In everyday life, if something is broken you fix it. Yet throughout my blogs over the last four weeks I have highlighted the disadvantages of grades, and how the education system is reluctant to change its outdated assessment techniques. Due to the saliency of grades within the current education system, it can often seem like there is no alternative. However solutions have been suggested within research, and should be considered before dismissing this much needed pedagogical change.
One of the key issues with grading is that for low ability students, constantly achieving low grades can be very demotivating (Meece, Anderman & Anderman, 2006). An alternative system that tackles the motivation problem is minimum grading (Carey & Carifo, 2012). Regardless of the quality of work, students never obtain extremely low grades, as a predetermined minimum grade is used by the marker (e.g. 50/100). The aim is to prevent demotivation and negative emotions in low ability students, which will in turn encourage these students to try again and recover from their failures. The main criticism of this method is that minimum grading may cause unfair grade inflation for struggling students; however research by Carey & Carifo (2012) suggests this is not the case. In fact, these students were still not reaching expected academic achievements. This method also only benefits low ability students, and as discussed in my blog last week, high ability students also experience the negatives of grading. Thus, due to the minimal benefit on a selective number of students, it is questionable as to whether this method is effective enough to be nationally implemented.
There are also ‘maintenance’ grade systems. This is where students start with the maximum grade, and then lose points as they complete graded work (Docan, 2006). Research suggests that students are slightly more motivated and satisfied when ‘maintaining’ their grade rather than ‘earning’ it through traditional methods. This may be due to the unfamiliarity with the unused ‘maintenance’ system, and Docan (2006) suggested as familiarity increases with this new system, motivation may once again decrease.
Methods such as these do provide alternative solutions to grading, which can be more effective than the traditional use of letters. However, if students are distinguished from one another through categorisation into groups, it is technically still grading (Kohn, 2011). Regardless of the type of grading system, students will always be extrinsically motivated and stressed by grades (Docan, 2006). Therefore education shouldn’t focus on modifying grading; it should turn over a new leaf and develop a more effective alternative.
Alongside our grades at University, we also often obtain feedback. This provides us information on how to improve our work. Lipnevick & Smith (2008) found that feedback plays a more vital role in improving work than grades do. Providing detailed feedback instead of grades (rather than alongside it) was found to be the most effective for students. This is because if a student is provided both, they tend to remember the grade rather than the feedback (Butler, 1988). It is also important that the feedback provided is descriptive, rather than evaluative, in order to prevent social comparisons (Lipnevick & Smith, 2008). Social comparison with others is what makes students competitive and extrinsically motivated, preventing them from focusing on what is actually important in education: their own learning. Alternatively, feedback increases the likelihood of self-evaluation (Butler,1988) which is likely to facilitate progression and learning in a non-competitive way.
The main criticism of using only feedback is how can jobs, universities, parents and students themselves determine the student’s overall performance? The solution is portfolios, which can be created alongside qualitative assignment feedback to highlight the students’ abilities. This could contain a personal statement, examples of assignments, and references (Kohn, 1999; Kohn, 2011). This method would provide a lot more insight into an individual student’s ability than a reductionist grade does.
Evergreen College in Washington is a real life example of using narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades to assess students. The students are also expected to self-evaluate, which is then combined with the staffs’ assessments to create an overall, extensive review. The statistics produced from Evergreen College help diminish the concern that future employers won’t know a students’ performance through qualitative feedback, as 78% of graduates from Evergreen College were employed within a year of graduating. I cannot help but question, if one educational institution can successfully implement this change, why can’t the rest of them?
As students ourselves, we are well aware of students’ resistance to change (Kohn, 1999). Therefore change within education needs to be gradual. The first step is for education to ‘dilute grades’ (Kohn, 2011), so that the detrimental impact of grades is minimized now rather than later. This can be done through providing descriptive feedback for in-class assignments instead of grades, and only grading what is deemed necessary. An example of this ‘dilution’ is in our Science of Education module, as we are not graded for our talks. Where grades are still used, the student should be allowed to discuss the grade with the teacher, encouraging the student to self-evaluate their learning and be actively involved in the learning process (Kohn, 2011). Teachers alone cannot successfully change the educational system, and an active involvement from students is required to produce optimal change (Wah, 2007).
The education system in the UK has proposed a change for grading (The Guardian, 2013). As of 2017, students will be graded with numbers from 1-9. The reason behind this change was to allow more differentiation between able students. However, this change is not tackling any of the issues I have raised within my blogs. Students’ complex work is still reduced to a single mark, the markers’ experience will still influence the grades, and students will still be externally motivated by a tangible number. The proposed change may alleviate difficulties for educators when differentiating students, particularly when applying for higher education, but should this be our focus? How can we begin to implement effective change in education, when educators choose to ignore the science and base new practices on previous, unsuccessful ones?
Perhaps feedback is the answer. Rather than fixing grades, maybe we need to discard them entirely.