The “Assessment Juggernaut”: How Grading Affects Student Engagement

In this post, I will attempt to tie in research I’ve done on the subject of assessment with what I know about student engagement and motivation. Referencing both academic and not-so-academic sources, I will examine current attitudes on grading, the role of creativity in student engagement, and traditional vs. alternative methods of assessment.

Grades are a fact of the educational system. They determine how teachers treat you, whether or not you’re allowed to play sports, and whether or not you’ll get into the college/graduate program of your choice. However, certain critics of traditional assessment & grading methods propose we do away with grades altogether. (Imagine students cheering in the background). But what was once (and probably still is)  considered a crazy, utopian concept is gaining popularity among more progressive teachers, such as the ones at my daughter Teagan’s elementary school, which was originally formed by an anarchist collective in the 1950s. They do not give grades, and yet the students learn, and they learn well. My daughter is already doing more advanced math than I can help her with, and her reading and writing skills are improving by the day.

Her teachers’ ideas–as well as those of others who want to relinquish the burden of assessment–are justified in the works of Alfie Kohn, whose article, “The Case Against Grades,” I found hanging by a tack from the bulletin board in the school’s main office.

The quote on the first page struck me immediately:

“I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing….Suddenly all the joy was taken away.  I was writing for a grade — I was no longer exploring for me.  I want to get that back.  Will I ever get that back?”

— Claire, a student (in Olson, 2006) (Kohn)

I sounds like a lament, a cry for help… “Will I ever get that back?” And yet I relate to the sentiment of this quote entirely, because once upon a time, I was only “writing for a grade,” and I have to say, it sucked (and so did my writing). My daughter is someone who knows nothing of this, and she writes quite happily, churning out page after page of school writing assignments with what I can only describe as pleasure.

Later on in the article, Kohn references scientific and psychological studies conducted in the 1980s and 90s to ground his anti-assessment assertions with factual evidence. One salient result of one such study was this:

“Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.  A ‘grading orientation’ and a ‘learning orientation’ have been shown to be inversely related and, as far as I can tell, every study that has ever investigated the impact of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) on intrinsic motivation  has found a negative effect” (Kohn).

Speaking of disappointed and disillusioned students, a rant I found on a university student’s blog (she calls herself “Lazy Wanderer”) expressed some of the same sentiments as Kohn. In particular, her rant focuses on grading and rubrics, and apparently she’s had some negative experiences with both. In response to the limitations of essay rubrics, she makes a very good point: “While you can teach someone the mechanics or writing, and give them advice on how to improve their own individual voice, you simply cannot teach someone how to be creative.”

Now, I know a number of Creative Writing professors who have felt called upon to defend their positions. In a writing exercise handout from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, for instance, Professor Sergei Tsimberov asserts: “It’s fairly safe to conclude that there are certainly ways to teach the craft if not the art of creative writing, and although the pedagogy of any art form can be a delicate undertaking…”

But how do professors in Creative Writing programs actually grade? (And this is getting back to Lazy Wanderer’s point about the lack of emphasis on creativity in rubrics). From experience, I know that they grade on taking creative risks, making effort to improve writing from draft to draft, attendance, participation, and meeting length requirements. But they do not (as far as I know) in any way grade content. For that reason, it seems the opposite of an English teacher’s grading system, which in a lot of cases, focuses very little on creativity or effort (the CW teacher’s #1 focus).

I imagine one of the differences between Kohn’s “learning orientation” and “grading orientation” is an emphasis on creativity. Creativity is not often rewarded by grades (especially not in rubrics), and it cannot really be evaluated, percentage-wise. A big question then is: Is creativity important to learning? I personally believe students would be more engaged if creativity were made a bigger deal in English and writing curricula, and I think Ms. Lazy Wanderer would agree.

Where am I going with this? Well, I really want to find a way to promote the idea of a “learning orientation,” as well as foster creativity & originality, in my assessment practices. I can’t override the system–it seems to be sticking around for as long as I can see–but I’d like to find a way to change current practices to suit my instructional goals. Because I’m going to teach soon, I need to structure assessment in my classes in a way that reflects my teaching philosophy, which takes into account ideas like Kohn’s in the context of the current system, and, more importantly, the C-word. (No, not that. Creativity.)

Since this post is getting really long, I’ll wait to address student self-assessment, an interesting alternative to traditional grading, in Blog #6.

References:

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Educational Leadership. Nov. 2011.  www.alfiekohn.org

Anonymous. “Creative Essay Rubric PDF.” Retrieved March 28, 2012, from http://sc087.k12.sd.us/hes/5th%20and%206th%20Fall%20Creative%20Essay%20Rubric.pdf

Lazy Wanderer. “Rant on Grading.” Retrieved March 28, 2012, from http://wanderingforgottencorridors.blogspot.com/2009/11/rant-on-grading.html

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2 responses to “The “Assessment Juggernaut”: How Grading Affects Student Engagement

  1. Does this allergy to grades extend towards assignments as well as cumulative grades? I would think they have a different impact on students and their motivation but I’m not sure that this is a question that has been asked.

  2. Last semester, one of my assignments was to choose a country where I would like to teach EFL – South Korea – and give a presentation on the education system among other things. Article after article described a country that has gone “grade crazy”. Of course, students are graded on their homework and on tests. But that’s where the comparison with American education stops. As early as elementary school, students are initiated into a competitive process to outdo their peers so they will be accepted to a good junior high school. In junior high and high school, all students are ranked by their grades on a big print out that everyone can see, and so grades can be a stigma or a golden ticket. Tests are given by the bucketload in preparation for the college entrance exam – the be all, end all of tests. The score you get on this test not only decides what university you get into, but pretty much decides your whole future. That sounds ridiculous but, it is my understanding that in South Korea as well as Japan, employers do not care so much what you majored in, but rather, what university you graduated from.

    At first glance, this sort of emphasis on assessment seems to not only fixate on a system that is totally subjective and stifle creativity, but more importantly, it seems to dehumanize the students. However, students learn early on that they will be weeded out if they do not put in the necessary effort to achieve. No doubt, this system can be extremely motivating (although, it is clear that the motivation is extrinsic and not intrinsic). Also, it is possible to extrapolate the import Korea places on education to Korea’s “tiger economy”. With more intellectual capital (and surely a host of other factors), Korea went from a $2,300 GDP per capita in 1980 to a $30,000+ GDP per capita today.

    I’m not advocating that America implements the sort of draconian educational policies South Korea has but it does make you wonder what the downsides are to doing away with or deemphasizing grades.

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