Do Grades Hinder Learning?

PUBLISHED: Oct 16, 2019

In This Episode.

Steve & Dave respond to an article and, more broadly, to the “ungrading” movement, which assert that grades interfere with deeper learning.  Listen in to find out why grades do, don’t, and shouldn’t hinder learning, and how we can use them constructively.  Also, a little known fact about Zeus.

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Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts Steve Perlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Welcome back again to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast. This is Steve.

Dave Carillo: I’m Dave. Hope everybody’s doing great out there. Thanks for tuning in again. We’re coming at you today with an article that we saw in the Chronicle of Higher Education July 19, 2019. It’s entitled Grades Can Hinder Learning What should professors use instead? And in the broad strokes, this article focuses on Dr Susan D. Bloom. She’s been teaching college for 30 years. She’s currently at University of Notre Dame, where she teaches anthropology, and over time she has started to turn away from grades because of what she perceives as a barrier that grades put up between her and her students, and engagement and learning and so on and so forth.

Steve Pearlman: This article is part of a much broader movement that’s pushing back against grading in academia, and David are actually equal critics of grading in academia. For the most part, many of the problems that are raised about grades and how they can interfere with learning we agree with, but we just don’t agree with necessarily is the solution that this article is purportedly posing. But this article actually doesn’t even follow through with the solution that it proposes. It lands on something more akin to what we actually support in the first place, right?

Dave Carillo: We have other podcasts that focus more on grades as well, but you can check back in our catalog and you’ll see it if you want to get a broader scope of where we are in terms of the grading conversation. But the article starts with where we are in a certain sense talks about a meeting that Dr. Bloom had with one of her students. They’re having some sort of end of semester conference, and Dr. Bloom asks the student to explain what she learned or what the positive features were in that particular class. And the student says that the one thing that stuck with her was a comment that Bloom made on her first assignment. Dr. Bloom wrote that the assignment was quote, good but nothing earth shattering, and that spurned this student on to push yourself to be more creative and do better work. And it’s a good place to start, Steve, because I think it’s kind of where we all are in terms of anything that we do for students, whether it’s comments or grades or specific assignments. We want to engage them in a deeper level and then we want to push them to do their best, to be as creative, to be as intellectually engaged, to learn as much as possible. The first thing, though, I think that we would want to talk about in terms of complicating this is the idiosyncrasy of this particular exchange, because you don’t want to be as vague as these comments. Nothing earth shattering is a really complicated concept for most students to get or even to expect most students to to relate to in such a way that this particular student did so right off the bat. We’ve got this moment that everybody I think wants to have with their students, but really problematic in terms of how it comes about.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, in terms of spirit, we really appreciate what this article is doing, what Bloom is up to here and what is being articulated is tapping into what is a really important, rich, complicated issue in academia, especially in things like responding to writing and so forth. I’m quoting from a research study by Weston Turner, which says generic comments such as lack synthesis of ideas or performance was exemplary can block further learning as they omit the specific information in which the students can build their knowledge and capability. And so the problem is this comment that’s being offered is trying to do something more than just respond with a grade and a rating. And that’s absolutely what the professor needs to do in this situation where we all want to do in order to extract more creativity, more critical thinking, more intellectual power from our students. The problem is the language set. The lexicon that’s being employed here is just so vague that the students going to have trouble necessarily really understanding what the professor wants or the professor’s struggling to articulate it. And that would be the case, even with the comments that are more typically associated with writing, where students still lack the context for understanding them. And one of the reasons for that is that as partly in Chatsworth explain in qualitative and quantitative methods and research on essay writing no one way and I’m not quoting them here. But what they reveal is that about two thirds of students assert that educators in the same subject actually require different things, and that half the time those things are never even explained. So even where we have faculty operating within the same subject arenas comments can still be mystifying or obfuscating to students. And that’s what this person is struggling with, and this is absolutely the right spirit and effort to try to resolve the conflict. The question is, is this doing enough for the student to really give them any direction, right?

Dave Carillo: And one of the things that presents a challenge when we talk about an article like this, which does an admirable job of summing up not only. The problem, but then also this transformation that Dr. Bloom has made, which took a lot of energy and a lot of risk, and a lot of times I have a lot of questions. What’s this assignment trying to do anyhow? To what extent was this couched in other comments? And we just can’t necessarily know, but it’s still representative of something that we’ve been talking about quite often. Yeah. In this case, the grades are a problem, but the grade itself is superficial because it’s not necessarily what is causing the problem. It’s like this research says it’s the link between the grade and what goes into the assessment, right? So for example, if we’re talking about this was good, but nothing earth shattering. Are we teaching students how to be earth shattering? Where their assignments? How would we articulate that? How are we making that explicit, right?

Steve Pearlman: How is earth shattering measured and how is earth shattering ever going to be taught? Exactly why should we even be asking students who we hope might at some point in their lives, of course, come up with something earth shattering, though most people never do? Why are we trying to encourage them to aspire to that goal? That concept, again, totally right in spirit. Let’s ask that student to do something bigger and broader and more intellectual and so forth. Great. But what’s really being asked here, which is what you’re asking, is and is is troubling.

Dave Carillo: Exactly. And before we move on, there’s some other things that I think we need to get to here. You raise multiple points in earth shattering. What’s the metric and what’s the pedagogy? How do you teach earth shattering and where is there room for any process in all this? And are we presenting even more of a barrier by expecting students to produce earth shattering in a way that they won’t be able to at this level or won’t be able to grasp or really do? You know, there’s like any number of ways, but that’s the issue. Yeah, the grade here, that’s a problem, but it’s a superficial problem.

Steve Pearlman: You know, I think neither Dave and I actually want to be down on Balloon because I think we’re in spirit fans and I think we could all have a great drink together and talk about these issues and this whole what’s called the upgrading movement that’s going on. They cite a study that when grades were offered with comments that the students who just received the grade the least in terms of becoming transformed for the future assignments, the students who received the grade and the comment did better. But the students who received just the comment did the best right the

Dave Carillo: Ruth Butler study?

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, and that’s really important for us to know, and it falls back on something that we’ve talked about before. I’m quoting here from strategies and challenges to changing the focus of assessment and instruction science classrooms by Ducal and M.R.. They say that with respect to traditional mechanisms of assessment, essentially just getting basic grades and so forth, they say quote students focus on getting through tasks and resist attempts to engage in risky cognitive activity. And we know that grades can suppress the amount of engagement that students are willing to take. Because if all they’re getting is a grade and they don’t know where that grade comes from, then they’re much less likely to be willing to risk the low grade than they are wanting to take the risk for the high grade. And so there’s a real problem with grading, and this is certainly tapping on that problem. The question is is whether or not this is the best solution to that problem. And I think that as we explore what’s going on in this a little bit more, it raises some additional concerns in that regard.

Dave Carillo: Essentially, the article goes on to talk about Bloom’s strategy now, and she relies on a much more discursive method of grading in which the student is allowed to assess him or herself, and then conference with Bloom as to where that student thinks their grade should be. And the article provides at least some window into how this happens, at least for this food and culture class. There’s something called portfolio conference and concluding reflection document. Dr. Bloom provides a multitude of tasks for the student to do, to work through, to reflect on in order to have material to discuss as they enter into this conference. And so Task one assemble all your work for the semester, including self assessments and my comments task to read it all. Task three Answer these questions about what you did, and there are a series of questions like what work of yours is especially strong? Why Task five is what of the course activities especially stands out for you. So there’s some reflective elements, and then there are some liquidity type questions. How actively engaged were you in this class? Completely absorbed, basically paid attention. Spoke rarely but listened. Wasn’t too interested. Approximately how much reading did you do? 90 to one hundred percent? And with this information, the students are able to discuss with Bloom where they think they are in the class, what they learn and so on. And then from there they negotiate the grade. So they actually have a moment in the article where you get a sense of how this goes. Quote near the end of our chat with Decora, Bloom asked the question What grade would you give yourself? The student responds with quote for the amount of effort and participation that I had in class. I think it would be an A.. And the article goes on to say DeCaro was expecting the. Question still felt weird answering it, she said later she knew that most cases Bloom gives students the grade they suggest, and there you have it. So after that kind of discussion, they grade themselves and they generally, according to the article,

Steve Pearlman: Get that grade well. And I think it’s the generally that’s that really puts the hitch in this, because what the general says is that there are circumstances in which Bloom is executing a judgment on the student that the student doesn’t deserve the grade that the student has reflected that the student deserves. So now we’re back to effectively grading again, right? I mean, right basically just returns us to the active brain. And I realize this might be in a case where it’s a little bit more of an exception than the rule. And I’m sure that there are often very good reasons why we might need to reject the grade of the student who gives themselves an a but never showed up for any classes did any of the reading or intended anything to them.

Dave Carillo: Sure, there’s easy

Steve Pearlman: Examples, right? Of course there are. But that in effect is why grades exist to begin with and what this is really exposing. And the trouble I have with so much of this is to use the fancy research term, the absence of a dependent variable. We can ask students, Well, how engaged did you feel you were and how much reading did you do and which assignment do you feel was strong? And all of that reflection with respect to self-guided learning and so forth and self-reflective learning absolutely important. There should be more of that going on in education, but there’s not necessarily any relationship between how much the students said they read and whether or not they understood anything that they read between whether they feel as though one assignment was particularly strong for them and whether or not it actually developed any meaningful idea, interpreted other text properly did anything that was intellectually sound just because the student feels as though it was. So what’s the dependent variable here that’s actually measuring learning as opposed to just measuring the student’s sense of learning? And this is only bringing in the student’s sense of learning and the student’s effort and the student’s engagement by their self-report.

Steve Pearlman: And supposing even they’re perfectly honest about where they were engaged and how much effort they put in. That doesn’t necessarily actually equate to learning something I might put a lot of effort into, of course, on particle physics, but I lack the foundations to really understand most of what’s going on about particle physics. And therefore, I could grade myself very well on a number of different variables, none of them being dependent upon whether or not I actually learned a lot about particle physics. So at some point here, push comes to shove right in this concept. And the question is, again, how do we resolve this in a more positive way, a more reliable way, a more valid way than at once? Take some of the problems of grading off the table because we don’t want to just slap a number or a letter on somebody’s intellectual presence. On the other hand, we need some way to reward these more ephemeral qualities of learning and the intellectual substance of learning that’s more substantive and does involve some commentary and discourse with students or mutual understanding about what’s really being achieved.

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Steve Pearlman: We need some way to reward these more ephemeral qualities of learning and the intellectual substance of learning that’s more substantive and does involve some commentary and discourse with students or mutual understanding about what’s really being achieved.

Dave Carillo: You’ve been a huge can of worms here, and I hear you at least raising two really compelling issues. One is for Task six, where the student has to gauge how actively engaged they were in class. The choices are completely absorbed, basically paid attention, spoke rarely but listened, wasn’t too interested and spent time on the phone, social media. And let’s just get away from that phone slash social media thing for a second. They could check off completely absorb because they were very interested in the subject and hadn’t learned a thing. And there are a lot of different ways to talk about that. They might not know any of the vocabulary from the discipline, or they might not know what constitutes evidence in biology. Like, there’s a lot of grades and levels of learning that we could use as a way to sort of tease this out, but I could be completely absorbed without having walking away with anything. And the other thing too is why should a student need to say that they were completely absorbed or actively engaged in a class after the fact? If we can build into the class ways to make active engagement authentic and. Meaningful, and so I see there’s if we’re just talking, learning, there’s an issue there, but if we’re talking, well, what do we want from our class, then we ought to be able to say, Look, you need to be actively intellectually engaged in this material. Here’s how that’s going to go down. Here’s how you’re going to be assessed on that. And we’ll know whether you were or not. Because if you didn’t get to a certain point or you weren’t able to come away with an ability to evaluate research, and I don’t see you doing that in any of your assignments, then we don’t need that reflection anyhow. The student can say, Well, I was completely absorbed, but not according to this authentic way of teaching them how to be completely absorbed in what I’m saying.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, you’re edging us toward what we think the real solution to this is, which is not just asking students how engaged they felt emotionally right in it, but actually measuring the depth of their ability to intellectually engage the subject matter, right? And that doesn’t mean just slapping a grade from on high from Mount Olympus down onto a student’s paper, which Zeus was always known to do. He’s very big on grading. He’s right.

Dave Carillo: All the work and got it back the next class. There was never a delay. Well, he was on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. He was a guy who collected something on Monday. You have it back to you on Wednesday,

Steve Pearlman: But most of it was singed with lightning.

Dave Carillo: Yes. Well, there is that.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah. Anyway, what we ultimately recommend as a solution to this, what we feel is even more ethical than this. If grades are going to be handed out at all. I mean, there’s an argument for let’s have an institution, the Hampshire College, for example, where there are just actually absolutely no grades, there’s commentary and there’s feedback. And I think there’s a great argument for that. I don’t know that it’s ultimately where I think education should be or not, but there’s a very reasonable argument for just doing away with grades entirely. And we should maybe have that conversation at some point short of that. If grades are going to exist, then instead of just having students reflect or trying to upgrade things and just let students give themselves grade based on we don’t know what, let’s have an authentic set of standards that actually measure critical thinking and the student’s ability to intellectually engage any material. And let’s also make sure and this is the critical point, not just that we are the holders of that standard, but that we educate students to appreciate that standard for themselves such that they can grade one another effectively, such that they can generally grade themselves effectively. Dave and I have found with our students that first semester freshmen, typically within about six weeks, are very capable of assessing one another fairly accurately, very capable of even doing self assessments fairly accurately with the instrument that we use. They feel is an authentic assessment, largely speaking of their intellectual engagement with subject matter.

Steve Pearlman: And so at that point, grades are no longer these things that are doled out. They’re not mysterious. They have a measure of authenticity to them. And as a result of that, we were effectively remedying many of the problems that are rightly brought up here, which is that grades are mysterious and they inhibit intellectual risk and can suppress students desire to do more. But we’re doing it by involving students and embracing students into the grading process and helping them understand what the standards are. And if those standards are meaningful, then the grade sort of effectively disappears in the commentary takes precedent over the grade, even though the grade might still be present. And I’m going to quote NH10 Wenger here, and she’s talking about education, and she says quote ownership of meaning can be shared and it can have degrees. In fact, it does not diminish from being shared. On the contrary, because meanings are socially negotiated, shared ownership can widen participation in their production and thus increase ownership for all participants. In other words, we only gain by involving students in understanding and appreciating how they’re being assessed, and if that’s meaningful, the students value that as well. Now we’re all on the same page, and now we can get to the work of doing that intellectual work, not obsessing over what grade it’s going to get. And so for us, that’s a more effective way to remedy this very real problem that surrounds grades, right?

Dave Carillo: Hats off to Blum for moving in this direction, trying to make this a more meaningful process for students. At the end of the day, though, you’re not only giving a student a grade anyhow, but you’re reporting that grade to the university. And so you’re not necessarily doing justice to your discipline or your material the way you would want, right? And you remove the possibility of the student actually learning in the moment based on those explicit standards and metrics that you mentioned before. And it occurred to me, too, that even if we were to remain in this system, that Bloom is currently working in a much more effective way would be to make the negotiation or the discussion of the grade, not what. What did you think you did in all these little tasks and you’re generally going to get the grade that you say, what if you made it clear in the beginning of the class? Here are the things you need to do, including assess yourself and at the end, we’re going to discuss it and. The student needs to bring evidence of engagement. Ok, you said you’re wholly engaged, engagement means A, B and C, where is your evidence? Do you have those documents? I have my own assessment of your engagement or here’s this one document. We’re both looking at it. You say you did these things. I don’t see them at least make that grading at the end or a true negotiation, right? Beyond beyond, like students saying, I was totally engaged, even though they missed 50 percent of the class, students says they were totally engaged. Show me evidence of your engagement on the three levels that we made clear in the beginning and that we worked on throughout the class. And if you can show me that, then yes.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, I like your point. I mean, I like the idea of having a genuine, intellectually rigorous discourse about the students experience in the course and basing that in evidence and perhaps some kind of learning outcome as well. And I think that’s equally along the same path. And similarly, going back to the other idea, the goal is to reach a point with students where they’re going to be able to put a grade on that paper. They might think it’s a B and we might think it’s a B plus or we might think it’s a B minus or whatever. We’re all in the same ballpark. And to have a really rich intellectual discussion about why it’s doing that based on a shared understanding of the goals and standards for that kind of intellectual work. Now we’re not so much teacher student and we’re removing that power structure, right? But we’re collegial in trying to interrogate this question together, which is what good colleagues should do and good student teacher relationships should accomplish. Therefore, what bothers me about the grading idea to an extent is in part where it falls flat, when we have the extremes of students who are way off the grade that they should get, but also the false alternative. It’s not either that we just give grades mysteriously and slap a grade on something, and students don’t know what it is or don’t give anywhere we don’t. Let’s instead try to figure out how do we get the best of both of those worlds working together, which is a high bar?

Dave Carillo: It’s possible. No, you’re absolutely right that it’s possible. And if you’re curious, shoot us an email at info like a critical thinking initiative, talk or visit our website. We think we have some workable answers if you’re ready to move in those kinds of directions. Even that idea of using that gray area that that exists in this conference as the moment of negotiation and final moment of learning is interesting enough.

Steve Pearlman: Absolutely reflective learning. So critical,

Dave Carillo: Right? Don’t wait till the end of the semester for the student to say, Oh yeah, I was completely engaged. You want them engaged in the moment you want them engaged not only in their triumphs, but their failures. You want to build that into the class so that they don’t have to tell you a thing at the end if they don’t want and you don’t have to ask them because they know and you know already.

Steve Pearlman: Well, I think what you’re getting at is so critical because as something you pointed out earlier, these students have to move into other classes, right? You have to move into professions, and at some point we need some verification that they’re learning certain things. We want nurses who we know know certain things about nursing and can reason in certain ways about nursing and merely appreciating how invested they might have felt in that process or how much they think they learned from that process, frankly, is not enough for me to become a patient of one of those people, and we can extrapolate that out really to all kinds of other professions, but not just from the professional world perspective. But education should also be able to affirm that it’s actually educating people and not just making people feel as though they’re educated. And so we need some way to achieve that end. In addition to the very important end that Bloom is trying to accomplish here, which is to bring meaningfulness to the student and to bring respect to the student. And let’s just laud that all day, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Dave Carillo: In the meantime, let’s make sure that we’re clear here. Yes, the concept of grades can be a barrier between students and teachers. They have been barriers. The critique here is sound, but let us not think that the grades are the be all and end all or even the pinnacle here. What lies beneath us is not that only grades quote temp students to cut corners, including by cheating. They position students and professors as adversaries. They make it harder for students to think for themselves, end quote. That’s also pedagogy. That’s also the multiple choice test. Education is not just giving students information, having students memorize, having students pass certain tests and so on and so forth. We need to start to think beyond the grades alone and think about what the grades are tied to, how we’re teaching students to make those grades, whether that pedagogy is authentic, whether the grades are authentic, whether the process is authentic. Let’s not just blame grades, but let us also say, look, I think a lot of our listeners want to go out there and teach their students as best they can have their students learn as much as they can and aren’t walking around thinking that there’s no problems in education. I think everybody would probably be able to sit down at the table and come to some basic and universal conclusions about where we need to go for the kids to help them out. But who made this move? Yeah, we have issues with some of these processes. We think that there are some underlying concerns that need to be addressed, but you have to see it. You have to. Toward that change, and that’s something that.

Steve Pearlman: Yes, I absolutely agree with that one hundred percent we need educators are willing to take these kinds of risks, and I think maybe this podcast sets up our next one, which you were going to do on peer assessment. Yes, really? Well, so maybe we’ll follow this one up with that one, which would be a nice symmetry if, well, if we remember to do

Dave Carillo: That, well, that and like, we’ve got like a dozen emails asking for that that we’ve never, never we haven’t gotten to, though. So yes, thank you so much, everyone for listening and again, info at the critical thinking initiative. Org Reach out at any time and

Steve Pearlman: Go out there and teach your brains out. Take care!

Voiceover: Got questions about critical thinking questions about pedagogies related to critical thinking, questions about writing, reading, grading or anything else in the critical thinking realm? Contact Steve and Dave at Info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. Talk with your questions or your feedback about the podcast. Thanks for listening.


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