11 thoughts on “Grade Threads

  1. gibb

    Yeah, like you’re gonna listen to what I say…

    You’ve taken the main points and laid them out logically to arrive at answers here. I don’t pretend to know anything about the system and its workings, nor the typical applicant and eventual student. A guess as to goals would be on the learner’s part to primarily achieve the necessary knowledge and skill to increase his chances at attaining a certain lifestyle or level of comfort and security (family, career, fortune, or freedom, etc.). The intitution would seek to supply access to that knowledge and skill.

    In the carpentry shop analogy, I would think that the Shop has determined what customer needs it chooses to fulfill (just as with medical, technical, legal, etc. focused universities) and what it requires to meet those needs. If A’s table of four legs stands without wobbling and has a nice cherry finish of three coats tops and an easily accessible drawer in the front, then he’s achieved what the Shop wants from him. If B’s table of 2.5 legs stands without wobbling and has a burned in tiger maple top that’s smooth as silk from 10 hand-rubbed tung oil finishes and a drawer that holds double its actual capacity, then that has met the standards and gone beyond. It’s either Marquez or an A+.

    You know how I feel about reading and writing, and the constant striving to improve–yes, improve–on both. They are basics, of course, and cat is spelled c-a-t whether you’re in first grade or Yale, except to sometimes use feline instead is an expansion of use. I’ve written my way through college and continue to hone and use the skill to increase chances in all aspects of life. R & W to the best of ability transfers to verbal skills as well, of course; discussing topics, making a presentation, talking your way out of a traffic ticket–all this comes from reading and writing proficiency. Personally I haven’t made the transition well from writing to speaking, but the majority of folks excel in verbalizing thoughts without realizing that reading and writing is primarily responsible.

  2. Mary Ellen

    To follow up on your earlier question: why not do away with grades altogether? My reply would be to ask you what they would be replaced with. I think as a whole the educational system has gotten waayyy too concerned about grading, from standardized testing to NCLB to those little pluses and minuses after the letters. I see AB assessments as a brave attempt to counter the inflation that’s gone on for so long (you think you’re an A? Show me what you can do), but as a student, I still look at those numbers and relate it to my performance on the material being judged; and I still miss the little pluses, sniff.

    How can we assess students critically, individually, and make it a foolproof, grade-proof system? What about video portfolios? Or semester-long weblogs? I hate the thought of all of that technology that’s been pumped into the schools just languishing there. Why not combine book learning with interactive web studies? And instead of one instructor signing off on student capability, how about a panel of assessors? Passing, at the college level, would be credits given. No pass, no credits. It means saying goodbye to GPAs, but really, what purpose do they serve beyond bragging rights? If I’m going to get a job based solely on whether I was a 4.0 instead of a 3.2, then that company doesn’t value me very much as an individual.

    However, erasing GPAs and going solely on a “credits earned for assessed abilities” plan pretty much guarantees that anyone vying for said position with XX degree can actually do the job. Good Marty.

  3. Steve Post author

    I’ve moved Deb Hall’s comments here:

    Let me preface this post by saying that I hate posting and therefore almost never do. However, this topic is compelling and I could not ignore it…

    I think that the entire construct of grading and even parts of the education system lend themselves to these kinds of problems. Resumes and portfolios should determine the kinds of courses or experiences that a student will require in order to reach their training goals (ideally, education is training for a career or vocation of some kind). Attainment of goals and objectives should be demonstrated and relevant.

    The current system is often not relevant to “real” life and therefore students do not take it as seriously as we would like. Students see grades as arbitrary and feel that they will be able to achieve their professional goals without achieving academic excellence. If the learning and experiences were connected to the desired outcome then students would be more invested. Evidence of achievement would be demonstrated and obvious (Marty would be operating the forklift- how well could be judged by others who know how to operate a forklift).

    This idea of relevance is a pivotal one. When we talk about how we are going to improve our current education system, it doesn’t get nearly enough “air time”.

    Have a good weekend.

  4. Steve Post author

    Mary Ellen’s comment has been moved/copied here:

    Maybe I’m still too naive about all of this college stuff, but it would never occur to me to impersonate something I’m not, which is essentially what these kids did in CA, as well as anyone who writes down a thought that’s not theirs (or classically, copies the whole schmiel and passes it along as their own). Back to Marty and his forklift: what goes through their minds when they take credit for these courses they haven’t passed? I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t have any great revelations in my level 1 classes, so yeah, bump it up to a B, A, A+, whatever–I doubt in my lifetime someone’s going to ask me for my deep burning opinion of Gilgamesh. But 5 years gave some of these individuals enough time to fake out an entire degree program. What will they do when they get in the driver’s seat?

    Consequences. There haven’t been any for a couple of generations now, and I think it’s beginning to show–I’d start with Washington (DC), but it’s been a difficult week already.

    The AB style of assessment has at its very core the assumption that a student will walk out of the class knowing more, doing more, than he did when he entered the semester. This is proven simply–and only–by the student’s work. A rational judgment of improvement can be made by any instructor, not just the course professor, to defend the grades that are finally rendered.

    What’s to stop them from changing those grades in the parking lot? A total non-access program with no hard copies, I guess. Kids have been changing grades for as long as they’ve been getting them, but geez, at the college level, they should be considered sacred… (I did say I was still naive).

  5. Steve Post author


    2.5 legs? Tung oil? What would the chief say to that? Can we assess “improve”? How would you rate Zafon vs Marquez?

    Mary Ellen,

    Isn’t the student’s point of view irrelevant? Why should they care the difference between a trope and a scheme? We need that bridge to support tons of weight. You write: “If I’m going to get a job based solely on whether I was a 4.0 instead of a 3.2, then that company doesn’t value me very much as an individual.”

    Value is very much the issue here in the context of grades.


    Relevance is an interesting notion. But you’ve heard of the problem of the “a priori.”


    We need hard answers. I read Othello in your post.

    I think the question still needs pursuing: what’s the alternative to A B C . . . I think it’s easy.

  6. Beau

    It’s late, but I’ve given this a little bit of thought and am going to throw some stuff out here before I hit the hay.

    As a student, I am somewhat fond of the traditional grading scale — for the wrong reasons, really. I like it because it is definitely to my advantage to be held to the same standard as my classmates. Under the traditional system, I’ve earned quite a few A’s without breaking an academic sweat.

    But I still can’t say I understand exactly how the system works, and I’ve found flaws with the plus/minus grading system (click here to read my journalism class op-ed on the subject)

    As a learner, I am fond of the ability-based assessment system. Steve and John used that assessment model in the New Media class, which was diverse in many ways (except for sex, in which case it was overwhelmingly male). So I started this class with the belief that it would be an “easy A” because I am an established local political blogger who’s dabbled in multimedia.

    Under the traditional grading scale, it probably would have been an “easy A” but under the ability-based assessment system I had to continually top myself. It didn’t matter if my first project was better than the final project of the kid sitting next to me — if I wanted an A, my second project had to be better than my first (and so on).

    I don’t think that the grading system is everything when it comes to learning, but I do think that the expectations placed on students make a difference. Some subjects lend themselves to more objective measures (general biology, for example, where you either know the answer or you don’t). In those cases, your attitude can make all the difference. Students who are eager to learn will learn.

    I think the students who changed their grades in the college’s system saw post-secondary education as an obstacle to success rather than a springboard to it. I also think they’re shitheads.

    Lastly, I really like gibb’s remarks about writing, because the only goal I still have from my first day of college is to become a better writer. I figure that success at whatever I choose to do will follow from that.

  7. Mary Ellen

    Steve said: “What does a student come to the college to learn, what should the institution offer as examples of learning, and what is the mission of the college, which guides its core elements?”

    Are you thinking of overhauling the entire system? That would be fine with me, the incompetent mathematician, who still needs 6 credits in calulations of some sort to become an English teacher. Figure that :-)

    What does a student come to learn: I honestly don’t think they come to learn, they come to get; a BS, BA, certification, etc… Only the blessed occasional octogenarian is there with the pursuit of knowledge as their only goal. Is this problem #1?

    What should the institution offer for examples: I think the primary examples of successful education should be the instructors, the people who have the most contact with the students. Through examples of their own work, former students’ work, and a clear designation of their own goals, a student can see the path they are to follow for the course. Each student should understand on course day 1 where they need to be on course day 30.

    The mission of the college: If we refuse to acknowledge the slip in education from the lower levels, then we risk losing those individuals who are really not ready or capable of performing at the college level. But if we maintain (or better yet, return to) the standards in place for the last century, there will be an ever-widening gap between incoming students and freshman level of competency. (Based on my opinion that NCLB will turn millions of children into mindless bubble-fillers who can’t really think, only mimic.)

    So maybe the college mission is to teach thinking, by promoting a variety of experiences for thought: reading, writing, history, philosophy, and yes, math. If a student’s goal is to “get” a BS, they should arrive there with the knowledge acquired from the facts of all these areas, but more importantly, the critical eye and evaluative capabilities to judge, assess, and act rationally. I unfortunately arrive at the beginning, that colleges maintain their current courses and evaluations, and students are assessed by their abilities–by grades, 1-2-3s, etc… Do there need to be degrees of passing, though? Like Susan says, is a table with a brilliant finish but only 2.5 legs any less qualified to be a table than the standard one? Those who are more proficient will be that way in finding jobs, maintaining careers, etc… Does the college necessarily have to label them so?

    And grr, if you’ve already figured out the alternative to grading, enlighten me!

  8. gibb

    Super Mario. Unbiased computer assessment based on predetermined standards (Zafon & Marquez would both be judged by structure, arc, plot, theme, as well as imagery, etc.) that allow movement to the next level when one level has been completed successfully. That would indicate to the instructor exactly at what point each student sits, and alternative learning via hyperlinks would be available to the student who needs more data; ignored by the student who doesn’t.

    I think Mary Ellen’s comment on the value of a score is important in that all aspects need be considered, but that’s achieved on an interview, where quick thinking, attitude, team spirit, willingness to work and learn will reveal themselves beyond a resume. The problem is moving beyond the resume to that interview.

    Deb’s on the right track with the assessment of needs to teach skills, but can’t that run in the direction of individual instruction? Perhaps Mario could help here too.

    Tung oil’s amazing. if it stands on less than 4 legs, why not? And I thought the drawer that held double its capacity was neat.

  9. Steve Post author

    Susan, I thought it was neat, too, because a table that could stand on two and half legs would show some real creative thinking. And when I build that wonderful cabinet I will perhaps use tung.

    I think your choice issue is important: if an individual wants more they can find it (hypertext provides for this choice in crafted ways), but how then do we correlate the less with more on a scale everyone would agree too. For example, let’s take Beowulf. What would constitute a baseline grasp of the text, seriously? Reader A describes “what happened,” while Reader B who travels independently into deeper waters, identifying and analyzing the text’s historical context, for example, or digging deeper into significant tropes, such as consumption. RA describes the narrative very well. RB does a bang up job in just a tad bit more crusty prose than A.

    How should we evaluate for this nuance? I could be that the hypertext is too mechanically difficult for some readers, thus they miss out on the good stuff.

    Great ideas here, S.

    In addition, I like Mary Ellen’s notion of making vailable opportunities to think. Beau, coming to school to improve technique and clarity, is a wonderful example in ME’s context. Beau can define what he wants, but Beau, did improvement depend on the system of evaluation you experienced? Could you, or all the students writing in this comment area for that matter, have improved with no grades offered at all, hypothetically, of course? Challenge would be the replacement.

    Note that to be a good writer was also James Baldwin’s goal, but he also wanted to be a “good man.” The goal is always tied to something else.

    We could simply provide real problems to solve: we need a cabinet that will stand on minus 4 legs. Make it work and you may move onto more aggressive problems. What are the significant figures in Beowulf and why? And then onto the next problem. If it involves writing or multiple other means, then so be it. Or is learning more complicated than this?

  10. gibb

    That’s more than nuance between Reader A and Reader B; that’s a chasm. Elementary school book report versus college essay. The first thing a student hears as a directive for essays in college is “don’t just synopsize the book.” But I think you meant to offer the extremes as example of comparing oranges and apples and I believe the answer is that the criteria is established already by whatever academic gods of a particular discipline there be, not just by the instructor and it certainly should not be dictated by the students. If hypertext is too mechanically difficult for them then how the hell did they get into college? Every 8 year-old knows how to click on links to get what they want.

    Learning need not be complicated. I’m afraid I don’t understand the mechanics of the assessment system so I’ll check into that before I speak any more on all this. I flew through on an A-F grading system and was both challenged and inspired by it. Maybe I’d’a been a flop and a college dropout with assessment…

  11. Mary Ellen

    Learning is simple, if there is motivation. Imo, a large part of the problem at TCC is a lack of motivation, drive, desire to be there–however you want to phrase it. I personally would take a class with the end result being merely that I know more by the outcome, but this won’t work for most. They want the grades, to get the credits, to get the degree, to get a better job than at McD’s or Blockbuster. In that regard I have to agree with the NYT article referenced in a newer post. Higher education is no longer seen as an avenue to cultivate intelligent people for the greater good of society. It is now seen (including by me) as a means to an end. It isn’t something to immerse oneself in, but something to endure for a result. While I’m truly enjoying myself and love using my brain again, I would not devote the resources (time, money) to a degree program if I didn’t need to list it on a resume.

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