Re: grades -- a few small points.

Steve Finley (Finley@TTDCE1.COED.TTU.EDU)
Thu, 5 Sep 1996 10:13:27 +0000


This thing about grading becoming "focal" (to students' detriment)
is pretty interesting. I've never heard it put that way. Maybe such
"focus" really is a sort of obsession with all the connotative meanings
attached to the more-or-less universal system of grading, so that
it's the connotations and the obsession with them, and not the actual
evaluation and comparative rankings of work, that hurt students. If
so, then even a switch to another system that does some of the same
core things might help, because it'd maybe shed some of the barnacles
from the old system.

I've said before that I thought anything we got
into after getting rid of the old grading system would end up
essentially like it, because these comparisons and rankings and
evaluations all want to have snapshots (grades) taken of them, and I
still believe things will gravitate that way no matter what changes
take place. But maybe that's doesn't matter; maybe ANY changes in
the system will strip some of the crap that's associated with it. You
see a little of this here and there where individual teachers come up
with a system of total points and refuse to assign A through F grades
to papers, instead giving students cumulative points for the
semester, and even a change as subtle as that can clean out the old
stuff a little bit and get students thinking more about the work than
about the grade (though if that system were universal, pretty soon
it'd get its own barnacles, too).

My own experience tends to confirm this notion (that removing some of
the familiar reference points is a good thing). I used to use a modified
version of a system that was debated in some writing journals back in
the 80s called the "checkmark system" (some called it the "behavioral
system") in my technical writing classes. The system was based on
the idea that what we consider C work, or passing work, in a
technical or business writing course (or comp, for that matter) was
really unacceptable in any context other than in a classroom
(specifically, on the job), and that students should get no credit for that
kind of work. The idea was that they should have to produce at least
some truly good work during a semester, and their final grade (which, of
course, the university still required) was based on how many pieces
of that truly good work--maybe B+ level or above--they produced, with
no negative points for bad work. If it took them 12 projects to come
up with five good ones, they got the same B that a person who was
five-for-five got; the motivation to do well and not to have a lot of
no-pointers (or actually no-checkmarks) came strictly from their own
desire not to do so much work, because obviously if they could go
five-for-six, of course that was better to them than five-for-10
because they'd streamlined their effort. Of course, there were
various ways of helping students along, making sure they understood
what the standard was and what was expected, etc.--a lot more of a
collaborative teacher-student relationship, a lot more like a work
setting where a more experienced coworker is trying to help the less
experienced person get a hit, where failed attempts almost don't
matter except in how much effort the person is expending.

Of course, having to assign a grade at the end of the whole thing for the
university's purposes undermined the process to a degree, but overall
it really seemed to work. Students were frustrated at first at not
being able to figure exactly what kind of work would get them into
the low-C range so they could get out of there without actually
learning or doing anything worthwhile, but eventually almost all of
them produced at least some work that was really good, so at least
the student knew when she left the course that if she had to, she
could pull together a good effort, unlike the classes in which the
student comes in as a C- student and leaves as a C- student with no
effort expended and no sense of whether better work is even possible,
or, if it is, what it takes to do it.

Anyway, that system had problems of its own, of course, and I know
this kind of thing doesn't go as far as Eric Crump and others (maybe even
I) would want, but the point is that shaking things around a little bit
seemed to get students off of the grade-obsession track and get them
concentrated on the work, of which the eventual grade was only a
by-product. For the moment, at least, that was better than nothing.
The resistance to change seems to come from people who think that
Eric et al. want to get rid of the old system and frolic naked while
smoking pot and writing down words randomly, I think, but Eric himself
has said that he doesn't want to do away with the whole idea of
worthwhile work or distinctions between stuff that works and stuff
that doesn't.

It seems interesting to me that almost everybody in
this discussion thinks that changes ought to happen, but what that
means has taken different forms: either we need to shoot for
overthrowing the entire system, roots and all, or we need to do
something more moderate, or we need to work within the system, or it
doesn't matter what we need to do because we don't have the power to
do it anyway. In other words, there's a lot of unanimity in what the
direction of effort ought to be, but very little in how far down the
road we should go or how we should get there.

s finley