Grades vs. Learning

Grades vs. Learning August 22, 2019

One of my favorite things that I learned from teaching a Global and Historical Studies course about China is from the Daoist sage Chuang Tzu. He highlights how a person can be incredibly skilled, and yet if they enter a competition and there is a prize at stake, suddenly their competency is diminished. When we focus on a prize, it divides our attention. Here is what he wrote in his own words:

When an archer is shooting for nothing,
he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle,
he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold,
he goes blind or sees two targets.
He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed,
but the prize divides him.

He cares.

He thinks more of winning than of shooting.
And the need to win drains him of power.

—Chuang Tzu

This is definitely true in education as we seek to promote learning using grades as incentives and as gatekeepers. But is there any alternative?

My colleague Bryan Furuness shared some thoughts on a related subject earlier this summer on his blog. First, he noted that the very act of evaluation can undermine creativity. He recognizes that there may not be an alternative. because, as he puts it, “I could ask students to do a certain amount of work and to judge them on whether they’ve completed that work—but completion ain’t engagement, and engagement is what I’m after.”  He also asked in an earlier post what the point of creative writing classes is. Here’s an excerpt from there:

A devotional path: I had never thought about a writing practice in those terms, but it resonates with me. It speaks to the way I approach my writing and my teaching. Let me show you some ways to walk this devotional path. Maybe one of these ways will work for you; maybe you’ll find a different way. None of us can say where this path will take any given student, but we can help them learn to walk it.

That sounds nice and all, Bryan, but what’s the point of all that walking? Toward what end?

A fine question. We shouldn’t promise a destination, but we should define a purpose…

Humans are the story-telling animals, as Jonathan Gottschall writes. Learning how to write stories and poems and essays—it’s the most human thing you could be doing. And what is a liberal arts education if not learning how to be more human?

So here’s one answer to the big question. Tentative, raw, and far from the only answer, but hopefully an improvement on the awkward silence of the meeting. Writing is a devotional path. We can help you learn to walk that path for the rest of your life, becoming more human with each step.

Click through to read the restInside Higher Ed likewise drew attention to the potential for focus on grades to be to the detriment of learning. That notion still seems counterintuitive to some – and that is the heart of the problem.

The Chronicle had articles on grades, and “ungrading.” Jesse Stommel has more on that idea in a blog post from last year in which he wrote:

Without much critical examination, teachers accept they have to grade, students accept they have to be graded, students are made to feel like they should care a great deal about grades, and teachers are told they shouldn’t spend much time thinking about the why, when, and whether of grades. Obedience to a system of crude ranking is crafted to feel altruistic, because it’s supposedly fair, saves time, and helps prepare students for the horrors of the “real world.” Conscientious objection is made to seem impossible.

Read the rest to see what he does instead.

There is a call for papers about literature as vocation that I feel I should share here, given its connection to Bryan’s post. More links related to learning and motivation follow below it!

I feel as though the recent news about New Zealand focusing on wellbeing and happiness rather than wealth is also relevant to this, since our economic pundits often say that only desire for profit and wealth will motivate effort.

Of somewhat related interest, here are a couple of things on gamification and keeping learning fun:

J. David Stark blogged about play as spiritual formation

Hail and Well Met: Gaming at Academic Conferences


Episode 52: Frank Lantz on the Logic and Emotion of Games

S2E1: Gamification w/ Dr Zac Fitz-Walter

MZac Fitzwalter’s blog is also worth exploring.

The Promising Future of the Game-Based Learning Market

Finally, see too Hanna Kim’s thesis on religious themes in World of Warcraft


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  • This is definitely true in education as we seek to promote learning using grades as incentives and as gatekeepers.

    I never saw grades as incentives. Rather, they are a measuring tool.

    For me, as a teacher, they give me a measure of how well I am doing in presenting the subject matter. But it isn’t so much the grades, as it is the kind of answers that I get back in test questions.

    For the student, the grades are a measure of how well the student is doing in his/her task of mastering the subject matter. Yes, it’s an imperfect measure, but that’s better than nothing. The student needs that kind of feedback.

    The mistake that we often make, is to assume that the teacher is the main worker in education. But really, it is the student who does most of the work of learning. And the grades give the student a way of evaluating that learning.

    • I think you’re talking about what grades ideally could and should be, and on that level I agree. But I think that as long as scholarships and grad school depend on GPA, and GPA depends on succeeding in the one chance you are given to take an exam, then we undermine one of the keys to learning, namely the need to try, fail, and try again. That’s one reason I’m such an advocate of gamification – although I am also working on figuring out ways to make gamification not only fun and an aid to learning but also still rigorous and capable of motivating students to excellence.

      • John MacDonald

        A perrenial student favorite in my classroom when I taught Medieval Times in grade four was for me to make the assessment/evaluation rubrics collaboralatively with the students so they knew before starting the task what they needed to do to be successful to demonstrate understanding in creating a Medieval Times board game and castle. I always thought the worst thing was to only share the assessment rubric after the task was completed because that path was one of giving a task where the students didn’t really know what they needed to do to be successful. Part of this involved showing them student board games and castles from previous years and discussing them so the kids had a vivid understanding of what a level “B” looked like.

        I did a similar thing when teaching the various forms of writing by developing the rubrics with the kids before hand so they knew what they had to do to be successful, along with sample student exemplar papers from previous years that created a vivid picture for the students as to what a “B” level paper looked like.

  • John MacDonald

    One difference I noticed between teaching first Year Philosophy seminars during my graduate year and the years I spent teaching grades 2-8 is that elementary school ongoing formative assessment and summative evaluation seemed more standardized.

    In public schools, at least where I live, the government provides standardized tests (EQAO), as long as things like provincial exemplars of student work in the various subjects/grade levels, rubrics, checklists, continuums, etc.

    The problem that this top down model of government mandated teacher/peer feedback is trying to solve is ongoing formative assessment and cumulative evaluation that is too (1) subjective and (2)relational. So, for instance, the government panel of experts doesn’t want the rationale a teacher gives for handing out a “B” grade be that the teacher thinks the paper “looks” like a B. What does that mean? That is not optimally helpful for a students to see where they are at and what their next steps are. Similarly, we don’t want relational marking whereby a student gets an “A” because their work was better than most of the other students.

    I think a federal educational assessor and auditor would ask the question that if in public school a grade of “B” means a high level of achievement of the well laid out provincial or state standard, then what does a grade of “B” mean in in a second year English Literature course in university?

    It’s all about what is “best practice” for student feedback from teachers/peers so the student knows where they are, and has strategies for the NEXT STEPS.

    • John MacDonald

      Sorry for the confused wording above. I think I fixed it.

      Another important difference I saw is that the university model seemed to be more preachy, lecturer centered, whereas a really good student centered elementary classroom more has the teacher in the role of a coach, choir director, and personal secretary for the students. When I taught, in the role as a coach, I firmly saw my classroom as a team with common goals, myself as the coach who would suggest strategies, appoint students as assistant coaches depending on the task, and the students as the teammates – just like a sports team!.

      A big difference I found between university and elementary school is that best practice at the elementary level was for the students to sit and work in groups (because studies show this is the optimal format for student learning – many heads are better than one), whereas too often in university it is the students passively, quietly sitting in rows listening to the professor/pastor preach. Many research-based instructional strategies, like Think-Pair-Share, naturally lend themselves to students learning in groups.

      When I was doing my teacher training, both in Canada and the USA, the bible for research-based instructional strategies for teachers at the public school and university level was Beyond Monet: The Artful Science of Instructional Integration (2001) by Dr. Barry Bennett and Dr. Carol Rolheiser: See: