Grades and learning

Schools tend to go to one extreme or another when it comes to grades: they are either confidential or posted openly.

The reasons for confidential tend to involve self esteem, privacy, peer pressure and bullying. The idea is that students will be mean to each other if they know the grades of others.

This idea is a bit flawed — students can be mean in many ways, grades are feedback on work rather than evaluations of personal character, etc. — but you can see its parallel in discussions of pay at work.

The alternative of open grades is popular with those who want to show the product of potential, habits and behaviour — and how sometimes inputs do not lead to outputs. Sure, So-and-so (the model student) got an A, but what about S0-and-no (the rebel), who also got an A? Going further, open grades help students calibrate their own performance; they help groups of students compete with each other (I’ve published on this); and they force teachers to give clear objective feedback to students who will compare their work.

Learning is a process, and grades are signals of whether than process is going well. Although I’d prefer to post ALL my grades openly, I actually fall somewhere in between — I give open grades on some assignments (along side openly penalising failures to follow guidelines), but I give confidential grades on others. That’s just how things work out.

But my one-handed conclusion is that individual grades only make sense when you can compare yourself to the group. That’s how you know that your B+ is amazing (top grade on the exam!) or a disaster (everyone else got an A- or above).

We learn by comparison, so don’t ignore its potential.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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