Liberating For Learning

As I continue to work through and ponder the readings for the Assessment Leadership Academy I am participating in, and as I talk with my colleagues about assessment, the conundrum of grading keeps surfacing. The key question seems to be:

What is the relationship between grading and assessment?

I recently responded to an AALHE blog post about grading in which the author wrote this:

If we reverse our assumptions, we can think critically about how grades can be used to assess student learning.  It seems to me that a few things need to be in place first, though — with a performance-based approach, that would include shared rubrics, mapped curricula, and faculty who regularly “norm” to the rubrics they use through some sort of appropriate validity process.  Given those conditions, grades could be used with sufficient validity to produce useful aggregate data.  (Why Not Use Grades?)

My response was this:

I think the relationship between grading and assessment is often one of the biggest conundrums for faculty — it certainly has been for me! And I think you’re right that we need to think differently about the role of grades in assessing (and dare I say promoting?) learning.

I like the explanation offered by Mary J. Allen in her book Assessing General Education Programs (2006): grades can be a tool to promote student attainment of outcomes IF grades reflect the extent to which students meet / master course outcomes. As she writes, “Grading procedures should align with course outcomes, and course grades should indicate the extent to which students have mastered them” (p. 100).

The concept of grades as an assessment tool — and thus a learning tool — helps change this direction. But the “A” word always comes back into play: Alignment. When I have this conversation with my colleagues, this is where I focus. To what extent are the assignments and other graded activities (projects, exams, etc.) aligned with the outcomes? If we can do good alignment work (and Allen shows an example of a Grading Alignment Matrix that I’d like to use), then we can feel more comfortable that grading can be good assessment.

But here’s the conundrum for me: Students often focus their efforts on the grade, not the learning. We have probably all heard our students say “What will it take to get an A?”

Thanks to for making this image available.

Of course, for people who care about Learning (capital L intentional), this is the wrong question! An alphabetical letter usually cannot tell me what a student knows or can do. Nonetheless, the pressure our students experience for a good GPA, financial incentives (in the case of some of my students, their employers will only reimburse tuition if they earn a B or higher, for example), and the desire to be the “A” student get in the way of the bigger picture: Learning. We can work with our students to refocus on the intrinsic rewards of learning and how learning supports their own personal, professional, and educational goals, but the extrinsic rewards for good grades often overshadow these.

In the PLA program, I have the great and wonderful gift of teaching courses that are Pass/No Pass, so that we can focus on the learning experiences and outcomes and not “what will it take to get an A.” It’s freeing for me and I believe it’s freeing for my students (my students: please feel free to chime in here). The Pass/No Pass system does not affect a student’s GPA in any way – it is GPA neutral. The key to learning and integrity, though, is still in alignment and in assuring appropriate quality and rigor: all defined and supported by the learning outcomes and their corresponding activities and assignments.

An additional benefit of the Pass/No Pass system is that I get to focus on where I think the biggest-bang-for-my-teaching-buck can reside, in my formative assessment work — in the feedback I provide (and my students provide to each other) to improve or deepen their learning. I worry a lot less about making evaluative judgments on their performance in my class. (Frankly, I also have a lot fewer um…shall we say, “attempts to negotiate” in a Pass/No Pass system than when I teach a class that has A-F grades. I have a 3-year old; I don’t need any more “attempts to negotiate” in my life!)

There are several downsides to Pass/No Pass as well, of course (a very real one I’ve encountered is that some employers will not recognize a Pass as a legitimate grade for which to allow tuition reimbursement). I am in no way advocating for this kind of structure over an A-F system (nor am I about to launch into a critical comparison and contrast of systems — that would be a dissertation or at the very least a white paper, not a blog post). But I am saying that in many ways, the Pass/No Pass approach is liberating for me. I believe it is liberating for my students. And most of all, I am absolutely certain that it’s liberating for learning.


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