[iDC] Grades are for beef

Alex Halavais alex at halavais.net
Wed Sep 7 22:19:29 UTC 2011

Our university president recently requested that we attend a talk by
someone who promised to help us to become "learning-centered." If you
haven't been touched by this particular rhetorical formation over the
last few years, you have been loving under a rock. He laid out an
argument against the traditional syllabus, shallow assessment,
extrinsic motivation, and a many of the other trappings of traditional
university education. Of course, he noted at one point, he wasn't
arguing that we should throw out letter grades.

And why on earth not? The letter grade is antithetical to learning.
Certainly, it can be used in ways that are better and worse. At its
worst, it is a simple metric indicating the number of bubbles
correctly filled on a set of multiple guess exams. Even when it
represent a structure of authentic assessment, it reduces that process
to a ridiculous single dimension. As a tool for helping to foster
learning, it is a very poor tool.

Of course, grades perform another function, the certification of
people for jobs, or at least some indication that a college degree is
a qualification for something. In some fields, that is little more
than an ability to follow directions. Grades lead to a diploma, a
diploma means a job, or at least that has been the promise.

When it is argued that the functions of teaching/mentoring, of
assessment, and of certification can be in any way divorced from one
another, some are eager to suggest that this is just another step
toward a neoliberal take-over of the university. The opposite is true.
All universities are diploma mills. Some offer a great learning
community along the way, but increasingly that is incidental to the
granting of a degree. Students see it as a transaction: you put in
your money (and maybe your time) and you receive the imprimatur of the

Imagine a university that was forced to teach. Imagine if attendance
at a university was what you paid for, not the grades, not the filter,
not the diploma. Imagine if diplomas were issued as a form a
certification of knowledge by different people than those who were
charged with helping to foster that knowledge.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination. Certainly there are interesting
examples of such divisions in places like Western Governors
university. There are better examples, including Evergreen College.
And there were a range of people's universities that grew out of the
free speech movement and other political movements over the last
several decades, many of them slowly strangled over time.

Essential to this process is creating environments supporting learning
and assessment that may be at least partially separated from the
process of, to use Anya's phrase, "quality control." The irony is that
teachers and faculty too often do a terrible job of modelling
assessment, and assessment--the ability to analyze and evaluate
other's work and one's own--is the essential skill of any expert.

We can talk about student-centered and autonomous learning until the
cows come home, but that will not change the stranglehold of the
transcript. Moreover, creating structures *outside* of mainstream
academic institutions will succeed as well as they have in the
past--that is, marginally. Fixing traditional universities means
undermining the transcript from within.

Stop grading your students. Let them do work that they value. Look at
what people do, and not at their GPA. It's easy, if you try.

- Alex

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