How to Fix a Problem You Can’t Diagnose

Short Answer: You can’t.

Long Answer: In my reflections on this week’s class readings, I’ve noticed that defenses for traditional undergraduate grading share one thing in common: an appeal to diagnosis. In other words, defenders argue that it’s important to measure how well students are learning and teachers are teaching.

Yeah, a couple of questions there.

First, according to whose definition of well? Faith in “evidence-based” standards for grading assume a criteria for success that must remain unchallenged. In other words, advocates for this model assume a near-universal ideal of objectivity on the part of decision makers. That position poses problems, to put it mildly.

Second, assume I agree its important to measure how well a student is learning or how well a teacher is teaching. How does the current grading system accomplish that? It basically falls to an instructor to give an arbitrary ranking based on some constructed criteria without any justification behind it. It doesn’t offer any context or information to either the teacher or the student beyond “get better or face consequences”. That didn’t work for me in my efforts to improve my handwriting, it didn’t work for dealing with my depression and anxiety, and it sure as sugar didn’t work for my geometry class in high school. I doubt (not without merit) that it fares much better for others, either.

That leads to the fundamental issue I have with traditional grading models. Their purpose (the main argument for their defense) and their function fail to connect. One is diagnostic while the other is prescriptive. As one of my favorite professors is fond of saying, it’s “putting the cart before the horse” (illustration below).

Tevye’s Model of Traditional Grading
(Photo courtesy of Florida Theater on Stage)

Let me explain. A diagnostic tells you how well what you’re doing lines up with what you want or need to accomplish. Its merit lies in the indicators it offers for what is lacking. It mainly deals with what’s happening or what’s already happened. Prescriptive deals more with method and rules to address issues. In this context, grading is designed around a diagnostic ideal but functions as a prescriptive indicator or rank. If your rank is low, find out what you’re doing wrong, because the grade sure won’t tell you. If your rank is high, you don’t need feedback, you’re doing just fine. Seems backwards, doesn’t it?

All that leads to my third question. What alternatives are there? Well, to be brief: lots. There’s the option to utilize portfolios with comments and feedback as opposed to a numeric ranking. There’s the option to negotiate standards and rubrics while using minimized ranking. There’s the option to forgo ranks altogether and focus on a seminar model. However, until educators, students, and administrators alike come together and negotiate a challenge to the status quo, at best these methods will likely function as stopgap measures. However, as the saying goes: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” The rest will come from our joint struggle.

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10 thoughts on “How to Fix a Problem You Can’t Diagnose

  1. Jon,

    Snaps for this post. I really enjoyed reading it!

    I guess the one question I’m left with is about the space that is given to instructors to change up their class structures if the whole university or institution is not on board? Dr. Nelson made a comment near the beginning of the semester about possibly getting in trouble with some entity in the university hierarchy for not conforming to the norms of class structure and assessment.

    I think Ben asked a question above that links to this too. If instructors do not have the liberty to make these structural changes on a case by case basis, how do we start the conversation?

    1. Aislinn,

      Sorry for the late response! Busy times. I can’t speak for others, but my own plan is to submit my own model for grading that can at least start to compromise with these requirements. It’s a stopgap measure and might/might not work, but it’s a start at least.

  2. I agree that the current grading system is effective in the learning procedure. Also, ranking students cannot be a realistic measure of the learning/teaching quality as it will not show them where is their weakness. Also, the learning abilities of students are not the same. Do you think categorizing students base on their capacities is constructive?

    1. Agreed and not in the slightest. Educators have instituted that form of tracking before (in my own education, actually) and in doing so, they only succeed in reinforcing the idea in students’ minds that “this is what I’m good at, this is what I’m not, and I should only stick with what I’m good at”, which is not conducive at all to learning.

  3. Hi Jon,

    Enjoyed your post this week. I agree that the current system of providing a grade letter/score rank for students doesn’t actually help them with learning. It just moves them along in the system without helping them get where they need to be in terms of learning. In your future classrooms, how do you think you will approach grading and assessment now that you have thought deeply about the shortcomings of the system?

    1. Hi Sara,

      Thanks for the feedback! Personally, I think it would depend on the class level and the subject matter. Portfolios and game-style group projects where the main focus is evaluation and improvement on what’s already been accomplished I could see working for a social theory or survey level sociology course, but for more focus-driven course like a women and crime class, for example, I’m not too sure. To start, I’d probably institute a standard for my classes where “grades” are more of a diagnostic and detail-oriented tool. Maybe unranked categories could include “Consideration for X, Y, Z”, “Writing Style Adjustments Needed”, “Information Heavy, Analysis Needed”, etc.?

  4. I think one of the most difficult barriers educators and administrators face is how to know when students are progressing as they should. There are many signs of success and signs of failure. Grades for a long time have been a form of quantifying this progress. Arbitrary as it may be.

    I personally am not a big fan of the current grading system myself (as it failed me in grade school as well). It would be nice to have these conversations for sure, but the challenges to starting them and finding an agreed upon method is a task that I don’t envy.

    1. Oh yes, I agree. It’s not going to be easy, not by a long shot. But when the system is so deeply broken, it needs to be addressed all the same.

  5. Any thoughts on how to get all three groups together to discuss it? Would this be part of the end of semester evals, or something that student government negotiates? I think the instructors and admins can bargain readily enough, but having the students participate (and taking their input seriously) seems to be the largest issue.

    1. Good question, Ben. I think involving the student government would be an ideal first step, perhaps to come up with a formal initiative/program to bring all three together for talks?

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