Ahmed Afzaal’s recent piece in The Chronicle, “Grading and its Discontents,” touches on a dynamic hot topic in higher education, student obsession with “the grade.” Afzaal presents several key arguments aimed at distinguishing performance grades from actual learning. He rightfully illustrates how peers, parents, and pre-college schooling have shaped this grade-oriented mentality, but we ought to also consider how the environment of higher education enables it. Too often classrooms reinforce the goals of the individual; students are held to individual expectations and assessed on individual performance. Certainly group activities may temporarily expand responsibility beyond the student to multiple members of class, but this is rarely tied to the overall purpose of the course. What is lacking is a sense of camaraderie.
Imagine a major league baseball team. Individual players are assessed in a variety of statistical categories: earned run average, home runs, on base percentage, innings pitched, etc. These statistics serve individual player goals for free agency, salary arbitration, and promotion from the minors to the majors. But what happens when a team is making a run for the playoffs? The only statistic that matters is team wins. All of a sudden the individual goals are not the driving force of the players. Clenching a wild card spot, knocking off a division rival team, and winning the Pennant and World Series are now the aspiration for all members of the team, something special and uniquely shared within the group. There is camaraderie in this pursuit and it brings out the best in players.
Imagine a non-profit organization’s devotion to a measure on an upcoming election ballot. The stakes are high. The amount of work required to have an edge is endless. There are no 40-hour work weeks. Late nights, creativity, teamwork, and resourcefulness are required. The members of this team develop camaraderie through the collective experience. The push leading up to the election resembles a semester course: the timeline may be limited but the outcomes will be lasting.
So how do we create this environment in the classroom? First we have to convince students that the stakes are much higher than grades. There are a number of ways to accomplish this: current events, service learning, community outreach, simulations, games, undergraduate research, etc. If students buy into the outcomes of these goals, then they will have a purpose in the class other than “the grade.” A second step is to show students that their semester in the class is a unique experience. When curricular courses are taught by professors the same way each time, there is nothing special about being in a particular section in a given semester. I’m not saying that professors have to start completely from scratch. Framing a course around an unique objective can help students bond and place their efforts into something far greater than their individual pursuits.
Kevin: I don’t disagree with you in the abstract, but as students (at least the ones in our honors class who expressed concern about their grades this past semester) see it, as long as the individual student’s grade is the only grade that appears on the transcript, they will tell you that that grade is the only one that matters because that’s the only grade that medical schools, graduate schools, and scholarship committees look at. Until colleges start posting “team/class” grades on their transcripts, highly grade conscious students will tell you that the individual grade on their individual transcript is the only one they care about. In other words, until an entire class’s performance (until the “team’s” performance) finds its way onto the stat sheet, some students will remain, in my opinion, overly concerned about their grades and what they mean.
Richard, you’re right that the grading system as it currently stands will be a detractor. If the amount of work required of an honors class exceeds that of other courses but the impact on the transcript is the same, students will have anxiety. I’m not sure if team performance grades will have a different outcome. The goal is finding a way for students to actively choose to do the extra work required of an honors class for an outcome beyond the grade. That’s the tricky part we’re all trying to figure out.