Grading grades

  • gradingThere is an old Zen story of a prospective student who approaches a Zen master and asks the question; “How long would it take for me to reach enlightenment?” The master looks up and answers, “Ten years”. But master what if I studied real hard? The master looks up again and responds, “20 years”. The student surprised, asked again: “what if I worked very, very, hard and became your most dedicated student?” Again the master looks up and says, “In that case, 30 years”.  The perspective student seemed very confused at this point, “I don’t understand, the harder I work, the longer it will take for me to reach enlightenment? Again the master looks up and says; “As long as you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I always think of this story when students seem more concerned about the grade they’re receiving rather than what they’re learning.  From early on in our education, grading becomes the focus of learning. I remember back in the 1980’s and 1990’s studies were conducted to determine what affects grading had on students and education.  The results were not only interesting but troubling as well. Students ‘placed more interest on grades rather than what they were learning.  Also, grades may directly influence the degree of a students’ thinking.  Students may study only what they think they need to know to get a passing grade. Even more interesting, one particular study had two groups of students; one was told they would be graded on how well they learned a lesson in social science and another group of students who were told that no grades would be given, but asked to review the same social studies lesson. The results showed that those students that were told that they would be graded showed less understanding of the lesson with less recall ability. The students that were not being graded had a far better understanding of the lesson with much-improved recall than the graded group.

OK, I get it, we need some way of assessing our students and grades may never go away, but perhaps we as educators need to put more focus on what is the real intrinsic motivator of learning. What makes a student want to learn more? How do we as educators promote and encourage learning without the need to misplace the focus with a ranking letter grade which is supposed to indicate the degree of the students learning?  Jean Piaget described the importance of facilitating learning rather than direct learning, the importance of ongoing assessment and turning the classroom into a set of exploration and discovery.  Perhaps it’s time to challenge our thinking about how we assess our students, but for now, Saturday mornings will be spent drinking strong coffee, as I grade my student’s assignments.