Teaching Hub

Teaching how to do college: do grades help students learn? Part 1 of 2.

sculpture of a hand holding up a massive tree branch.
Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash.

by Lisa Beck, Psychology.

Do grades help students learn?

As a professor, I find myself frequently asking my students some variation of “what is your intention with their work…

… this sentence, your research methodology, this intervention, fill-in-the-blank with other activities of the academy?” In mentoring conversations, this may be “what is your goal, and how is what you are doing now helping you to get there?” I also find myself asking similar questions of my own pedagogy: “why am I designing a course or assignment this way? What do I hope we learn?” In these reflections, I consistently return to a concern that grades, a common focus in educational spaces, actually get in the way of the intention(s): learning, creativity, perspective-taking, empathy, and curiosity.

Grades did not help me learn. And while I know my experience is not everyone’s experience, I have yet to be convinced grades help others learn either. Grades encouraged me to chase extrinsic motivation and validation, but they never encouraged me to self-assess my knowledge or, perhaps more importantly, what I didn’t know. Grades rarely connected me to processes of learning, unlearning, and perspective-shifting that would generalize across topics and spaces in my life.

This was not always my stance. Some years ago, I was a first-generation, Pell Grant student in my third semester of undergrad at a small public university in Arkansas. I was taking my first course in statistics with Dr. Sean Huss. I went to office hours to discuss an assignment, i.e., to ask about some points I thought were unfairly deducted from my submission. Toward the end of a long conversation in which he was trying to help me understand concepts, and I was trying to get points back, he stopped me abruptly to question my reason for being in his office. He noted our different motivations: his aim was learning, and mine was point accumulation. I countered that the points must matter to me; after all, I had to keep my grades up for my scholarship, my GPA would matter for future graduate or law school applications, and I had been taught that high grades were my path to a different life than the one I had known. The next phrase that came out of his mouth is something I still share with students in my classes every semester: “Beck – if you will take all this effort you are putting into arguing for points and focus it on learning, the grades you want will follow.” Dr. Huss later helped me learn how to more closely examine and critique the systems that encourage us to achieve and assign value in such limited and homogenous ways. But that initial conversation, which oriented me toward learning instead of scores, laid the foundation for how I think about pedagogy today.

So, how do we create an environment buzzing with excitement about learning rather than anxiety about finding the next points? Some beginning, non-exhaustive options:

Setting the frame: intentional syllabi

In the group therapy world, we talk a lot about “setting the frame.” How do our syllabi lay the foundation for our courses? Do they excitedly feature learning, do they just lay out how to earn points (or maybe both!)? How do our tone and willingness to connect with students encourage relational learning? How narrow or wide are our parameters for learning in our courses? I often go back to Dr. Kevin Gannon’s (2020) book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, Ijeoma Oluo’s chapter on “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” in So You Want to Talk About Race, and our own Dr. Nathan Loewen’s Teaching Hub post on How to Create an Inclusive Syllabus to help me center student learning in my frame. (Some self-awareness that I am definitely going to need to return to inspiration for re-centering around midterms and finals is also helpful here.) For students who lean heavily into the points, framing my courses often involves orienting students to a different perspective of learning. One of my favorite ways to introduce self-assessment of learning to students is by assigning this brief blog on Metacognition from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching at the beginning of the semester. In examining and discussing the ideas outlined in this piece, we are also able to explore how students may identify markers of their own growth and learning throughout the semester.

Good intentions: honesty about the impacts of grading

Acknowledging that the rationale behind the points chase can be extremely validating. Students do not come into the world ready to achieve grades. Somewhere between spaghetti art and standardized testing the systems-that-be thought that assigning point values to learning products was a helpful approach. Think about this for more than a few moments, and it is easy to see how that conclusion was reached – how do we track progress, how do we compare products or applicants in competition with one another, how do we make ratings or decisions more objective? (spoiler: grades & rubrics are also not objective) A path of good intentions, a trail of harmful impacts. Asking students these questions and being transparent that they have long been set up to play this game are great ways to encourage awareness and engage the critical thinking skills that we hope students work to expand in college.

Read Part 2, A Different Approach: Ungrading here.