Re: grades

Marcy Bauman (marcyb@UMD.UMICH.EDU)
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 15:24:53 -0400

I, too, appreciated Nick's thoughtful response to Jeff, and I wanted to
add my 2 cents here, partially in answer to Jeff but also in answer to
Nick and Bob about the relationship of grades and evaluation:

On Fri, 30 Aug 1996, Nick Carbone wrote:

> On Wed, 28 Aug 1996, Jeffrey R Galin wrote:
> > 1) If when we say gradess are bad, we need to ask "bad for what?" Yes
> > grades are not useful markers of evaluation. When students or teachers
> > use them in place of constructive evaluation, there is a problem;
> >
> > 2) If we say grades need to be eliminated, we need to aks wehther we are
> > talking about the elimination of both grades and evaluations, or just
> > grades.
> On this second question the answer lies in the first. Grades in place of
> evaluation are bad. They don't really say anything specific but are so
> wrapped up in a priori denotations: excellent, good, fair, poor,
> failure. So a student may see an A on a paper and think it is excellent,
> but too often the student can not say why it is excellent, or what about
> it is excellent.

I agree with Nick that grades do a poor job of providing
evaluation. But I think the question even is more complex from the
learner's point of view: I wonder whether evaluation can go on _at all_
in a meaningful way when grades are present. Grades and evaluation
serve two completely different functions, IMO. The point of grades is
to rank, to give an indication about how someone does in relation to
others or in relation to some fixed standard. (Let's leave aside for a
moment the whole can of worms packed in the phrase "fixed standard.")

The point of evaluation, though, is to describe and facilitate
learning. When I evaluate, I'm not evaluating the _product_ so much as
looking at the product as a snapshot of a learner at a particular moment
in time. My evaluations (most of which aren't shared with students, by
the way) are my own ruminations, which tell me what a person knows and
what she is _trying to learn_. That's the key for me; if I can "read" an
effort or situation or text and determine what someone understands (or
misunderstands) about a concept, what she might try to do next and how I
might help that effort, or what further misunderstandings might follow
from the first, then I think I've done a good job of evaluation (although
I won't know that for sure unless my next actions/interactions with the
student result in that student's increased competence.) When I
evaluate, I don't have to care whether Student A knows more than Student
B, or can perform a task better than Student C. When I evaluate, I'm
thinking, "How can I help?" I'm really trying to determine my own next
move in an ongoing relationship.

Grades, on the other hand, are endpoints. They tell people how
they've done, not how they're doing. The problem with mixing grades and
evaluation is that people tend to hear evaluative comments as grades,
to a greater or lesser degree. I believe this happens no matter what the
teacher intends, and no matter how an individual classroom is structured;
it's simply unavoidable. That's why I hate grades so much; they make my
job a lot harder and they take what I mean by "learning to write" and
turn it into something I think is a pale, inaccurate shadow of the real
deal. I don't think learning to write can happen without evaluation --
both self-evaluation and evaluation by trusted others -- and yet the
backflips we have to turn to arrange for _any_ evaluation in our classes
that isn't grade-poisoned astonish and weary me.

And yet, universities are in the business of credentialing.
There's no denying that. I think we need to find more imaginative ways
to credential, so that credentialing doesn't get in the way of learning.
I think that's been said by others on this list, but I think it bears
saying again. So when Jeff says:

> > institution. That seems to me to be a more productive battle. Why not
> > develop methods of teaching that demphasize grades, that reward personal
> > success, and that call attention to the diffeence between grades and
> > evaluation?

-- I want to say that it's not methods of teaching that emphasize
or de-emphasize grades, it's institutional contexts which do that; and
that "rewarding personal success" is just another term for grading, not
evaluation; and that calling attention to the difference between the
two hardly matters if the _real_ value is placed on grades, and our
students certainly know that even if we don't.

> > Why try to take on the whole system at once from the vangage
> > point of the underside of the iceberg?

Because doing anything less isn't doing enough. I'm not trying
to be hyperbolic or reactionary, but unless we can figure out a way to
change the whole system of credentialing, we'll be stuck cobbling
together compromises that never really get at what seem to me to be the
central issues involved with grading and learning.


Marcy Bauman
Writing Program
University of Michigan-Dearborn
4901 Evergreen Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48128

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