SWETLITZ: We are not numbers

Last month’s report on grading is a dangerous document. It attempts to tackle an immense challenge with a solution based on flawed premises, and it shifts the conversation in an unproductive direction. Instead of asking how to best promote student learning, the report exacerbates an already ineffective system and creates a whole slew of problems.

The proposal, which specifically adopts a numerical grading system and provides University-wide grading guidelines, is based on incorrect assumptions and will cause much damage. Even though our current system is not perfect, it is preferable to the proposed alternative. Instead, we should continue this complex and valuable conversation about how to best provide feedback to students.

The proposed grading scale, which would require professors to assign grades on a scale from 60 to 100 in 1-point intervals, assumes that professors can, to within 0.5 points, determine what grade a student deserves. Professors cannot do this with current evaluative tools because the tools are designed to measure success to the nearest letter grade. Perhaps a numerical grading scale could work if the numbers were reported with confidence intervals. But that’s what we have now. Our current system is not perfect – sometimes, what separates an A and an A- is really just a minus sign – but it’s certainly better than the alternative.

Changing to a numerical grading scale, as many students warned professor Ray Fair two nights ago, would make students needlessly worried about the minutiae that would impact their grade. We all know that a dropped minus sign or a foolish arithmetic mistake has no bearing on our ability to understand scientific concepts. And yet that is how grades are currently calculated. The new system would enhance these meaningless differences, while the current system at least obscures them.

Furthermore, the proposal’s suggestion to provide guidelines for grade distribution rests on the dangerous premise that not everyone can succeed. Even if the distributions were recommended and not mandated, professors would still feel pressure for their grades to follow the recommendations. Instead of cultivating an atmosphere where every student feels as though he or she can succeed, the proposal would instill unnecessary competitiveness that is inappropriate for the learning environment, although it might have its uses outside of school.

What does success mean? “Did a student succeed?” could mean, in terms of a class, “Does a student sufficiently understand the concepts that the class was designed to teach?” In this case, a simple “yes” or “no” is extremely informative. The question could also mean, “To what extent does a student understand these concepts?” In this case, a simple “67” or “95” tells a student nothing. A well-thought-out paragraph, perhaps accompanied by a list of the concepts and comments next to each one describing the student’s understanding of each, would be extremely informative.

An idea like this exists, and it’s been in the education literature for many years — standards-based grading. I suggest that any serious evaluation of our methods of feedback consider this.

If feedback is provided to students at multiple points during the year, and if students are given time to digest the feedback and improve their abilities, students would greatly benefit. Students often receive feedback after it is too late to improve in a way that will affect their officially reported measures of success. The feedback that “matters” comes in the form of points deducted from assignments, and if few enough points are deducted, it is easy for the student to ignore the feedback because it doesn’t impact the final grade significantly. This is because the final grade is a weighted average, not a holistic evaluation. But humans are not weighted averages, and my family is not paying Yale tens of thousands of dollars to turn me into one.

I implore the faculty and the administration to stop talking about grades as grades and start talking about the more complicated and important issue of how to best provide feedback that enhances student learning. That might mean fundamental change — if it is difficult to provide substantive, individualized, helpful feedback in a 300-person math class, then the solution to that problem is to get rid of the 300-person math class and replace it with a setup that is conducive to learning.

The fact that some students stayed at the YCC’s Open Forum on Grading for nearly three hours on Wednesday night demonstrates that students understand the importance of substantive feedback. I hope our faculty and administration will come to a similar understanding — or if not, consider our feedback like we would from them.

Ike Swetlitz is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at isaac.swetlitz@yale.edu .

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