified to know what they should learn. They don't know what they want to do with their lives, and they don't have a sense of what would get them there if they did.

That said, I'm not really talking about freedom is course selection. I'm talking about places like New School or Hampshire, where freedom from grades goes hand in hand with the ability to abandon standard courses entirely.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:58 AM on September 28, 2006


Grumblebee mentioned The Evergreen State College, which I attended.
Students at Evergreen take an integrated program every quarter. For example, my first term there, I took "Modeling Nature," which integrated biology, chemistry, geology, hydrology, and computer modeling. We had three faculty members who taught the different parts of the program and cooperated to supervise and evaluate the students. This sort of arrangement was the rule... there were a very few stand alone classes, such as you'd see at a traditional institution.
Evergreen also allowed students to design a program of their own. The student would work with an advisor to define the focus of the program, goals, etc, and would then study independently for the quarter. Whatever products had been agreed on would be evaluated by the advisor at the end of the term. I knew one fellow there to studied boat making for a quarter. The student designed course program was frequently made fun of, but it wasn't that absurd. Anything could be chosen, but it really did have to be studied.
Evergreen had no grades. Instead, for every program, faculty would produce a written evaluation of the student's performance. The student would evaluate themselves, as well, and both evaluations would go in their official transcript. Those evaluations and a list of credits awarded comprised the student's complete transcript.
The last thing that stands out about Evergreen is that they don't have majors. A student can declare any "focus" they like, but there was no official system. The idea was that there was no need, since anyone reviewing the student's transcript would be familiar with particulars of what work was covered.

My sister used to work in the registrar's office at another school in Washington State. She evaluated transfer credits from other schools and she *hated* Evergreen students. She had to slog through piles of evaluations from programs with titles that didn't mean anything and figure out just what the applicant had studied, and how much it was worth. I've had trouble transferring my credit from there, too.
posted by wilsona at 12:00 PM on September 28, 2006


Problem isn't with grades per se, but with the attempt to overcompress a history of performance measures across many domains (comprehension, work ethic..) into a single metric, which, by itself, doesn't convey valuable information to a third party, such as the specific weights given to the various measures, or the distribution of grades in the recipient's class.
posted by Gyan at 12:03 PM on September 28, 2006


To second wilsona's comments - I am employed at a graduate school and our admissions department hates dealing with transcriptions from Evergreen. It's all so subjective, at least in the eyes of the admissions staff.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 12:04 PM on September 28, 2006


Bulgaroktonos writes "Omiewise, as I understand it, there is a great deal of freedom as to what you do for projects at Hampshire. Sure, your evaluation is a good picture of the work you did, but if the work you did is a making a board game, it's hard to take that degree seriously."

I think there's a lot less of that than there might at first appear to be. Sure, in the early part of education people might pursue inane things, but the high level of faculty interaction and evaluation is explicitly conceived in order to limit that kind of stuff. A place like Hampshire is not actually a very good place to go if you aren't self-directed and motivated, despite a reputation to the contrary, which is one of the reasons for a high attrition rate. But by the time people are in their final year and working on what amounts to their undergraduate thesis, they're almost all doing excellent, thoughtful and interesting work. I've talked with a lot of people from a lot of colleges and universities, and I'd put later year Hampshire students up against any of them for engagement and depth of knowledge in their chosen fields. This was perhaps most visible in the natural sciences where it was quite common for people to graduate with a few publications to their names because of the emphasis on original research and discovery.



joseph_elmhurst writes "It's all so subjective, at least in the eyes of the admissions staff."

This seems like a failure of the graduate admissions staff and not of the undergraduate college.
posted by OmieWise at 12:14 PM on September 28, 2006


I graduated UCSC in June, after having begun there in 1999. (I had a leave and returned in part-time status.) My tenure there spanned the switch from no grades required to various levels of grading required -- for example 2/3 of the classes for the film major must now be taken for a grade to graduate. In short, nobody used to take grades, now everybody does. This was done to make UCSC compatible with other UCs.

Since I had catalog rights from before these changes, I retained a non-graded mentality as I watched the attitude of my classmates slowly, but thoroughly change. How would I classify this change?

-- As more damaging to the educations earned by those in the lower tiers: a sense that their poorer achievements pushed them futher away

-- As less conversational in classes (granted I was a film student, not chem or such. lots of dialogue is standard.)

-- More academically rigorous. Tougher grading practices on papers and projects, even by the same teachers.

Finally, I am now applying for grad programs, and since I have all these evaluations, some of which specifically recommend me for graduate research, I think evals are GOLD.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:21 PM on September 28, 2006


Try sitting on a grad school admissions committee when a packet comes in with "narrative evaluations" instead of grades. There's a reason for the shorthand "thin" way of evaluating. The world is not endlessly interested in the minutiae of how hard you tried or what an original thinker you are despite not having mastered the concepts on offer in a particular class. We read three (3) letters of recommendation that deal with such issues nicely. We look at years of academic performance for all of a minute or two to take in how good you are at meeting high standards set by others for your scholarly performance. Period. Grades are very, very useful for this and (factoring in patterns of improvement or cycles of lower performance) highly predictive in my experience of future academic success.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:28 PM on September 28, 2006


joseph_elmhurst writes "It's all so subjective, at least in the eyes of the admissions staff."

This seems like a failure of the graduate admissions staff and not of the undergraduate college.
posted by OmieWise at 12:14 PM PST on September 28 [+] [!]


I wouldn't agree with this, OmieWise. If a set of evaluations don't clearly state what the programs covered, how is the graduate admissions office to know? Course descriptions at Evergreen were always a little vague, too.

One thing I forgot to mention about Evergreen was that the further you got from it, the better people's opinion of it. I'm from Washtington State, and people there don't take it seriously.
posted by wilsona at 12:29 PM on September 28, 2006


Ambrosia, they are not GOLD. They are a pain in the ass. I guarantee you no grad admissions committee is carefully reading each of those narrative evaluations for the "gold" parts. There is simply not time until you are down to the shortest of short lists.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:30 PM on September 28, 2006


I had a friend as an undergraduate who once exclaimed in all sincerity, "Goddamnit I pay good money for my tuition, they should give me whatever grade I want!"
posted by Shutter at 12:37 PM on September 28, 2006


wilsona, or really anyone for that matter - any tips for a prospective Evergreen student?
posted by p3on at 12:42 PM on September 28, 2006


Do any of these schools require a minimum GPA to attend? I am assuming not because this would go against their entire philosophy on grades. And if not, what's required? An essay and an interview?
posted by markulus at 12:44 PM on September 28, 2006


I don't sit on any such committee, so, of course, my comments are from the outside. However, despite what I've said in this thread I'm no pie-in-the-sky believer in laissez-faire education. To the contrary, I believe in evaluation. Of course I understand the issues incvolved in screening any kinds of applicants for anything.

But I took classes at all five colleges in the Pioneer Valley. None of those classes had any tests involved as they were all humanities classes. All grades or evaluations were based on papers written, class attendance and participation in class. Suggesting that the A's I recieved at Amherst, or Smith, or Mount Holyoke were somehow (magically) less subjective than the evaluations that clearly read as As for my Hampshire classes, which explained in detail the work that I had done, is just foolish. Not just foolish, but wrong. The As were not only just as subjective, but had the added downside of taking the ability to evaluate my performance away from anyone subsequently reading my transcript. My point is not that reading evaluations is easier for a grad committee, but it does provide more information.

Now, if you want to argue that evaluative transcripts have a lower exchange value, that they make getting into grad school harder, that's a separate argument, and one conspiculously different than their application to the life of the undergraduate student as they study. My anecdotal experience suggests that all of my friends from Hampshire have gotten into their first choice grad schools, usually in the Ivies or the Seven Sisters. And certainly that anecdote is no less valid than any other offered here. I'd be genuinely curious to see more quanitative data, though.
posted by OmieWise at 12:49 PM on September 28, 2006


Grumblebee....

I went to New College as well. Graduated in 2000, and I can see you're a bit older than me. I really enjoyed the system there, but you make it seem much more rigid and harder to change your FA than in my experience. It's true that most students aren't satisfied with their initial FA. But students almost universally move to an advisor who teaches their major.

Ideally, you get along with your FA, talk to them on a regular basis, etc. I have never heard of anyone who deserved to graduate failing to graduate because their FA was in their way. In fact, I have seen people graduate who probably didn't deserve to graduate because their FAs were lenient.

The best thing about the New College grading system IMHO is that there's no bullshittery. You can still SAT a class but get a horrible evaluation. The evaluations are actual descriptions of your performance, not arbitrary letter grades.
posted by gnutron at 12:50 PM on September 28, 2006


Yale Law abolished grades decades ago, though I suppose once you've gotten into arguably the most prestigious school in the country, there's not a lot to prove once you're studying there.

Personally, I'm competitive, so I like grades, though the grades awarded by NYU film were almost uselessly vague and thusly ignored. Obviously evaluations are far more important in that kind of environment.

As for the cute girl getting her grade up more easily, here's a fun story. I'm neither a girl nor particularly cute, but at the end of my senior year of high school, after I'd already been accepted to college and graduation was secure, my English teacher called me over to her desk. She told me that she'd worked the numbers as best she could, but just couldn't find a way to give me an A. I told her that was fine, and that I honestly didn't care that much, and that I deserved whatever I got after having blatently blown off the whole "Mayor of Casterbridge" section we did that year. Anyway, when my final report card came, she'd given me the A anyway. So it isn't just cute girls, and grades don't matter once you're done with schooling anyway...

...I say as I await my transcript for my law school applications.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:00 PM on September 28, 2006


Several people have commented on the uselessness of grades (e.g. Kyrademon's comment "In retrospect, I consider both the written evalutations and the grades I could have otherwise gotten to be equally pointless. Not a single person has looked at them since my graduation").
FWIW I found grades quite useful in the hiring process. My major competitors would screen strictly on the grade point average - looking for 3.8 - 4.0 (Scale of 0 - 4.0). We would screen on the basis of the subjects of primary interest - where we looked for A's and B's - and cheerfully hire people with an overall 2.0 - 3.0 (C grade), GPA.
The hypothesis was that:
1. Straight A students were great test takers - our business did not involve taking tests.
2. Getting good grades in the (for us) core courses indicated interest in, and an ability to learn, that type of material.
3. C students were hungry and would work like the dickens.

Whether our logic was correct I know not - but our hires ran circles round theirs every time and they all did well in their chosen careers.

Yes - I despise grades, but they can be useful.
posted by speug at 1:01 PM on September 28, 2006


Does anyone know the kind of grades their heart surgeon got in school? Do you generally have the kind of time to do the research while you’re having a grabber?
*Gasp* Honey! call *gasp* the U of C and ask what *gasp* grade Dr. Nathan got in his *gasp* myocardial *gasp* pulminary.....argh.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:04 PM on September 28, 2006


NewCollegeFilter: Hey grumblebee, what year did you graduate? '97 here.

I graduated around '92.

Grades provide an incentive, which is necessary if you really want to get an education.

I'm not going to disagree with you exactly, but that statement deeply troubles me. It reminds me a bit of Hiroshima. Many people who feel that dropping the bomb was necessary are still horrified by it, and want to make sure that THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE BOMBING NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN. So that we never again need to drop another atomic bomb.

Kids are born with a love of learning. That's a trite thing to say, but as someone who spent years working with kids (2 - 9 years olds), I've seen that it's true. Kids don't NEED an incentive. And if you take a kid and place him -- from birth -- into an environment like Summerhill, he will continue to work and learn without incentive.

(Naturally, this isn't true of all kids. ANY system -- except for a highly flexible one -- will fail some kids. Our current (graded) system definitely does.)

During grade school (note the name), love of learning gets beaten out of people. And they rarely regain it. So MAYBE grading is necessary for those students (and there are many of them) who have been damaged by previous schooling.

I say maybe, because I'm not convinced that they damage needs to be permanent. I have hopes that it can be undone. But I'm sure undoing it would be very hard, and most schools don't have the inclination to do this.

The part of me that (sadly) agrees with you feels that grades are a band aid approach to a problem that needs to be solved -- not patched over.

When people with a traditional (graded) school history hear about schools without grades, they often say, "That wouldn't have worked for me. I would have just goofed off all the time." But they are a dirty test tube. They grew up with grades and lost their natural love of learning.

Read up on Summerhill! Students who go there from a very young age tend to learn without any reward system (except the joy of learning itself). Students who transfer there DO tend to goof off for a while (you don't even have to go to classes there), but after a couple of month they get bored and start going to class. (Of course there are exceptions.)

If you can't imagine going to class without being forced -- or without the promise of a reward, it's because you've been DAMAGED. I'm not chastising you. I've been damaged, too. Most of us went through a horrible educational system that not only damaged us... worse, it indoctrinated us into a believe that it was a GOOD educational system.

Even if grades are the only way to force people to do the work and go to class, I'm not sure they're a good thing. In my experience, education has failed most people. Most of the people I know learned very little in college.

People say, "I forgot everything I learned in college," or "college isn't about learning; it's about learning how to learn," or "college is about being socialized" or "I used to read all the time, but I sort of stopped in my 30s." They sigh about these things, but they don't get deeply upset.

We SHOULD learn in college.
We SHOULD want to continue learning once we leave and we should do so.
We SHOULD keep reading all of our lives.
We SHOULD always LOVE learning.

If we don't, we've been damaged.
posted by grumblebee at 1:07 PM on September 28, 2006 [2 favorites]


During grade school (note the name), love of learning gets beaten out of people. And they rarely regain it. So MAYBE grading is necessary for those students (and there are many of them) who have been damaged by previous schooling.

This deserves repeating. Reminds me of an essay by John Taylor Gatto:

the more I asked why not, and persisted in thinking about the "problem" of schooling as an engineer might, the more I missed the point: What if there is no "problem" with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because they are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would "leave no child behind"? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them ever really grows up?
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:37 PM on September 28, 2006


I completely disagree with the notion that grades are pointless if you are seeking an education. Grades provide an incentive, which is necessary if you really want to get an education. Education is hard work, and without an incentive to perform, most individuals, and the certainly the group as a whole, are going to lose their focus and education will suffer.

No. Grades may not be pointless for those who sort of want an education, but if you need them to stay focused, you don't "really want to get an education."

If you can't imagine going to class without being forced -- or without the promise of a reward, it's because you've been DAMAGED.

I don't know about that. Does knowing more than you did prior to going to class not count as a reward?
posted by juv3nal at 1:39 PM on September 28, 2006


I found grad. school easier than college and that was easier than high school. In no small part, this is due to the fact that it's pretty easy to find ways to game the system when dealing with a standard A-F scale. But I also have a feeling that once you get into an MA or PhD programs (can't speak for business or law or med school, but I think it might be similar) at a decent to prestigious institution, you've already "made the grade" so to speak. Few professors would admit this -- they still have to play the strict grading enforcement kabuki dance lest they be branded as "soft," but my experience was that once you were in, grades were the last thing you needed to worry about.

Your MA and PhD thesis work -- that's the frickin' hard part. And more often than not in the humanities, you can't ride another profs coattails (i.e., help her with her research). Compared to coming up with a dissertation out of whole cloth, the coursework was just a bit of painless institutionalization.
posted by bardic at 1:42 PM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


Get over yourselves. Grades demonstrate two things: 1. How well an individual masters the material; and, 2. How well the student can work within a structured environment to achieve a goal.

For the vast majority of graduates, they will work within some kind of structure during their careers, having to obey rules and follow procedures so that the people who manage them can assess their success or failure at contributing to the larger goal. Society has come to this point; it is based on conforming to rules and procedures. Without this, there is chaos.

A few people are hurt by the rules and procedures of society, and have trouble conforming. Some of these people are geniuses and it makes sense to suspend the rules in their cases, for the greater good of society. The rest of these people are lazy idiots and had better straighten up and figure out how to play the game or they will have trouble earning a living.
posted by Doohickie at 1:50 PM on September 28, 2006


(And kind of what Doohickie said -- I don't see grades and "love of learning" as being mutually exclusive. I mean, if you're teacher is straight out of The Wall or something, but I never had any experience that bad. Some bad teachers, no doubt, but I just learned what they wanted from me as soon as possible and then did what I needed to do to get what I wanted out of the class.)
posted by bardic at 1:59 PM on September 28, 2006


I sometimes use caps as a form on emphasis, instead of italics.

Some people also use asterisks to serve this purpose, as I do when I'm being chatty online (in IM or informally on message boards). It is, however, a somewhat lazy way of getting your point across, especially when engaged in a serious or semi-serious discussion. I personally find it jarring when someone STRESSES their words to prove their POINT. In my head I begin to read their words with an annoying cadence--does anyone know what I mean? It reads, at best, as a sort of frantic exasperation and, at worst, as misplaced condescension. There are many, many ways to make your point adequately, if not eruditely, with a bit of forethought concerning word choice and syntax.

I don't put this forth as a mere attempt to snark, mind you, but simply as something you might want to keep in mind when writing. One of the chief rules of writing is to know your audience and write for them accordingly.

/aside

Get over yourselves. Grades demonstrate two things: 1. How well an individual masters the material; and, 2. How well the student can work within a structured environment to achieve a goal.

It's far more of #2 than it is of #1, I think. But that's the end result of post-secondary education in general. It functions, by and large, as a simple training grounds, or job mill, for "the real world". Following simple, if occasionally illogical and irrelevant, guidelines plays an important role...

Where the disconnect may occur is in the more arts-centered programs, where "job mill" isn't necessarily why people are attending classes. But, nevertheless, I don't think this is a surprise to anyone that attends a university (or it shouldn't be), so lodging more than a mild complaint is a bit ridiculous, as the writer of the course outline in this FPP makes quite clear.
posted by The God Complex at 2:06 PM on September 28, 2006


p3on

Not really. I didn't stay. It was nearly ten years ago that I attended, anyway. Lots of trust fund hippies back then. I don't know if it's still true, but the campus was a ways away from town. Hard to do/get anything that isn't on campus.

Check out the beach at night, though. There's phosphorescent algae in the water. Dip your hand in and it sparkles. Jump up and down on the wet sand and you'll see it light up. It may take a few nights before you catch it right, but when you do, it's amazing.
One of my best memories of Evergreen is going out on Eld (I think) Inlet in a canoe one night with a friend. The wake from the boat and our paddles shimmered from the algae as we paddled along. Once we got out a ways, we took a break and looked at the stars. A seal swam up and checked us out for a while before disappearing. It was very serene, and the sparkling water was like magic.
posted by wilsona at 2:14 PM on September 28, 2006


I don't understand those people who think no grades = no structure. Colleges that do not hand out letter grades are not organizations without structure. In fact, the opposite is more often true: students still take classes, meet courseload/credit/degree requirements, and have short-term and long-term work to do. Frequently this work involves more time and effort than simply answering the questions in the workbook or cramming for the test. At some schools there may be more self-responsibility required for organizing one's non-class time in order to accomplish the work, but at no school is there an absence of having to "obey rules and follow procedures."

The rules and procedures may be different at a college that does not hand out objective letter grades, but you'd have to search hard to find one that doesn't have rules and requirements for making sure that no matter what and how you are studying a subject, you're doing it in such a way that you learn from the experience and can apply either your actual knowledge or your process of acquiring knowledge to your subsequent experiences. In fact, such nontraditional schools couldn't exist (or be accredited, or be desirable to ambitious students) if they didn't have this sort of structure in place.
posted by hsoltz at 2:51 PM on September 28, 2006


I, along with many MeFites, attended St. John's College. The school has a completely required curriculum based on reading primary sources and discussing them in a seminar-style setting.

Evaluation of students is done primarily in a "Don Rag", a conference at the end of each semester with all the tutors (faculty members) who lead the student's classes. Although SJC requires the faculty members to write down letter grades on a transcript, easing transfer or application to grad school, students are discouraged from looking at their grades both by the school and by their fellow students and no "grades" are given on assignments or oral exams during classes.

I bring this up simply to point out that not all schools that follow this grading concept have the "free form" curricula that so worries several of the posters.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:52 PM on September 28, 2006


Get over yourselves.

Does this mean that we (I) sound pompous? I can understand how that might be so. But I'm not pompous, I'm passionate. I've been a teacher for two decades, and I care more deeply about learning than anything else I can think of. And I think the current (graded) system thwarts real learning. I may be wrong about that, but since I believe I'm right -- and since I care so much about learning -- I'm naturally passionate.

Grades demonstrate two things: 1. How well an individual masters the material;

I strongly disagree. I've known tons of students who have gotten straight As without mastering the material. By material, I mean the subject matter of the class. I know philosophy students who have aced tests without really understanding philosophy in a deep, meaningful sense.

Strictly speaking, this isn't the fault of grades. It's because poorly designed tests make it easy to learn study techniques that allow you to pass the test without really learning the material. And, unfortunately, grade-based systems encourage everyone (profs and students) to care more about passing tests than learning.

I also know people who are good at mastering material but are lousy test takers. Taking tests is a discrete skill. I personally suck at it. Yet (alas) I have to take tests all the time. I teach Adobe applications, and most people would consider me an expert in several of them. I've written books and magazine columns about Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro. I continually teach this software. And I speak about it at national conventions, like MacWorld. Yet I continually come close to failing certification exams (I have to get re-certified each time a new version of whatever program comes out). I am an expert in my field. But I'm a novice at test taking.

and, 2. How well the student can work within a structured environment to achieve a goal.

I sort of agree, but note that the grades really only show that the students do well in a SPECIFIC structured environment -- the one in the classroom. Not all structured environments are the same.

Ultimately, I think this whole debate comes down to this: most adults don't read Shakespeare; they don't work out math problems for fun; they rarely visit a museum; they have to be dragged to the opera; they don't read history...

If this doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother you. But it does bother me. A world in which people -- once they're a few years past school and are no longer forced to study -- quit learning just for learning's sake is not a world I want to live in. But it is a world that I DO live in. I would just get over it, if I thought it was the world I HAD to live in. If I thought it was just natural for adults to quit learning. But I don't. I've seen firsthand how the joy of learning gets drummed out of people. And I've seen the people who this hasn't happened to, and I know why it hasn't happened to them.
posted by grumblebee at 2:59 PM on September 28, 2006


"And if not, what's required? An essay and an interview?"

Money helps.
posted by klangklangston at 3:38 PM on September 28, 2006


I'm a graduate student in geology, and I too think our current education system is a mess. I did my undergraduate work at Oberlin College and am now at a large public university; frankly, the lack of intellectual curiousity amongst undergrads depresses me. One of the things that led me to major in geology was that, among all the sciences I had studied, the intro level class went a long way towards explaining things I'd see in everyday life. I'm always astounded by the fact that, in an intro geology lab in Southern California-one of the most tectonically active parts of N. America, kids just don't seem very interested as to why this area behaves that way.

I actually think that the the focus on the grade, rather than on the mastery of the material, developed alongside the recent, crazy increase in academic dishonesty. I have to reccommend The Cheating Culture by David Callahan; it examines the rise of dishonesty (be it on an exam, a tax form, or a corporate profits ledger) and put together what I thought was a really compelling, insightful argument about why cheating had become so common.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 4:35 PM on September 28, 2006


This discussion seems to be fluctuating between college and grade school, but -- just thought I'd pipe in with some thoughts on grade school 'grades.' I have no idea what children receive from their classroom teachers. I've never even thought to ask if they get letter grades. At least here in Massachusetts, the real monster kids have to look out for is the MCAS. They get pressure from all sides on this. Compared to the MCAS, grades are an afterthought.

Authentic assessment is the term some of you might be looking for, if you're interested in these educational trends. I was under the impression that authentic assessment was catching on and letter grades were being phased out. Here's an article from the Boston Globe about it. But of course that's just Mass.

I went to art school as an undergrad and grades were something I never even thought to worry about. Nobody wants to produce total shit, so you work hard to please yourself.
posted by Marit at 5:00 PM on September 28, 2006


HighTechUnderpants: I know at ISU and possibly at other places, geology is considered an "easy" science credit for programs that require one sci credit.
posted by delmoi at 5:13 PM on September 28, 2006


Grades demonstrate two things

As a former college-level instructor, this strikes me as incredibly naive. Grades demonstrate nothing more than a student's abilty to please the instructor and the institution, where please is arbitrarily and subjectively defined and varies wildly from department to department and from teacher to teacher. Getting an "A" from one teacher rarely means the same as getting "A" from another.
And, with lower grades, the grade often has a lot more to do with the student's ability to perform in ways that have little or nothing to do with the course material.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:16 PM on September 28, 2006


Grades demonstrate nothing more than a student's abilty to please the instructor and the institution.

This may very well be true for social sciences, art and the like. However, in natural sciences, engineering, math, etc. this couldn't be further from the truth. There are definitely teacher's pet types that may get a few extra points here and there. But on the whole your either right or your wrong on test problems which demonstrates your understanding of the material.
posted by markulus at 6:00 PM on September 28, 2006


eustacescrubb writes "Grades demonstrate nothing more than a student's abilty to please the instructor and the institution"

Uh... tell that to my freshman-level intro bio course, who scored an average 35 out of 120 points on their first lecture exam.

When I get them in lab and they can't tell me what a carbohydrate is - after six hour and a half lectures on macromolecules, respiration and photosynthesis - to me the grades tell me exactly how much effort they are putting into class. If they knew what they were doing, if they understood the material and could show me on an exam they understood by answering some very basic questions about the facts involved, then their grades would reflect this. As it is, their current grade of 0.0 seems pretty appropriate.

Of course these grades are not entirely the fault of the students - they come largely from an underfunded school district, and have been given the impression that they do not need to work to earn a grade. The last time I gave this exam (at a large midwestern university) the average was a bit over 60%. Unfortunately, they seem to not feel the need to work any harder, and their grades will reflect this at the end of the semester.

The grades they earn in the basic sciences are a measure of their ability to grasp the concepts that will make them successful in later courses or in life. I do not want students who can't tell me what a carbohydrate is entering a molecular biology course. I would not accept a grad student who didn't know what RNA was or what it did. I don't think this is a bad thing.

I get the overall impression that most of the "grades are bad for students" crowd are not teaching in the physical sciences.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:15 PM on September 28, 2006


Good point, markulus. I do think the situation is a bit better in the hard sciences. But even in those fields, if the goal is getting an A, then that's the goal. Once you've gotten the A -- the mark of approval from the teacher -- you can stop. Of course, you might need to continue in the next, higher-level, class. But once you get an A in THAT class, and the next one, and the next one, and you've finally achieved your end-goal -- graduating and getting a job -- you really CAN stop trying.

There are a few people -- in the sciences -- who can't stop, because they're in a field in which you must constantly learn new things (by which I don't mean "gather new data"; I mean learn new skills, ways of thinking, methodologies, etc.) But for most people, in the arts and the sciences, the end-goal is getting the job in which you can FINALLY stop studying. Even for people who don't think it's the end goal, it usually BECOMES the end-goal. Once the carrot-and-stick of grades is taken away, they have no impetus to learn.

And the issue isn't even really grades. That's a red herring. I don't think many people really care about accumulating letters of the alphabet. They care about getting strokes and lashes from authority figures. So once there's no longer a teacher to pat them on the head (or kick them in the butt), they sigh in relief and sink into a life of ritual.

At which point, you can say, "so what?" And I can't prove that a life of learning is a better life. I can just tell you that I believe it is.

As-long-as the goal is getting a grade (or getting a stroke), the goal isn't learning for the sake of learning. That's what three-year-old's do. They don't learn for a grade, stroke, or cookie. They learn because they love to learn, they MUST learn, they feel compelled to learn. Learning is like sex for them. It saddens me more than I can say that this feeling is lost to most adults.
posted by grumblebee at 6:23 PM on September 28, 2006


The grades they earn in the basic sciences are a measure of their ability to grasp the concepts that will make them successful in later courses or in life.

Fair enough, and (since I continually have the frustration of having to teach people who don't have the prerequasites), I simpathize. But if we're teaching people so that they can "be successful in later courses or in life," we're not reaching high enough.

Yes, they need to be competant in the lab. But more than that, then need to be HAPPY. Which means then need to LOVE biology. They need to find it so fascinating that they stay overtime in the lab without pay. A great education can create people like that. But as long as we educators have pedestrian goals, we're going to turn out pedestrian students.

And I think it's a cop-out to say, "That's all well and good. We'll start working on that once we get people to the level of bare competancy." True, many people aren't competant, so it's tempting to say that lofty goals must wait. But people aren't competant for the same reason they aren't enlightened, excited and joyful. The system is BROKEN. It's a system BASED around doing as little as you can to get by.

How many students, in the arts or sciences, continue working on their paper, equations, or experiemnt AFTER receiving an A?
posted by grumblebee at 6:33 PM on September 28, 2006


It's really odd to me that we need grades in math and science. Surely, in those fields, students work on proofs and conduct experiments. The "grade" should be the successful completion of the experiment. If they don't have the prerequisites, they won't be able to complete the experiments. The proof will be in the pudding.
posted by grumblebee at 6:36 PM on September 28, 2006


There are definitely educational tracks for which grades, of at the very least the pass/fail variety, are essential. I do not want an airplane pilot or a brain surgeon who might or might not have passed their qualifying tests.

On the other hand, I was in a career track for which grades were laughably pointless. A failing grade in a playwriting course would led to what, exactly?

The teachers complaining about students who think that, since they have paid their money, they should get an A, are experiencing a conflict of goals ... the teacher's goal is to provide an education and/or accredit qualifications. Those particular students have the goal of getting a piece of paper, and couldn't care less about either the education or the qualifications. I sympathize more with the teachers, because I think that's what an education should be for, but the students aren't being stupid - they know exactly what they want and need, and are pissed off about the road blocks in their way.

I'd suggest:

1) Make all higher education free.
2) Replace all grades and degrees with either (a) a series of qualifying exams for any job that requires qualifications, and/or (b) a dissertation/thesis requirement for any job that requires more in-depth knowledge of a field.

Ain't gonna happen, though.
posted by kyrademon at 6:39 PM on September 28, 2006


Too busy to read all the posts, so I am bad (C-?), but as a longtime H.S. teacher I have become accustomed to giving grades to students, and it is really not that unfair. It gives the parent and student an approximate indication of the effort they have put into mastering the content of the course and the extent to which they have mastered it.

I would much prefer the portfolio approach. Any other approach. But I have hundreds of essays to read every week.

What can you do with such a workload?

Give the kid and their parent/s an idea of how they are doing.

I would like to teach outside under a tree with a handful of students...but that is not going to happen. This ain't ancient Greece.

I need money and health insurance.

And I can compromise and have fun and do my job...more leeway than many of my students will face in their coming careers.
posted by kozad at 7:13 PM on September 28, 2006


This may very well be true for social sciences, art and the like. However, in natural sciences, engineering, math, etc. this couldn't be further from the truth. There are definitely teacher's pet types that may get a few extra points here and there. But on the whole your either right or your wrong on test problems which demonstrates your understanding of the material.

Ah, but you're assuming that passing a test is an accurate marker of whether or not a student has command of the material, and you're leaving out the fact that someone (the instructor) has to decide what percentage of the test's grade each test item is worth, and then how much of the final grade each test is worth. You're assuming that a student's skills outside a given course are not being called on to complete the course (oral presentaion, say, or writing, or math). And you're assuming that there are no attendance/class participation/behavior-related grades in the hard sciences.
Grades aren't given in a vacuum -- students are graded in a context, and it may be that in the hard sciences, passing tests is how students please instructors and institutions, but those tests merely measure the students' ability to study for and take tests. I know enough MDs and PhDs to know that getting an "A" in a hard sciences course has little bearing on whether the student has a command of the course material.

tell that to my freshman-level intro bio course, who scored an average 35 out of 120 points on their first lecture exam.

Do you have some kind of class email list to which I can send this message?

When I get them in lab and they can't tell me what a carbohydrate is - after six hour and a half lectures on macromolecules, respiration and photosynthesis - to me the grades tell me exactly how much effort they are putting into class.

No offense, but maybe you're a bad lecturer. Maybe you bore them to tears. Maybe they learn better through hands-on learning. Maybe it's stupid to expect every human being is an interchangable part in the education machine. Maybe it's unreasonable to expect all students to have the same aptitudes, backgrounds, study skills, and learning curves.

Really--all your tests measure is thier ability to, in a stressful situation, regurgitate information which, for most of them, is completely new, and about which they can likely not make meaning in the context of their dialy lives, and which you delivered to them orally in a dreary lecture hall.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:27 PM on September 28, 2006


UC Santa Cruz, class of '88. Narrative evaluations were great for the interesting kids and small upper division courses, but darn hard to craft otherwise. In many of the biggest classes, the professors had their TAs do the narratives, and a generic three-line eval was the all too common result when hundreds were being typed. If you've ever looked over your old kindergarten report cards, the tone will be familiar: "---- works up to his potential but sometimes has trouble accepting the validity of others' ideas."

But when a professor really knew their students and put time into the evaluation, they offered real and valuable feedback. I thought seriously on art historian Jasper Rose's dunning me for being quite smart but equally lazy, and determined to be less lazy in the future. A letter grade would not have had any similar effect.
posted by Scram at 12:22 AM on September 29, 2006


In my Spanish II class I sat near the oddest person. He was constantly calculating what his grade would be, and even though an A was within his reach he decided it just wasn't worth bothering to try for and settled for just enough to squeak away with a B. As in he decided he was going to skip the second interview and only turn in about half the final.

Now, to me, it's much more important than I learn to speak and understand the language. I want an A just to maintain the GPA (Since now you get asked for it by recruiters, and it's a community college so it's going to be looked at when I transfer to a 4 year), but I'd if I didn't learn what I was being taught the grade becomes somewhat meaningless.

But he was happy to walk away with a B and a really poor grasp of the basics of Spanish. He was just taking it as a humanities requirement so... I honestly wonder what the point is in making students take a class they hate and will forget about as quickly as possible.
posted by Talanvor at 12:54 AM on September 29, 2006


I had no grades from 5th. through 8th. grade. My grades in high school which were not considered for application to University (I got in throgh SAT scores alone). I went to UCSC in the 70s, so no grades there either.

All of the students I was with at UCSC who went on to graduate school or medical school had no problems being accepted into their first-choice programs.

I don't see the letter grade system as anything but an opportunity for laziness on the part of TAs and/or professors.

I found that the professors and TAs that wrote the kind of generic "kindergarten" style of evaluations mentioned above were generally inadequate at other narrative-based skills as well (lecturing, teaching).
posted by aninom at 12:56 AM on September 29, 2006


Laziness? I give grades, happily. I also give detailed comments on every paper. I meet with students for *hours* over the course of a semester about their work. I spend hours reading and grading. And in the end I sum it up with a letter symbol easily understood by my colleagues.

If you're smart and disciplined, it is nigh impossible not to get As in college. The people who don't like grades mostly seem not to like meritocracy or competition. Too bad the real world doesn't work that way.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:25 AM on September 29, 2006


the people who don't like grades mostly seem not to like meritocracy or competition. Too bad the real world doesn't work that way.


fourcheesemac, are you saying that school should be meritocratous (if that's a word) and competitive, because that's the way the world is, and school should prepare people for life in the world?

If so, I disagree. Yes, people need to learn how to handle "the real world," but -- no worries -- one can't escape meritocracy and competition. No child escapes -- even kids at schools like Summerhill. Our social lives are full of meritocracy and competition.

I think school should, as-much-as possible, be an oasis away from the harsh realities of life. Because it's in such an oasis that people learn best.

Or, are you saying that since life is competitive and (often) a meritocracy, school will be too (since school is part of life)? Are you saying, "school is imperfect in the same way that life is imperfect, and it's not going to change. Get over it?"

If so, I can't exactly argue. I tend to be a pessimist, and those are often my thoughts. But I try to transcend those thoughts. I wouldn't want my moods to stop the possibility of real change.
posted by grumblebee at 5:39 AM on September 29, 2006


The people who don't like grades mostly seem not to like meritocracy or competition. Too bad the real world doesn't work that way.

What do you mean by "tend not to like"? I graduated with honors.

There is no such thing as a true meritocracy. at least not in the United States. Schooling is affected a great deal by race and class. And building competition into the system is a bad idea, especially if your goal is meritocracy. I remember it being made very clear to me when I was a teacher that it was unacceptable to pass every student. The institution decides, before seeing any work from any students, that someone will fail. How is that meritocacy?
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:18 AM on September 29, 2006


fourcheesemac writes "The people who don't like grades mostly seem not to like meritocracy or competition. Too bad the real world doesn't work that way."

Well, I certainly wouldn't call grading with letters lazy, although I do think the notion that it's too difficult to glean useful information from evaluations displays a certain laziness.

Mostly, though, I think the above sentence encapsulates the general attitude of folks who think that grades are somehow just better than evaluations. Especially because they more closely approximate "the real world." The problem with this position isn't that it's wrong, but that it's an unsupported straw man. Sure, it's easy to talk about idealism run amok, but that isn't exactly what proponents of evaluations are talking about. Certainly I've never suggested, in my defenses of evaluations, that people shouldn't be judged on the work that they do. In fact, my argument has been precisely the opposite: that written evaluations provide a deeper and broader range of information with which to make judgements about the student at hand. Everyone I know who went to a school with evaluations feels similarly, not that there is less (or should be less) evaluation at such places, but that there is more rooted in a less subjective (because more transparent) system. I would contrast that very strongly with my very tony grad school, the premier in its field, at one of the best schools in the country, where all work as pass/fail. I'm not sure what real world that was suppossed to mirror, but, as no one failed, it isn't the one I live in.
posted by OmieWise at 6:48 AM on September 29, 2006


The interesting thing is that almost everyone -- on all sides of this issue -- agrees that the current educational system is broken. We all know that people drop out, scrape by without learning anything, cheat, spend more time partying than going to class, graduate without learning anything about history, math, science, etc. Of course there are people who excel, but many other people fail or are failed by the current system.

So then the argument turns around whether this broken system can be fixed -- or whether we should just live with it. I think it's a similar issue to whether or not we should keep our current brand of capitalism. Though most people believe capitalism has problems, some feel it's the best system out there -- maybe the lesser of many evils -- while others think there are better alternatives.

If you're true believer in the current education system, then I might disagree with you, but I can respect your opinion. But if you agree that it's broken (and if you care about it), then you owe it to yourself to explore other possibilities. Before you sigh and say, "that's just the way it is," you should make sure you're not suffering from lack of knowledge or a failure of the imagination.

There have, over the years, been tons of expermiental schools that have tried a variety of approaches. Don't knock them until you've studied them.

I don't think it's lazy to grade (even though I'm opposed to grading), but I do think it's lazy to take an intellectual stance without looking deeply at the alternatives.

Most teachers are too busy with their subject matter -- or with their non-academic lives (raising kids, etc.) -- to bother with educational theory. Believe me, I simpathize. I have a life, too, and I sometimes let things slide, as a teacher, because I'm focusing on my marriage (or whatever). But I can't then pretend that my classroom performance is all that it could be.
posted by grumblebee at 8:31 AM on September 29, 2006


My law school (UC Berkeley) had a modified grading system -- pass, honors, high honors. I remember there was a strict curve -- 10 percent HH, maybe 20 percent H, and 70 percent P. The idea being that it was essentially pass-fail, and that having a majority of students in any class receiving P took the "edge" off of it seeming to be a low grade compared to H or HH. I found that it did relieve grade stress for me. I tended to receive Ps in classes I didn't like (most of the large lecture classes), and HHs in classes I liked (smaller seminars with discussion).

For reasons separate from the grading system, I absolutely detested law school. Except for a few classes with good teachers who communicated and lectured/led discussions well (often the female professors, I'm not sure why this was so), the teaching was abysmal. And if anyone ever says anything about the teaching in law schools, the response is invariably, "oh, right, they use the Socratic method, right?" Um, no, they use the crappy teaching method.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:52 AM on September 29, 2006


"The people who don't like grades mostly seem not to like meritocracy or competition."

Aww, bullshit. When I look for writers as an editor, I don't give a damn about what their GPA was. I want strong writing and a reference that says they can get things in on deadline. That they didn't try very hard in this class or that, or that they don't test well, matters to me not in the least. Merit and competition are orthagonal to grades.
posted by klangklangston at 9:52 AM on September 29, 2006


"The people who don't like grades mostly seem not to like meritocracy or competition."

My dislike of the grading system has more to do with the way merit is measured and how the field of competition is chosen. I distinctly remember in my junior year of college helping a freshman with a buffer problem because four other chem major types (who all probably averaged a letter grade better than I did) had forgotten how to do it.

So they had the grades, but, aparently, didn't actually know any chemistyr.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:22 AM on September 29, 2006


Catching up with this discussion a bit late... Anyway, I too am an Evergreen graduate (attended 83-85 and 92-93, apparently on the 10 year plan), though I do have an undergrad GPA because I took a bunch of classes elsewhere to transfer in. (I forget how many transfer credits -- maybe 30%.)

There is no question whatsoever that the Evergreen evaluations seemed more honest and more useful than the grades I received elsewhere. The evals tended to cut through the bullshit and specifically address my strengths and weaknesses. I am good at certain types of tests so I could often BS my way into good grades at other schools. Evergreen not only doesn't do letter grades, they aren't test-focused either, so the BSing was a lot tougher. :) (This isn't to say they don't do tests. For a while I was thinking about going into the sciences, and I was in the Human Health and Behavior program -- they had plenty of tests. But not Scantron multiple choice ones. In the other programs I was part of, I never took tests, but wrote a lot of papers, did presentations, etc.)

This is not to say they are perfect -- there was at least one professor with whom I had a serious problem regarding the evaluation and a denial of credit, and I ended up going through the grievance process to address it. (I did the work as required -- writing a screenplay for credit -- and the professor decided that the plot which she had previously signed off on was no longer to her liking, and gave me a scathing eval and 0 credits out of the 12 I would have normally gotten. I insisted that if it had been a normal grading system I would have gotten a low grade but most likely passed, and that completing a 90+ minute screenplay in one quarter from scratch, even with a weak plot, did not warrant 0 credits. It all worked out eventually and I did get credit for my work. The plot is still pretty weak, though. I admit that I'm not good at plot.) This is, I guess, what grumblebee was talking about above -- the power of one professor to really screw up your life, because if one professor gives you 0 credits, that's a whole quarter's credits gone. In my case that would mean losing financial aid, and aid was the only way I could attend school. As it turned out, I did eventually leave college as a direct result of this situation, despite getting credit after all, though it's a long story that I won't go into here. Eventually I came back and completed the degree.

Other than that one professor, my experience at Evergreen was great, and the evaluations did a much better job of describing what I did and what I learned than any letter grades could. Now that I am teaching at the college level as well, I really really respect the Evergreen faculty, because I can't imagine writing those evals for everyone. Unlike what someone mentioned above for UCSB, the evals aren't short! They are usually at least a page long (typed) for a full 12-16 credit program. If you stay in a program for a whole year (as many people do, though I didn't) you might have 3 pages of narrative evaluation describing in detail the papers you wrote, the topics you focused on, what you need to improve, and so on. I can't even imagine writing those for 25 students or more. Evergreen also has no TAs, so the faculty are writing these themselves, though class sizes are quite small so they don't have as much need for TAs as other schools do.

In my current teaching job I hate grading more than anything else. It is the source of just about everything in the job that sucks. Remove the grading and you remove a lot of the whining as well (from both sides :) ). I hate penalizing people for the learning process -- making mistakes is part of learning, and I want people to take risks and make mistakes, and not be constantly afraid of screwing up. But the grading culture does not allow for this. We have trained students to work for the grade, only for the grade, and so their eyes are on the grade, not on the knowledge. I want them to learn and demonstrate knowledge, not jump through hoops with no real understanding. I've tried to make my class grading system facilitate this as much as possible, but it's difficult.
posted by litlnemo at 3:36 PM on September 29, 2006


BTW, I am aware that some of what I said above doesn't apply in courses such as the hard sciences. I teach in a creative field, so when I talk about "penalizing people for the learning process" and "taking risks and making mistakes", I'm not talking about people getting questions wrong on a chem test. The sciences are an area in which letter grades can be a pretty good indicator of what you have learned. The arts... not so much.
posted by litlnemo at 3:40 PM on September 29, 2006


There was an interesting article just this week in the Daily Mail in the UK about Montessori schools. Montessori schools don't use grades, and apparently the children are more mature, knowledgeable and socially well-adjusted.

I must give kudos to you, grumblebee. The proof is in your pudding. Your response to those here who have criticised you, or the non-grading viewpoint, has showed your maturity and knowledge.

I give you an A!
posted by PigAlien at 10:13 AM on September 30, 2006


ACK!

has shown...
posted by PigAlien at 10:13 AM on September 30, 2006


I think school should, as-much-as possible, be an oasis away from the harsh realities of life. Because it's in such an oasis that people learn best.

So do the cushy liberal arts colleges that don't give grades. What they really do is reproduce class privilege. The problem with grades is they don't care who you are.

For anyone who thinks giving grades is "lazy," you've never graded research papers or essay exams. It's hard work, summarized by a letter. And of course we don't care about GPAs for fine grained evaluation. We care about them as evidence of hard work and a basic measure of accomplishment, just like we care about other relatively objective measures. There isn't time to read the entire portfolio, in detail, of every applicant to a grad program of any size. Certainly not to read a folder full of "evaluations" that could just as easily be summarized with a grade.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:29 PM on October 2, 2006


fourcheesemac writes "For anyone who thinks giving grades is 'lazy,' you've never graded research papers or essay exams. It's hard work, summarized by a letter. And of course we don't care about GPAs for fine grained evaluation. We care about them as evidence of hard work and a basic measure of accomplishment, just like we care about other relatively objective measures. There isn't time to read the entire portfolio, in detail, of every applicant to a grad program of any size. Certainly not to read a folder full of 'evaluations' that could just as easily be summarized with a grade."

I'm pleased as punch that I didn't apply to your grad school, as even this comment suggests that you've not really read anything that you didn't yourself write in this thread. I'm glad you're an educator.
posted by OmieWise at 5:37 PM on October 2, 2006


I think school should, as-much-as possible, be an oasis away from the harsh realities of life. Because it's in such an oasis that people learn best.

So do the cushy liberal arts colleges that don't give grades. What they really do is reproduce class privilege. The problem with grades is they don't care who you are.


I'm confused. Are you saying that other forms of evaluation -- non-graded forms -- reproduce class privilege? Why?
posted by grumblebee at 4:33 AM on October 3, 2006


By the way, though I HATE grades, I disagree that a teacher is necessarily lazy if he grades. He may put hours of thought into each grade.

I do think it's lazy THINKING to just accept grades as a good educational tool without really studying other systems.
posted by grumblebee at 4:35 AM on October 3, 2006


I don't know if anyone is still reading this, but I want to say a bit more about "lazy" teachers.

I spent about twenty years as a student and am verging on twenty years as a teacher. Still, I can count the good teachers I've had and known on one hand.

But few of the mediocre and bad ones have been lazy. (I think you can peg a lazy teacher -- or a lazy person, for that matter -- very shortly after meeting him). Most of the teachers I've met are hard-working and passionate people. Trouble is, they're more passionate about their subject than about teaching itself.

Unfortunately, it's not enough for a history teacher to love History. He must love TEACHING, too. In fact, he must love teaching MORE than he loves history. Otherwise, he'll be a historian who happens to teach. Not a teacher who happens to teach history.

What's wrong with a historian who happens to teach? This: he works at history but not at teaching. He spends hours reading and researching history, talking to other historians, writing history books, etc. -- then he shows up in the classroom and just wings it as a teacher. As if teaching was easier than History. As if teaching wasn't a HARD HARD thing to do well, a skill that you never fully learn, something that you must keep working on all your life if you're going to be good at it. (It's not fair for me to say he "wings it" in the classroom. He may, in fact, work really hard for his students. But working hard isn't the same as working well. It's possible to do really hard work without ever letting that work evolve into BETTER hard work.)

Naturally, there are a few gifted people who CAN just wing it and still be brilliant at it. But that's not true of most people.

If you're a teacher who grades and -- having deeply researched all the alternatives -- you've come to the reasoned conclusion that grading is the best form of evaluation, then we've got something interesting to talk about. I may disagree, but I can't help respecting you, because you're devoted to your craft.

But if you grade without thinking about alternatives or about the ramifications of grading, then you're not really devoted to the craft of teaching. You're not really a teacher (though you may be a brilliant scientist, historian, writer, etc.)

Maybe you're not crazy about grades, but you grade because you're forced to do so by your institution (like the guy I linked to on the front page). Fair enough, but ask yourself this: if you're teaching Biology, and your Department Head orders you to teach Creationism instead of Evolution, what do you do?

I'm not suggesting you should do anything. I realize that everyone must balance their ethics/aesthetics with the realities of making a living. My question is how do you FEEL about being forced to compromise on your subject matter (Biology) verses being forced to compromise on your craft (teaching)? If you dislike grading, would it ever cross your mind to stand up to the authorities and tell them so?

I teach design and programming, which means I have to stay up-to-date about Photoshop, Javascript, etc. My apartment is filled with computer manuals. I read Digg, Slashdot, and various other sites daily. I talk shop with designers and programmers. I take on freelance design and programming work.

But I also talk shop with other TEACHERS. I observe their classes and ask them to observe mine. I read books about teaching methods. I lie awake at night and worry about what how to make tomorrow's class better than today's. If I've used the same teaching notes for too long, I throw them out and re-write them (even if I don't see anything wrong with my old notes), just to force myself to think about what I'm doing.

If you're not constantly changing the way you teach, that's probably a sign that you're not a devoted teacher. Because teaching well is HARD. You have to constantly work at it.

And it's especially hard when you have to master both your subject (I can't let my Photoshop skills slide) and the craft of teaching -- while trying to live your life (have kids, etc.). And meanwhile you're getting paid a paltry salary. The world (or at least the USA) is horribly unfair to teachers, and the country's priorities re: education are ass backwards.

That's all true. But it doesn't change the fact that there are good teachers and bad teachers.

(Because I care deeply about teaching and recognize that my growth as a teacher is never done -- and the day I THINK it's done is the day I should retire -- I continue to puzzle about grades. I THINK grades are a horrible evil. I feel this to my core. But what if I'm wrong? I will never stop thinking about grades or evaluating whether or not they're useful. You teachers who are in favor of grades should do the same.)
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on October 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


This turned into a very interesting discussion which I, sad to say, have not read all of.

However, I would like to say that I've enjoyed reading both sides and all opinions. I especially liked kozad's comment.

My wife is a teacher, and she is running up against exactly what you mention. Last year, she was at a charter high school with approximately 70 students to teach. Now she is at a large public high school teaching 160 students... in an urban neighborhood where many of the kids have family environments totally apathetic to education.

Grades are important to her in that these kids need to know they're not learning anything, or that they *are*, in fact, learning. They are a feedback mechanism.

She is a tough teacher, but for her students that get on board with her philosophy of education, they actually have a shot of getting an education.

As a new teacher, she got the "sweat hogs"- the bottom of the barrel kids. And she's teaching her 10th grade world history classes as if she's preparing them for an AP exam. While she is terribly frustrated by their lack of effort, I think her high expectations are paying off in that she is inspiring at least some of her students to reach higher.

She liked the charter school environment with smaller classes and fewer students (kinda like sitting under kozad's tree), but even though she will fail more students at the new school, I think she is still helping more too. You gotta do what you can for the situation you're in.
posted by Doohickie at 9:42 PM on October 3, 2006


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