Every semester I have taught, I have a conversation with my spouse that goes something like this:
Me: Ugh. I hate grading
Spouse: Don’t you want to teach for a living?
Me: Yes! But, it takes forever because I give so much feedback. I want students to know that I care and how to improve for next time.
Spouse: That’s cute. Your students don’t care. They want the grade so they can move on with their lives. Just give them the grade so you can move on with yours.
Every single semester. Am I delusional? Narcissistic perhaps? Do they genuinely care about my random comments about the content or how to demonstrate critical thinking further? Or do they just want to know why they got points off?
Kohn (2011) makes a case against grades, as students’ interest in learning is diminished and reinforces the desire to complete the easiest task. Further, quality of thinking is reduced when grades are given. Dan Pink (2009) reiterates this phenomenon in businesses that provide monetary incentives for completion of tasks. In several studies outlined by Pink, providing incentives for tasks involving anything above mechanical skill (simple if-then tasks) leads to poorer performance. This is completely contrary to everything economists have always hypothesized. Indeed, my fear of removing individual grades would lead to students never turning in their assignments. I know I’ve been there myself as a student. With so many balls in the air, why would I try to juggle one more thing that I won’t get any credit for?
Instead of motivating through incentives, Pink argues that we need to be thinking about how to motivate through autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I completely agree with this line of thinking. The “volunteer” work I’ve done throughout my time as a graduate student has fit into one of these three ideas. If I have control over my own actions, I can increase my skills, or I feel that I am making the world a better place, I am motivated to use my precious “extra” time to do these tasks.
This does help me conceptualize the reduction of grades in my classes. But only to a small degree. There is a very real tension between a teaching philosophy that minimizes grades and a university that demands them. As an instructor of record, I am expected to administer exams of some sort. In an online class, that historically equates to multiple choice exams. I HATE multiple choice exams. They don’t test for learning. Instead, I prefer to place more emphasis on the discussion boards and application assignments that I assign. But these have rubrics that are assessing for specific competencies, like critical thinking and attention to context. Lombardi (2008) offers excellent suggestions for rubrics that include such competencies, so I believe I am on the right track.
But I am still left wondering…..Do my students care about my feedback? Or just the grade at the end of the day? What if they do? What if they don’t? How do we, as instructors, foster motivation through autonomy, mastery, and purpose? What would this look like?
I hope I don’t have to tell my spouse she’s right….I hate it when that happens.
Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/
Lombardi, M. (2008). Making the grade: The role of assessment in authentic learning. Retrieved from https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2008/1/eli3019-pdf.pdf
Pink, D. (2009, August 25). The puzzle of motivation [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y&feature=youtu.be