Grades are used in the education system to assess the level to which students have achieved the learning objectives of a course or an assignment. Grades also act as feedback to students to indicate what they have learned and the deficiencies in their understating. While this system of giving feedback to students using grades has adverse impacts on students’ motivation and learning, I argue that grades do not necessarily say much about students’ learning and their ability to apply learning to real life problems. This is because the problems which students are required to solve on assignments or tests to obtain a grade are different from real life problems. This diminishes the credibility of grades to assess students’ learning.
Real life problem solving requires collaboration. I cannot think of any profession which does not require one to work with others. An engineering product is an outcome of the collaborative effort of all the people working on the product development team. A researcher is required to collaborate with other researchers to conduct their study. An airplane pilot needs to collaborate with other members of the flight crew and the ground staff to fly the plane. A surgeon needs to collaborate with other members of the medical team to perform a surgery. However, a majority of assignments which students submit for grade and almost all the tests which they take for grades are based on individual efforts. There is a possibility that a student works better when put in team as compared to when the same student is asked to do a task individually. Similarly, a student who does well on individual tests might not perform as well while working on a team. As a result, the grades which a student gets on individual work does not say much about their ability to apply their learning in the real world setting which is based on collaborative work.
Real life problems require the use of tools such as computing tools, drawing tools, design tools to solve problems. A lot of problems asked in the tests and assignments require students to do mental work. A good grade on a test may indicate proficiency with mental work but does not say much about whether one has learned the required skills to solve problems using tools in real life situations.
Real life problems are context-dependent. On the other hand, the questions which students are required to do for assignments are mostly abstract and devoid of context. For example, while writing an essay or an article, the writer needs to consider who the intended readers are, the kind of knowledge the readers will have about the topic and other such contextual details. However, such contextual details are usually missing when students write something for an assignment or a test. As a result, one cannot conclude whether the student has acquired the skills to write in a given context and for a given set of readers even if the student gets a perfect grade on an essay assignment.
There are a lot of skills required to solve real life problems. A lot of times, these skills are a part of course learning outcomes. However, all of these skills are difficult to measure. For example, it is difficult to measure students’ learning of teamwork and ethical issues in problem solving. As a result, the grade which a student gets in a course at the end of the term might not be based on the evaluation of all the skills which the students are required to learn from the course.
To answer the question I asked in the title of this blogpost, I would say that the grades which a student gets on a test or an assignment are not credible; and we need to stop valuing grades as much as we do and treating them as a measure of student’ learning.