The excellent Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Dominican hosted a seminar this afternoon discussing the article “Fair Grades” by Daryl Close . 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: http://bright.net/~dclose/fair-grades-typescript.pdf.