What do our grades measure? Academic savvy or actual learning?


Grades are a necessary evil. I record grades because it’s a required part of my job, even though the existence of grades makes my job harder.

Grades are primarily a measure of how good students are at getting good grades, not a measure of how much they learned.

My job is to foster curiosity and independent learning. I want students to grow by fulfilling a personally motivated need to understand. Grades inhibit that process. Grades make students focus on doing what it takes to get a good grade. That’s not a good thing.

People learn far more deeply when the information is discovered through a self-directed process of inquiry. When students are studying for an exam, what they are doing is the exact opposite of self-directed inquiry. They’re working to anticipate what others might expect of them and they’re working to fulfill the external expectations. When I have to give an exam to students, the last thing I would ever want is for them to study by trying to anticipate what is going to be on the exam. Because then they’ll be studying to just cover their bases.

In other words, when we make students jump through hoops, we get in the way of genuine learning. Students working towards a grade are not looking past the final exam. If none of my students are interested in the material after the exam is over, then I have earned an F for the semester.

Students can be prepared to answer a ton of questions, on a variety of topics. They then can do what it takes to get a good grade. And then, it’s possible to not really know a damn thing about the topic months later, after the exam, when the grade is in their transcript. That’s because their relationship with the curriculum was about learning stuff to get a grade. It might have been interesting or fascinating at the time, but if the motivator is the grade, then the motivation isn’t the pressing need to understand anything.

So, when we assign grades to students, what are we really measuring? Are we measuring effort? Are we measuring the ability to memorize stuff? Are we measuring the ability to explain things eloquently? Are we measuring the ability to anticipate what will be on an exam?

I don’t like any of the preceding options. What I’d like my grades to measure is how well the students have mastered the central concepts in the course. The problem, however, is that all of the ways of measuring that – the mastery of the central concepts – get biased by the ability of students to do all of that other stuff in the preceding paragraph. When students are assigned grades, the outcome is determined more by their academic gamesmanship than how much they actually learned.

Academic gamesmanship, caused by grades, gets in the way of genuine curiosity. Far too often, students get good grades only because they know how to earn good grades in the system; just as often, students who learn earn poor grades because of poor gamesmanship. The last thing I want is for the grades in my course to reflect a student’s savvy rather than learning.

I don’t know how universal this is, but my university requires that all syllabi have clearly stated “Expected Learning Outcomes.” Grades need to reflect how well students fulfill the expected outcomes. If designed right, these outcomes can allow students the intellectual breathing room to develop their own critical thinking process about a course.

In my opinion, the best way to liberate students from academic gamesmanship is to remove every bit of mystery from the grading process. Nothing on an exam should ever come as a surprise, nor should students be in a position in which they feel like they need to interpret what you think is important about the subject. Nor should students have to worry about cramming for a laundry list of concepts.

Our grades can’t really measure genuine learning. But the less our grades reflect gamesmanship, the greater the chance our students will be genuinely engaged in the content.

13 thoughts on “What do our grades measure? Academic savvy or actual learning?

  1. This is something I struggle with, too, but ultimately I often end up deciding it’s not a pedagogical battle as worthy of our time and energy as others are. As Ahmed Afzaal so brilliantly explained in his essay for the Chronicle of Higher Ed a couple years ago (http://chronicle.com/article/GradingIts-Discontents/132789/), the goal of the student should be to master the material, not get a good grade, because the latter should merely be a gauge of the former. I agree, but that’s fantasyland to anyone who hopes to use his/her grades to help get to the next step, whatever that may be (and if you are teaching at the college level, you fell into that camp at one time), so you’d be a fool not to care about them.

    I don’t think eliminating grades all together is the answer, not just because it’s impractical in a (ideally) meritocratic society (I’m quite content with a system in which in order to be a surgeon, you have to *really know your stuff*), but because incentivizing learning can be win-win: if a student cares about her grade, she will take the necessary steps to earn a good one. If, as an instructor, I create a course in which one must really master the material to earn a good grade, then we have both achieved our goals: she has mastered the material (my goal), even if that is merely a by-product of her goal (the grade). If a grade and mastery are inextricably linked, then by achieving one, you achieve the other by default—in which case, does it really matter what the student’s ultimate goal was?

    Of course, this all hinges on that one phrase: “if I create a course in which one must really master the material to earn a good grade.” Ha—easier said than done, of course. So, as you discuss, the real question is not “do grades have value?” but rather, “how can we tighten the link between grades and mastery?” To that end, I’ve adopted a strategy first introduced to me by one of my own college professors that I think works very well: incorporate short essay questions into every exam, give students a list of all possible essay questions ahead of time, and then just pick a few for the actual exam. In my experience, students end up studying far more when I implement this strategy because the gamesmanship has been removed, as you point out above. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the mystery of the exam and throwing their hands up in the air, saying “oh well, I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best,” most students prepare well for every single question. Once again, win-win: they usually score high on these questions because they have seen them all before and had plenty of time to think about them, and I get them to think critically about as many questions as I put on the list, without having to actually grade all of them (impossible). Not to mention, this method also REALLY reduces test anxiety (which I have). Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and I think learning has gone up, too.

    Ugh, sorry this response became a novel.🙂

  2. “So, when we assign grades to students, what are we really measuring? Are we measuring effort? Are we measuring the ability to memorize stuff? Are we measuring the ability to explain things eloquently? Are we measuring the ability to anticipate what will be on an exam?”

    I see where you’re coming from, and I agree with you as far as quizzes and tests are concerned. But would you agree that in addition to mastering course content (i.e., deeply understanding subject material), we also want students to develop important skills? For instance, whether the student is going on in a science career or not, it will benefit him/her to be proficient with written and oral communication. You might give feedback (=comments) on presentations and papers without assigning grades, and for many students that feedback alone will help them to improve their skills. But for many other students – maybe the majority? – the grades provide the incentive for them to do the work and to spend enough time doing the work. And they learn that the harder they work on mastering a skill or completing a task, the better their ‘grade’ – the better they performed. You might argue that then you’re rewarding ‘savvy’ writers and penalizing ‘poor’ writers, but that’s how the world works. Regardless of your background, there are going to be people who are better at things than you are, and you need to learn to work harder than them just to keep even with them. I think those specific skills and their related life lessons can help students to be successful in any career that they chose. And “measuring effort” is a part of that learning process.

  3. *I love this comment.*

    Yes: How to tighten the link between grades and mastery? Depending on how this link is tightened, it could lead to grade obsession (and poor mastery, and then poor grades), or it could lead to personal motivation (and high mastery, and high grades). And I think everybody who does it well has a different route to that destination?

    I do my exams 100% like you do. I give students a long list of short-answer questions, and select a subset of them for the exam itself. (A post about this has been in the queue for a while, actually.)

  4. Hi, Terry, again; another excellent post. I wrote a similar piece on my blog regarding policies which seem to encourage gamesmanship of education, in general. At that time, I referred to this as the gamification of education. More frequently, admins seem to encourage the awarding of “badges” or other somewhat meaningless measures of knowledge. I’ve even tried this in my online classes, building content that is released based on previous success, along with the message: “Achievement Earned!” And, not surprisingly, students actually enjoyed this strategy.

    Assessments in class are only partially important. Colleges and universities are failing to account for the real metric: Do the students knowledge and skills transfer to the job market? How often do colleges and universities sample employers about the skills of their recent hires? What skills have an acceptable level of proficiency? What skills are deficient? My uni, for example, is only now asking departments to maintain contact with our alumni with regards to employment. I’m sure this is only for fund-raising, though, and has nothing to do with knowledge acquisition or transfer.

    Today’s issue of the CHE contains an article about Tennessee offering merit money for outcomes and achievement. How are these measured? Graduation rates and credit hours completed. This “carrot” would seem easy to obtain. Simply mention to faculty that funding is tied to graduation rates and moving students through courses successfully. The danger then becomes “who cares if anyone really learns anything, because to stay viable and employed, it is in my own best interest to move students through the system.”

    The students game the system, the administration develops their own “games” based on rules set by state legislatures, and then faculty and staff, out of self-preservation, initiate their own games.

    Then, everything becomes, what… “A Game of Scores?”

  5. We all measure different things. Some of us (sometimes myself) aren’t even sure what we are truly measuring or intending to measure. I’m trying to avoid this by being intentional and transparent.

    Are grades truly a good incentive by making students worker harder and gain more knowledge, skills and wisdom? I think this varies with the content/skill. Is writing something that students can become great at by being required to do a lot of it? Or do students really have to want to write well, and not merely want to please their professor by trying to figure out what they think the professor thinks is good writing? I’m not sure. Clearly, writing well requires a lot of writing. I don’t think anybody will argue with that. Grades are one incentive, though I bet that students are inclined to see grades as a stick instead of a carrot.

    The more carrots and the fewer sticks, the better the learning. In some student populations, grades might be a carrot, but in others, it’s not. However, there are much tastier carrots out there, but the recipe for that carrot is specific to each instructor and course.

  6. So, I am giving an exam in my applied statistics course on Friday. I saw this post and decided to read it and it prompted me to begin class today by saying, “As you know, we have an exam on Friday. Type up a list of what you think you have learned so far this semester that will be on the exam.” I teach in a room where every student can project her screen to a LCD monitor and we had a discussion of what people had written. Most of it was spot on, but when it wasn’t, I got to talk about why I did not feel that a topic was exam worthy (knowing the equation for something versus knowing how to do it). This allowed me to focus their attention on what knowledge they would be expected to know and what skills they would be expected to demonstrate. I then showed them a similar exam from a previous iteration of the course and showed them where their perceptions matched and mismatched what I have done in the past.

    So in conclusion, thanks for posting something that improved my own teaching and will make the connection between the grade and mastery of the material more reliable.

  7. That is a teaching win if I’ve ever seen one.

  8. I use a similar exam format in some of my upper level courses, with a slight twist: I give a long list of questions, and immediately before the exam use a random number generator to select the actual exam questions. It removes even the gamesmanship of trying to predict which questions I might choose. (Also makes makeup exams a cinch- they just get a different random subset, so there’s no need to create a separate makeup exam.) Students still have a lot to do to prepare, but the anxiety level is far reduced.

  9. That’s thoughtful to not include self-links, but when you think it’s relevant, please do! Cheating is not entirely a separate issue, because when grades aren’t assessing what they’re supposed to, then there is some argument to be made for cheating to be a rational response. I’m not making that argument, but I can see how it would be made.

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