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Learning and Grades

During this spring semester, Emma, one of my students, has been discussing grading as a part of our educational system, and what effect grading has on learning. Last week, my students pulled their thoughts together and produced synthesis blogs. I thought I’d share some of Emma’s insights.

Grades lead to conformity. Although Susanna (another of my students) argues that conformity in education can be a good thing (she hasn’t convinced me – but my evaluation of her work has remained unbiased — I hope), I agree with Sir Ken Robinson that stifling creativity in education has been a terrible thing. Trudi (yet another student) explored the impact of the factory model on education, and how conformity was one of the principle aims of mass education at its inception. Emma asks the questions that I have posted on a number of occasions “Do students come to university to learn or do they come to get a degree? Does a high class degree constitute a high level of learning?” I think she successfully argues that current HE is about figuring out the hoops that you need to jump through to get high grades. Jumping through hoops allows no creativity, it requires complete conformity.

Her second point is that grades gamify education. The focus becomes the grades rather than the learning. Games have rules, and rules lead to conformity. If you don’t follow the rules (learn what the teacher wants you to learn) you don’t get the points (your grades suffer). Working to the grades means students can memorise and regurgitate what is expected of them.

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She then goes on to look at the research into the validity and reliability of grading. Do grades measure learning? I lover her quote from Race (2009) where he argues (I think effectively) that a written “exam does tell you is how well learners write, not how well they have learnt. What is measured is not necessarily learning, but neatness, speed and eloquence of learners’ writing”. An important skill, but is that learning?

The only disappointment I had was her conclusion that grades are here to stay, because that is the system.

On my current CV, there is no reference to grades. What I have listed are my accomplishments – not someone’s evaluation of my accomplishments (a grade). Authentic assessment would allow a student to produce something that they could refer to on their CV. I hope that my students list their blogs on their CVs. These are real accomplishments that have provided me with much to think about over the past 10 weeks.

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