Why do we give grades, wonders columnist Bob van Vliet. The more he thinks about it, the fewer good reasons he sees.
Bob van Vliet: “In terms of motivation, evaluating students on a scale of 1 to 10 is often counterproductive.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Why do we give grades, wonders columnist Bob van Vliet. The more he thinks about it, the fewer good reasons he sees.

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Why do we give grades? Grades are such a standard part of our education system that this question is hardly ever posed. But the more I think about it, the fewer good reasons I see.

It’s certainly not efficient. I can usually quickly see if a result shows sufficient understanding of the material and what the most important lessons are that the student should take from the exercise. But to then rank all the results against each other ‘fairly’ costs a lot more time. And what does that buy you, actually?

A grade is not very informative feedback. I have previously written (in Dutch) about how frustrating it is that we hide all our nuanced judgements about the differences between students’ work behind that single one-dimensional number. Grades are also unreliable as a measure of what someone remembers from a course. ‘High stakes’ tests such as exams and project deadlines encourage forms of education and study that are mostly effective in the short term. This is also something I wrote about earlier (in Dutch).

In terms of motivation, evaluating students on a scale of 1 to 10 is often counterproductive. Grades can work well as a reward or punishment. But that extrinsic motivation can easily hinder the development of intrinsic motivation and an independent work ethic. We want our students to learn to evaluate their own work critically. The best way to do this is by practising evaluating their own work. But it is difficult to have students do this honestly when it is ultimately our evaluation that counts.

More and more science shows how negative the effect of grades can be

Last year I read and listened to a lot about ‘ungrading’ – education with fewer or no grades. The work of Jesse Stommel, for example, of Susan Blum, and Peter Elbow. It made me feel a little lonely. It seemed like the movement around ungrading was mostly an American and English-language affair. For a while I thought that I was the only nutcase here at TU Delft that was thinking about it. Fortunately, a discussion during our Teaching Academy’s weekly webinar showed that this was not quite the case.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about organising education differently. For two years now we have all been forced to do our work in radically differently ways, using different technologies. This experience is cause for reflection. But giving grades is also a technology. A choice. A habit. We could do things differently. But there is little to no collective reflection about it. While there is more and more science that shows how negative the effect of grades can be.

What do we want to do in a classroom again, as has always been the norm? And what will we continue doing online? If we really want to radically rethink and enrich education, we need to add another question. When should we keep giving grades, as is the norm, and when should we do things differently?

Furthermore, I believe that universities should not award honorary doctorates to active politicians.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.