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.