One of the things a student said to me just before I went on my last semester break was, “Could you please let me redo my assignment so I can improve my grade?” The request was not, “Could you please let me redo my assignment so I can learn the content I’m missing?” The student was not as much interested in learning the material as in receiving a higher number than was originally assigned— the student would have preferred 8/10 rather than 7/10.
At the beginning of my career as a college professor some 26 years ago, I did not think much about how odd and counter-intuitive that sort of request was. After all, the sentiment, and indeed the question, was one with which I was very familiar as I had made versions of that request myself any number of times during my years as a student.
The need to evaluate student work has a long history. In ancient Greece, for example, students were evaluated on their performance in public oral exams. In medieval Europe, students in universities were sometimes assessed based on their performance in formal debates. In the modern era, the use of numbers to grade student assignments became quite common, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, due in part to the development of standardized testing (in the West). This grading system allowed teachers to evaluate the performance of large numbers of students reasonably quickly (Lee, 2020).
The use of numbers to evaluate student performance is now a common practice. “The goal of assessment is to improve student learning by systematically examining student learning patterns to inform future teaching and learning” (Lee, 2020).
OK, but does assessment by numbers work well?
Using numbered grades as the sole measure of a student’s performance can create pressure for students to focus on achieving high grades, rather than on learning and understanding the subject material. Additionally, the drive to achieve numbers—and the inability to achieve those numbers— carries with it the implication of failure: failure to achieve the grade, failure to do as well as others in the course, failure to continue in the program (with the possible consequence of having to repeat an entire semester or year), failure to receive academic standing in its various forms, and failure to live up to parental expectations. For students, academic failure in any of its many forms is rarely looked at as a learning opportunity; if anything, it is considered a kind of rejection, which some may take as a personal rejection. Not achieving the requisite number on an assignment can mean not being on an honour roll, which can have negative financial implications, and bring parental censure, so the grade appeal process often follows.
It is a rare occurrence in the course of receiving and appealing a grade that the question of competence comes up. The conversations with students, parents, chairs, deans, and appeal boards tend to revolve around how the grade was determined (was there a rubric?), what the assignment expectations were, and whether or not an assignment or a course is “upgradeable.” In other words, how do we move the student’s grade from 7/10 to 8/10?
Over the years, I have heard lots of grumbling from professors about the students who are “mark sharks,” and from students who claim that one professor is an “easy marker” and that another professor—teaching a separate section of the same course—is a “hard marker.” A poorly kept secret in academia is that one of the best ways for a professor to improve their student feedback score is to be a generous and forgiving marker.
Then there is the perennial question of the subjectivity of grading by the numbers, which is perhaps most challenging in the humanities, where assessments can be quite subjective. Grading rubrics have gone some way to help add at least the appearance of objectivity to the process, but even here, the grades embedded in the rubric are themselves easy to manipulate in favour of a student; is there, for instance, much difference between receiving 3.5/5 on a rubric element, and 4/5? No. But over the course of the entire rubric, those minor differences can be the difference between an ultimate 16/25 and, say, 20/25. But 16/25 is a 64% and 20/25 is a 80%, and 64% translates to a “C” and 80% to an “A.” These results can have significant consequences—both real and perceived—for a student’s chances of future success in both academia and the job market.
“Variability in the marks given for the same subject and to the same pupils by different instructors is so great as frequently to work real injustice to the students… nor may anyone seek refuge in the assertion that the marks of the students are of little real importance.”
That was written in 1913 by I.E. Finkelstein (Durm, 1993), and still resonates in 2023.
Is there a solution? Well, yes… sort of.
Competency-based outcomes and grades are different ways of assessing and evaluating student learning. Using competency-based outcomes allows the teacher and the students to focus on the skills and knowledge students acquire, rather than on grades. This approach allows students to progress through a course with greater confidence as they learn from the built-in opportunities for competency improvement. Competency-based outcomes also provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, which especially benefits those who do not perform well on more traditional methods of evaluation, such as grades, especially grades determined by exams.
We are a long way from making any significant change to the current system of evaluating student performance numerically—many institutional systems associated with numeric grading would, for instance, have to make extensive changes to their record keeping—but the flexibility and student-learning focus of competency-based outcomes are already being appreciated in some academic sectors, and could suggest the possibility of a workable alternative to assessment by the numbers (Dubinski, 2023).
I recently had a friend pose the question, “If your nurse is about to give you an injection, would you prefer a nurse who received 7/10 on the injection assignment, or the one who was given the opportunity to repeat the assignment until they mastered the skill and demonstrated competency? I know which I would prefer.”
Bouchruka, I. (2022, Sept 26). Competency-Based Education Guide: Benefits & Differences To Traditional Education. Retrieved from Research.com: https://research.com/education/competency-based-education.
Docan, T. N. (2006, Oct.). Positive and Negative Incentives in the Classroom: Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2), 21-40.
Dubinski, K. (2023, Febuary 27). With ‘ungrading’ these students aren’t getting marks on assignments, and they are loving it. Retrieved from CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/ungrading-london-school-1.6739656.
Durm, M. W. (1993). An A is not an A is not an A. The Educational Forum. Vol 37.
Lee, C. (2020, October 14). What is the History of Grading? Retrieved from Turnitin: https://www.turnitin.com/blog/what-is-the-history-of-grading.
Winnick, S. (2019, November 12). Constant Grading Causes Stress In Unnecessary Ways To Students. Triton Voice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Otte Rosenkrantz retired recently after a 26-year career as a professor at an Ontario college where he taught media relations, communications, writing, and ethics, in the Public Relations and Corporate Communications graduate certificate program.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.