9 Dec 2009

Grades don't matter

Hey! There's a new poll (Obama in Copenhagen) on the right --->
Students who get As are smart; those who get Ds are dumb

114 votes total

According to you guys, Ds are not dumb and I agree.

First, there is the problem of measurement. Do grades measure smarts? Good ideas? The ability to get things done? Do they even measure what they are supposed to? As an economist who almost failed the exam in microeconomic theory (getting -- something like -- a 2.09 of 5.00 when the pass grade was 2.00), I can attest to the lack of correlation between exam results and actual knowledge (unless you think I am not an economist!)

Second, there's the HUGE problem of identifying yourself with your grades (or salary or car or bling or cup-size). If you do, you do yourself a disfavor. I was so LUCKY that my mom put me in a Montessori school. By the time I got my first grade (in another school, in 7th grade, a fail), I was aware that my identity was not derivative of my grade.

Third, there's the idea that grades reflect what you DID know, not what you learned. I've been trying to persuade my students that learning is more important than grades, but that idea goes against the point just above AND against the reward system they've faced for years -- good grades will get you places; bad grades will not.

This whole idea reminds me why I do water chats (tune in later for Tom Birmingham and Lloyd Carter) -- they allow one to express nuanced ideas, and a diversity of ideas -- a human-scale portrait -- rather than the nearly useless snapshot that a soundbite shows (and often shows with extreme prejudice).

Bottom Line: Grades are important as a measuring stick, but they fail to capture the numerous dimensions of a person.


  1. As for the poll, there were a few ways to look at it. As a former teacher, I saw two roads, the learning vs. getting the grade, which do not always correlate, and there is not necessarily a causal factor when they do relate.

    There is the notion, though, that students who get better grades in high school graduate college at higher rates; in fact, it's the only close estimate of college graduation upon entrance. So, although they do not HAVE to relate (and all us college bums have anecdotes to prove it), statistically, they do relate. There may be a whole chicken-and-egg thing going on here, but nevertheless, it is true.

    Then I got to thinking about my pedagogy. I did not think there were dumb people. The things I taught were human things, so humans were capable of understanding them. So, to me then, "dumb" was a choice issue: It was not, "can you understand the material?", but, "will you play the game?" In the choice sense, it is better for a student to get good grades than not, so the "dumb" choice was getting a poor grade.

    Then I read your comments. What struck me first is from your anecdote: The first thing I thought was, "I think you are an economist, and the grade says you are, too. It just says you are a dumb one." I don't believe that, but the grade does not disqualify you from understanding economic thinking, it just posits that you don't do it very well, compared to the professor's rubric.

    I also thought about the ramifications of my past pedagogy, one like yours, about learning vs. knowing. I also thought, if the rewards they've had to go through got them this far (to Cal.), and they were going to be successful, then who am I to undermine the system that is working for them? I still would, because my reason for teaching was to turn that upside down, but it won't necessarily help students who are wending their way through a system that is based on those measurements.

    Then I read your bottom line, and I understood. This is you being nice to some students. You are flunking some kids this quarter.

    God bless. Teaching is a powerful and emotional profession, and very deep. You move many, and there is no way you are not moved, yourself.

    My advice: Just as I recommend Obama goes out and at least hunts and kills something, to understand his military and environmental role, I suggest you go out and flunk a class, get it on your transcript. If you haven't, yet, anyway - I mean, you haven't told us your macro grades, yet.

  2. @Josh -- Good comments. I've got Fs and such on my way, so that "experience" is in my past. (Altho I didn't know it at the time, my stats grade at UCLA kept me from summa cum laude -- quelle disastre!)

    I also did my degree in Ag/Resource Econ to avoid macro -- and look where THOSE guys guy us recently...

    Finally, I'll remind you (if not, inform you), that most of my happiness has come from doing what I want, under my "rules," instead of playing the game. I *know* I've left $ and "success" behind, but I laugh a lot more...

    [and stay tuned!]

  3. Nice. I just reread my comments, and I want you to know that half of them were tongue-in-cheek. I think you are a fine economist, else I wouldn't keep reading your stuff.

  4. This is just my opinion of testing and grades, based on my courses in evaluation, testing students, and being tested as a student.

    Grades are usually based on tests results, not learning outcomes.

    Today's tests are often all multiple choice.

    Tests can be truly reflective of material learned by the test taker, or, can utterly screw up the well studied student.
    Here's why.

    To effectively evaluate knowledge learned, the test has to be a format that works for demonstrating knowledge of the material covered.

    Accurate testing items consist of 1) short answer/fill in style (for terminology, facts, etc.), 2) problem solving and showing the steps (math, chemistry, physics, engineering, etc.), 3) prompts for an essay response in a blue book, or 4)True/False or Matching items.

    All of these items require "by hand" grading except matching and T/F, especially the essay type.

    Multiple Choice, or multiple GUESS is the worst type of item, requiring recognition of the "right" answer amongst several "wrong" answers.
    In high level applications (college, post graduate work), the "wrong" answers are sometimes very close the the "right" answer, and thus the whole item becomes IMHO a "trick" question.

    Since most tests are multiple choice so they can be graded by machine, they do not reflect real knowledge, but luck, since the well studied student knows the answer, but has to find the right "version" in front of him/her with subtle differences in wording. They over analyze and miss items they know perfectly. If the item were a fill in, they'd ace the test, but instead get a C on multiple choice. Just recognizing the answer is not KNOWING the answer and writing it down, so multiple choice tests are not a good evaluation tool, but rather a way to let lazy students pass while hard working students are "dumbed" by the format.


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