In preparation for this week’s discussion, I have decided to post on the question, “Is grading a necessary evil?” In order to answer that question, first you would have to define a “necessary evil”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “necessary evil” as something unpleasant that must be accepted in order to achieve a particular result. I, however, think that definition is a little inadequate, and if you allow me to indulge myself (which I can because this is a blog post, my blog post) I can find a better definition. Wikipedia defines a “necessary evil” as an unsavory thing that must be done or accepted in order to achieve a better outcome.
Now that we have framed what grading could be, let’s start with some evidence that stood out to me from Dan Pink’s TedTalk. He ended his talk with three summative points:
- 20th century rewards and extrinsic motivators only work for a specific set of circumstances, not broadly.
- If-then rewards often destroy creativity.
- The secret to high-performance isn’t rewards and punishment, but that unseen intrinsic drive- the drive to do things for their own sake.
During his talk, I equated grading as the extrinsic motivator, as what was probably expected. So, to explain these points in terms of grading, I would summarize it as:
- Grading only works in specific circumstances that do not require outside the box thinking.
- Receiving a grade often lowers creativity in assignments.
- Replace an extrinsic motivator, like grading, with an intrinsic motivator would lead to high performance in classroom settings.
This evidence does support the first claim of being a necessary evil as it is unsavory. However, this evidence does not support the second claim of achieving a better outcome. In fact Dan Pink argues that extrinsic motivators, like grading, actually lower the outcome, especially in creativity and performance. When, Pink was explaining the MIT experiment, having a tiered reward system did not equate to better performance, unless it was on repetitive mechanical tasks, which are not the point of a high education system.
In this frame of reference, I cannot definitively say that grading is a “necessary evil”. Grading, ironically, scores well on the evil aspect as there is evidence from 1990s through today that it can actually worsen student performance and confidence. However, it does not seem necessary at least to me, and that is echoed in “The Case Against Grades”. Alfie Kohn explained that grades can be replaced. A few suggestions by Kohn were to stop putting letter or number grades on individual assignments, but instead offer qualitative feedback. And, then to allow for democratization of final grades instead of using a cumulative final exam to decide a final grade. These practices have begun to be introduced in secondary education, and will be an uphill battle to incorporate them into high education because grading has been ingrained into the educational system as a whole.
Therefore, I don’t view grading as the a necessary evil, but rather the greater evil to the educational system, to which we do not have a lesser evil as a possible choice. Grading will not be solved overnight, everywhere throughout the educational system, but it can be solved one classroom, or program, or school at a time. I have already begun to think of ways to limit the use of numerical grading in my future classes, and I highly encourage you to do the same as well. I look forward to any comments that can further this discussion, even if you totally disagree with me.