Monday, September 14, 2015

Are Grades Credible?

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. 


  1. Ashish! I understand your point and I agree with you that they are flaws in the grading system. Sometime they do not necessarily reflect every student learning or knowledge. However, what they tell you at least is that this student is able to perform at least to some degree. They know some stuff and they can apply it individually and under stress. Group projects can be graded as well as a way to assess student ability to work in teams. However, grades should never be the sole indicator of student learning and I don't think any assessment will cover how much someone knows. Assessment of a student performance should be based on different methods, grades is one but should never be the only one. For these reasons and other that I mentioned in my blog post, I think grades should stay but not become the sole method of assessment of an individual. Grades give you an idea of how students perform individually but you need more assessment methods to get the full picture.

  2. Rafic, I personally agree with Ashish that grades "are not credible". They don't consider the students that don't think well under pressure. Depending on the major, time constrained, high stress testing may be necessary (e.g. Medical School), however, and I speak for myself (civil engineering) when I say that I'll never be forced to make instant decisions as heart surgeon would have to. Every time I take a "high stakes" exam, the stress alone would result in answering incorrectly when ordinarily they same questions I would never had answered wrong on any other untimed situation. What of my learning can we say those tests reflect other than I don't do well under high stress conditions?

  3. "I argue that grades do not necessarily say much about students’ learning and their ability to apply learning to real life problems."
    I would argue that grades are the outcome of your assessment of a student's ability to apply what they have learned to a real life problem. Grades are fine in moderation, just like chocolate. However, we have become OBSESSED with grades, I'm talking diabetic levels of obsession. We need to dial it back and redefine what it means to be a "good student" because a good student does not imply good grades. It does not mean you get perfect marks on every exam. Furthermore, those who get perfect marks on every exam are often the ones who have the most difficulty applying any concepts outside the classroom.
    In some cases, grades are a necessary evil and we simply cannot get away from them, however the method by which we measure one's understanding of the subject matter is totally a flexible thing and should not follow a rigid guideline.

    1. Alex, I agree that grades are the outcomes of "your assessment" i.e. an instructor's assessment of a student. But my question would be is that assessment valid? Can we associate any credibility with that evaluation other than the instructor wanted to evaluate student a particular way? If yes, how? If no, then why does the instructor need to evaluate the students in that particular way in the first place?

    2. I think you may have missed the point of my post - grades (unlike chocolate) suck.
      The end. :)