Universal Basic Grade

Universal Basic Grade March 10, 2019

I tried something new in my First Year Seminar class this semester, which focuses on utopias and dystopias. It wasn’t something I planned on in advance, but I like where it has taken us thus far.

We had just read the first half of the Communist Manifesto. It had been a rocky transition to the semester, since usually FYS is a year-long sequence taught by a single professor, but I was stepping in with a new topic to take over from a faculty member who could not continue into the spring. But this made for a perfect conversion, as students were really primed for a discussion about fairness, competition, equity, second chances, and many other topics.

That’s because I took a big risk and made a comparison between economic systems and systems of grading.

To get things started, I broached to topic head on, moving quickly to consider one possibility by asking students what would happen if I said I would give every student an “A.” I was very struck by the answer of one student when I asked who would continue to do their work if I said everyone automatically gets an “A.” He said he would, and when I asked why, he said quite bluntly, “Because I don’t believe you,” i.e. he wasn’t confident that if I as professor said that everyone would get an “A,” I would follow through at the end of the semester. This illustrated a point perfectly that I might not have otherwise highlighted: the system only works if people trust it.

I then asked about a grading system that mirrors the capitalist economic system in the United States. What if we have it be basically competitive, but then I “tax” students with high grades and redistribute points to students in danger of failing. No one seemed to like that, considering that it encouraged laziness. I might have been disheartened by this on the whole, had one student not shown awareness of the concept of limited good which we hadn’t even talked about in this class. She pointed out that, unlike wealth in the economy, a professor does not have a limited number of points to distribute, but can give As to everyone if it is felt appropriate.

Next, we moved to a “Universal Basic Grade” system akin to the economic system of Universal Basic Income. I proposed a system in which everyone is guaranteed a “C” and then you have to work very hard to earn points beyond that. This was unappealing too, and when I asked why, one student indicated that they didn’t want it to be hard to get an “A” since that is crucial for grad school applications.

Yet in the next class period, as we continued the conversation, there seemed to be widespread support for opportunities for extra credit. I asked them if they knew or could figure out why so many educators do not favor the offering of extra credit, and they were able to answer accurately. It isn’t fair to the professor, who has extra work to do, and it seems to reward laziness by giving second chances to students who may simply not have put the necessary effort in on earlier assignments. I must confess that I took some pleasure in pointing out the fact that, if this is an accurate assessment of the effect of extra credit, then it stands at odds with the values they articulated previously. I asked quite directly whether it might not be the case that they want to penalize others for perceived laziness, but have no objection if a system is in place that will benefit them.

In the end, I posed them a challenge. Initially, I had proposed that if they could come up with a superior and more just grading system, I would implement it in the class this semester. But then I proposed instead that, if they can come up with a really superior system, one that they can show accords with their values (not necessarily the values expressed in class previously, since I’m entirely open to their values changing as a result of the class, and they should be too!), then I will give everyone an “A.”

The last step in the process, I should add, was further discussion after reading Rawls on justice as fairness and the “veil of ignorance,” which challenges us to craft a society that follows rules we would support without knowing where we ourselves will end up: serf or lord, wealthy or poor. As Sheila Kennedy wrote recently:

The most basic premise of the rule of law is that the rules apply to everyone; that “similarly-situated” citizens have the same rights and duties, and are subject to the same legal constraints. And “similarly-situated” in this context does not refer to finances or skin color.

When government winks at privileged persons’ misdeeds while punishing similar–or lesser– behaviors by less fortunate citizens, there is no justice and no rule of law. And that’s a problem that deserves some florid prose.

The same insight and the same thought experiment works well when applied to grading and education as when applied to the economy and other areas in society.

This is going to be an ongoing project for the class this semester. In the meantime, I’m probably going to offer some opportunities for extra credit, I think, in recognition that some things did not go entirely smoothly for reasons that were beyond students’ control. But even that involves the provision of support and assistance that many of them seem to oppose in the economic realm – quite possibly because they don’t perceive that they personally need them.

What do you think of this as an activity? This is almost a gamified approach, albeit an unusual one. Can you think of other grading systems that might be implemented, especially ones that mirror specific economic systems that exist in the real world?

Let me include this post some related links here, such as the interview (which I ended up mentioning in class) that exposes the selfishness and greed that often lies at the heart of our failure to change and make progress as a society. The part I mentioned in class was the fact that some people who are poor said they oppose taxing millionaires at a higher rate, because one day they might be the millionaires. There is also a famous urban legend about a professor implementing a communist approach to grading, which Snopes declares to be a legend.

From just this morning, there was a piece about how belief in meritocracy makes us selfish, and one by Sheila Kennedy on the characteristics of much-referenced but often poorly-understood economic systems.

Also of interest:

Free Money: The Surprising Effects Of A Basic Income Supplied By Government

Workism Is Making Americans Miserable

Scot McKnight also blogged about “workism.” New Humanist explored the stigmatization of the poor.

Forbes had an article about billionaires, and Inside Higher Ed had an article about how miserable most people who get a Harvard MBA are.


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  • Spirit Plumber

    there’s a basic issue with your simulation here – grades are a non-scarce resource, in fact they are not a resource period. It is possible for everyone to get an A if everyone does stellar work and it is possible for everyone to fail the class if everyone slacks off.

    So I’m afraid your conclusions aren’t valid. GIGO.

    • I am guessing you skimmed the post and so missed where I explicitly mentioned that not only did we discuss limited good, but how delighted I was that a student was the one who brought it up…

  • John MacDonald

    I would be interested as to what the students, for instance, interpret a ‘B’ to mean. You might find a great deal of difference. When I was a public school teacher, I worked with the students with the standardized provincial rubrics/criteria and exemplars to understand how receiving a ‘B’ represented, on their part, a high level achievement of the provincial standard for that grade level. I wonder what would happen if university students were given an assignment to explain what the different letter grades mean?

    • B has gone from being good to being average to being viewed as a disappointing grade. That’s another issue that it would be great to find a way to address in the process of pursuing a utopian grading system! 🙂

      • John MacDonald

        Philosophers investigate the meaning of “Being.”
        Educators investigate the meaning of “B.”

  • Scurra

    An unusual sidestep that turned out to be properly illuminating; thank you.

    Whilst it is true to say that the United States (and most other economies) is capitalist with welfare, it’s probably important to highlight the reasons why welfare is a necessary part of the system as much as to observe that it exists; i.e. that there is a top-down view as well as a bottom-up view. Yes, the existence of welfare does indeed mean that some folk will be lazy, but the flipside is that if it doesn’t exist, then there is a strong tendency towards slavery as a solution. (It’s not inevitable, of course, but it is probably a more likely outcome than it should be.) Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx recognised that you need the state to provide regulation – they merely differed in how far they thought that regulation ought to reach.
    Of course, I don’t think you were proposing a slavery option in your grading. 🙂