Wednesday, February 12, 2014

College without Grades

Most doctoral students at or around the time they are working on their dissertations will come to an odd reckoning.  Where grades had mattered a lot for much of their careers as students until that point, once having crossed this threshold grades mattered no longer.  What counted thereafter was the quality of the dissertation itself, the letters that would support the student in the job search, and the student's ability to discuss various issues in the field, whether those issues were related to the dissertation or not.  Grades certainly mattered in getting to that point.  But, having arrived at the dissertation stage, prior grades gave no additional information that anyone else cared about.  The shock of this is like having a pile of currency only to see it go through a massive devaluation.  For me it helped confirm a prior held view - grades were never that important in the first place. 

Alas, it was not the view I started with.  I first became aware of grades sixteen years earlier, fall of 1963, when I was in fourth grade.  The experience was quite painful.  We got report cards in second and third grade too, but they just didn't matter to me then, which is as it should be.  (In first grade I was in a different school and don't have a report card from that in the family memorabilia.)  Report cards from P.S. 203 had a specific format.  There were three marking periods.  There were a variety of categories for which grades were assigned - linguistic ability, oral expression, etc.  The grading scale within each category was excellent, good, fair, and unsatisfactory.  There was also space for the teacher to write a sentence or two to complement the information in the assigned grade.  The student was supposed to show the report card to his parents and get it signed and dated by one of them, as means of confirmation that they had read it.  The clear intent of the process was as a means of communication from teacher to the student and the student's family.

Clear intent or not, the benefit from such communication can get subverted when it is used for other purposes.  In this case I was walking home from school with a classmate.  I should add that I thought I was the better student.  For some reason that I don't recall, it occurred to us to look at our report cards while on the way home and compare our results.  This was for the first marking period.  My report card had all goods.  His had a mixture of goods and excellents.  I must have shed a tear or two then and there, though I'd have wanted to hide those feelings from him.  When I got home and was by myself I was really sobbing, feeling a horrible injustice had been done.  My parents must have made this particular pain go away, but the memory remains strong all these years later.

With a lot of hindsight and observing some similarities between me and my own kids when they were in school, I can tell a different sort of story.  I was young to be a fourth grader, perhaps a half year or so younger than most of my classmates, which is a pretty big difference percentage-wise at that age.  I was also sloppy, particularly about penmanship, and showed a lack of care in my reading, often jumping to unwarranted conclusions.  Some of these shortcomings I simply didn't notice, while with others I was aware of the issue but discounted its importance.  The teacher almost surely gave a correct and unbiased evaluation of my performance, but I saw it otherwise.  Yet I don't think I would have been bothered at all by what was in the report card itself had I remained ignorant of the grades my classmates received.

Each student and his family need feedback from the teacher about how the student is doing, that can be helpful if there needs to be modifications in going about how homework is done or in regard to what outside reading the student is doing.  Learning, however, is not fundamentally a competition.  Comparisons with other students do more harm by creating stigma than good by creating a spur toward high level performance.  Kids at the fourth grade level (really any level) should want to learn for itself.  Neither the pace of that learning nor the current proficiency matter as much as that consistent progress is being made.  That's what the feedback should address.

I am fortunate in that I didn't have too many experiences of grades as stigma thereafter - I did have a temporary slump in grades in tenth grade when I had some serious emotional problems.  Otherwise, my grades were exceptionally high.  As a consequence I avoided the stigmatization, though I experienced some embarrassing moments when those grades got publicized.

One of those was the sports award banquet when I was a senior in high school.  Krafty and I played first doubles on the tennis team that year and we were a pretty good team, with a winning record, 5-3, if I recall correctly.  And it should have been 6-2, but we "lost" to Newtown High School because one player on their team made a bunch of bad calls, all in his own favor. If memory serves, his teammate was embarrassed about this.  We complained but were told that students needed to resolve these issues themselves.   Getting back to the banquet, Krafty and I both earned varsity letters that year.  But I was also awarded the Wingate Medal, in essence a second athlete-scholar award, because in addition to tennis I had this very high GPA.  When Mr. Rosenbaum, one of the gym teachers and the coach of the tennis team, read off my name as the Wingate award winner, for which I needed to go to the front of the room to receive the award, he also asked me to tell the audience what my GPA was.  This was completely unnecessary.  And as a fundamentally shy kid I didn't want to show the crowd that I was an outlier.  But there was no real alternative so I duly reported my GPA, 95.6.  (We were graded on a 100-point scale rather than the 4-point or 5-point scales that seem to be be popular now.) 

Note that I still recall my GPA, as I do many other factoids about grades that were drilled into me at the time.  For example, my class rank was 5, in a graduating class of more than 1150.  And I knew the ranks of the four students who were above me, though not the ranks of the students who were behind me.  The same sort of peer comparisons that I made in fourth grade were still with me - reinforced to a great extent by the information that the school provided - even if these things were pretty much nonsense.  There were a bunch of intelligent, creative, and accomplished kids in my high school class.  How they were ranked matter not a wit once they left the nest, but it buttressed quite a bit of stereotypical thinking while they were still there.

* * * * *

A grade, letter or number, is a rather coarse instrument of evaluation.  It's primary redeeming feature is that it is readily communicated.  Some people will claim the benefits exceed that, particularly that grades can be averaged across courses.  But most people who make such a claim are likely ignorant of the Index Number Problem and the strict conditions needed to be satisfied to produce a suitable index number as specified by the Composite Commodity Theorem.  GPA, used as a way to ordinally rank students is really not up to the task, even when those students have taken the same classes from the same instructors and offered at the same times, conditions that almost never hold.  Yet it has become a totem to which which the vast majority of undergraduates bow.  This is a problem.

One could move much closer to the system I remarked about for doctoral education at the undergraduate level.  Written evaluation of coursework could be used instead of grades.  These would be far more nuanced and not so readily converted into rankings across students.  Senior projects could become mandatory and serve as the primary credential for  the job market.

Of course, that it is possible doesn't mean it is desirable.  Generating more nuanced evaluation would be time consuming for instructors, no doubt.  And having people in the market evaluate student projects would place similar such demands on the evaluators.  So I don't want to deny that there would be a cost in doing so.  But I believe there would be a substantial benefit as well.

I started college at MIT before transferring to Cornell in the middle of my sophomore year.  As a freshman, MIT didn't have grades, but instead had the sort of written evaluations I mentioned above, which were delivered both at mid semester and end of term, with the student also providing written response to the mid semester evaluation.  It was a more humane approach.

MIT didn't go to this approach simply as an act of kindness.  It had a serious problem - a high suicide rate among students.  The no grades for freshman policy was part of the institution's response to that problem.  Further, it was said that MIT students were sufficiently motivated to not need grades during that first year.

I can't really speak to the motivation issue across the student populace.  I know in my cohort we played an awful lot of cards - either hearts or bridge - so I certainly wouldn't classify us as workaholics at the time.  But it is also true that in high school I was never that challenged and could do the work very quickly.  While I did begin to be challenged in somc of the classes at MIT that first year, it was not till I was a sophomore that I found myself in the deep water and perhaps in over my head, without knowing how to put in sufficient time to figure things out on my own - I only learned to do that as a junior while at Cornell.  But when I struggled as a sophomore, we had grades.

I see these issues now from a different vantage.  The Illinois Econ majors, the majority of of the students I teach are in this category, are as a group probably not as capable as the students I knew at MIT, but many report being under enormous pressure about grades, much more so than when my generation were college students.  Does that pressure have any positive benefit?  From where I sit, the answer is no.  It increases the students' mercenary tendencies and thereby diminishes their learning.  And while some stress is healthy, for many of the students it appears the anxiety is very great indeed.  This is precisely the situation for which MIT decided to eliminate freshman grades.  Why ignore the problem just because the suicide rate isn't what it was like at MIT then?  Aren't there enough other indicators to know this is a serious issue?

One big difference between now and then is that then regular faculty taught freshmen and if not that then they taught upper level undergraduate courses. That is considerably rarer now.  And surely any change in grade policy would have to be debated, voted on, and approved by the faculty.  But out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind.  And as we have already installed expensive early warning systems to alert the campus community of an upset student on a rampage, maybe we should also consider making the academic environment more humane to students.  Getting rid of grades should be part of the discussion. 

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