Sometimes, making the grade misses the point

Justice Lovin

With the beginning of a new semester comes new courses, new professors and with them new grading systems for students to adjust to. Some professors prefer to assign letter grades, others rubrics with specific point allocations, but in most – if not all – cases, there is an attempt to make a quantified evaluation of an abstract phenomenon termed ‘learning’—a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.

Can one be fully confident in the surgeon who got a B in biology? What if the better recognized, more experienced surgeon made a C in the same college course? And what of the pharmacist who made a C in chemistry – would it be better if it was a C+?

In work as in life, study does not stop because class time is over; learning takes time, and knowledge takes on new meaning in new contexts, building with accumulated experience.

Say you get an A in American Literature, that’s ten out of ten, 100 percent. Does that mean you know everything there is to know about American publication history? I assure you it does not. One hundred percent does not mean one hundred percent – it is an arbitrary standard set by the professor, and it’s going to vary between semesters, between professors and even from day to day.

This is no mere ideological quibble either, studies have demonstrated numerous practical flaws in the grading system. Grades incentivize intellectual laziness and dishonesty by creating a setting in which risk-taking can jeopardize your grade—and thus your success in the class and, potentially, in life—while offering nothing more than the chance to learn something new.

Under the current system, it appears the first priority is not to produce a well-educated population, but rather competent employees; a degree is nothing more than a training certification for white-collar workers.

Perhaps worst of all, grades imply that there is a right answer in times when there is not. This might seem less true for math and the sciences where there is often a correct answer, but even in those cases, approaching the subject matter from a position of skepticism can lead to a more complete understanding. Science, after all, is a method for producing knowledge, not a set of facts to be memorized.

What’s more, studies have found when students are given a text and told they will be graded on comprehension performed worse than students given the identical text but not told they will be graded.

At the point that measuring impedes the progress being measured, it is necessary to reform our methods. We must clarify for ourselves: what is the purpose of an education?

For the moment, our culture is stuck on objectivity; we celebrate the STEM fields, we worry and fret over standards and statistics. But just as the Age of Reason came and went, so too will our age of science and technology. Someday, focus will return to the subjectivity of experience, and people will again recognize the futility of trying to measure with units of inconsistent and ever changing size.