“Fair Grades”

The excellent Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Dominican hosted a seminar this afternoon discussing the article “Fair Grades” by Daryl Close [1]. Close suggests that there are three models of grading; the first is that grades are in some measure based on reward or punishment, the second that is getting a certain grade is the goal of education; and lastly (the one  he agrees with) is that grades reflect a student’s mastery of the material. Such factors as attendance and comportment are not academic in nature, and hence irrelevant to grades. Such other practices as grading on a curve or dropping the lowest quiz grades are also deemed unethical by this measure, as they presuppose some students will be able to master only some of the content along some predefined trend. Ultimately, however, he seems to say that anything is fair to grade on, as long as the criteria are spelled out ahead of time. If you will give grades based on how nice people are, then say so in the syllabus. “A fine enough ethical point for a philosopher,” as one of my colleagues stated.

Many faculty from Dominican present felt that it was in fact our duty to teach such virtues as coming to class regularly and on time–but that a class worth going to we wouldn’t have to entice students to attend. In this sense, we acknowledge (as I believe) that we generally live in a Model 2 grading world, in which grades and degrees are currency we can spend in life. We turn over a student to an employer with a stamp saying “this student knows certain material and will show up”.  I can absolutely see why Close has a problem with this; but the fact of the matter is, it pretty well describes the way many students see higher education.  Though not, I might add, those students who have completed my junior seminar.

I find this a fascinating topic because I personally have an unusual experience with grades. As you may know, I didn’t go to a school between the ages of 9 and 18, though I certainly got plenty of schooling. Grades were not a part of my  daily experience, and I managed to learn how to show up places on time and read books despite this. Perhaps it’s because my education was by turns extremely practical (many volunteer and regular jobs), and extremely impractical (learning Ancient Greek for the sheer joy of it).

It could be that I am unusual, but ultimately I don’t think grades can possibly create a certain type of person. A punitive grade might make someone briefly unhappy, but a grade describes a student’s attitude towards his or her education just as much as it describes a student’s aptitude. I got excellent grades in college partly because I did what was expected of me, but I did what was expected of me because I generally believed that it would result in me getting the education I was there to get. Maybe it’s only because I was taking the right classes at a college that was a good fit for me.

As someone who jumped in teaching college head first, I graded as leniently as possible my first semester, since I knew it was a learning experience for me as much as the students. Since I teach a seminar that requires engaging with challenging texts in an authentic way, I could tell which students were honestly trying and which were going through the motions. But I’m not sure most people in real life cares how much people care, as long as the work gets done.

Did you care about your grades in school? Why or why not? (I am tempted to grade all my internet friends on their level of engagement with my blog, so be forewarned).


1. Close D. Fair Grades. Teaching Philosophy. 2009. 32(4):361-398. Available at:

2 replies on ““Fair Grades””

[A small rant]

The first thing to understand about the educational system in the US (and most other places) is that the system doesn’t give a crap whether or not people learn the material. There are certainly individuals who care, and there are students who care, but fundamentally schools are not optimized for learning.

They’re optimized for sorting.

Structurally, our educational system is designed to separate management from line-workers. We don’t care if students learn, say, US History. We care how much (and how well) they can learn US History in a fixed amount of time compared to their peers. The end-product — the grades — are less a reflection of how well students have mastered the material than they are a simple ranking of how smart (for one narrow but very, very useful definition of “smart”) the students are compared to each other.

Once upon a time, we used those rankings to steer students down different educational and vocational paths. Some went to college. Some to the factory.

I think it’s important to not dismiss the utility of the system when viewed in its temporal and cultural context. It was shitty for a lot of the students, but useful to the country.

Times, of course, have changed. Charlie Reigeluth ( has done half a lifetime of work exploring some of these issues (as policy and as educational challenges), and talks eloquently (and, occasionally, at length 🙂 about the need to move toward a mode of schooling that is more appropriate for the modern age.

Essentially, what we do currently is fix time-on-task and allow learning to fluctuate. There’s a 15-week semester, and students learn whatever they can in that time. If we were serious about learning, we’d hold mastery of the material constant (e.g., you have to learn it) and provide each student with as much or as little time as she needs to master it.

In the US we take this approach with only one thing: reading. Students of all ability levels are taught and tutored and cajoled and worked with until they can read. If we’re serious about learning, we need to demand learning, no matter how long or how many resources it takes.

So I probably have a lot to say on this subject since I’m both a homeschooler and a DU grad. Like you, grades were pretty irrelevant for me until I finished high school since they were mostly made up. When I first started college, good grades were proof to me that I could function in a traditional school setting. I’ve also since realized that good grades were a mark of approval by someone in position of authority, so I sought them out since I didn’t (and arguably still don’t) know how to get the approval of my peers. I consider myself pretty good at following the rules, so for most classes I probably got good grades because I figured out what would get me that grade and did it, not because I worked really hard (as school was easier for me than others). I tended to have more respect for “hard graders” because they didn’t let me play that game. I would have liked to hear Sister Marci’s contribution to your discussion for instance. 🙂

Actually, when thinking about this yesterday, I was hard on myself for being one of those students who goes through the motions, but after further consideration, I am sure I would still show up (and did) to classes that did not grade on attendance at all because it was the Right Thing To Do. And I am sure I learned all the material, but I’m harder on myself for not engaging with the material beyond what was necessary to write the paper. I have to be careful with this because the Boyfriend definitely values knowing the material over getting the best grades (why model 3 doesn’t always work). He’ll lose points for not proofreading because he was too busy reading supplementary material for example. But ever the pragmatic, I’m the one worrying about the proper citation format.

I think your having good classes and professors makes a huge difference as well. I’m not going to put effort into a class when I feel like the professor is not also putting effort into it. If a professor talks at me for three hours, drops assignments randomly, and is uninformed, I’m going to do little more than is necessary. This is part of the reason I was frustrated by library school; this is where I’m supposed to care the most, but not having that consistent/inspiring/logical professor turned me off of the material. I would also say that coming from being graded on the quality of your writing in an English major, to a program that did not care so much was a difficult adjustment. I spent a lot of time feeling like I didn’t deserve the A I got because I knew I could have done better.

The final reason I cared about grades was that for me, grades = money. Close to half my tuition was paid for solely through merit-based aid. If you get respectable but average grades, I could see them being a lot more easily dismissed. But my As turned out to be worth close to $50k.

I may have wandered a bit from your original post, but it’s something I think about a lot despite having graduated. I agree with you that graded attendance isn’t going make a student care, but I can also see it from the professor’s pov, as a way to get students to show up, since not everyone has homeschooler mentality. 🙂 Not that I know anything about Wooster, but I would guess that there were a higher percentage of people who valued their education enough to show up a little more than at DU.

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