Trust and Distrust:  The Problem with Traditional Grading


Laura Rediehs

Assistant Professor of Philosophy

St. Lawrence University

Canton, New York



            The problem with traditional grading is that students have good reasons to worry about their grades, and yet being grade-oriented undermines the most important goals of liberal arts education.  Students have good reasons to worry about their grades because of the powerful symbolic and social roles that grades play in students’ lives.  Most undergraduate students are at an identity-forming stage of their lives, and so they are looking within and outside of themselves for clues about who they are and what they should do with their lives.  It seems obvious to students to look to their grades in order to read what the world is telling them their strengths and weaknesses are.  This way of thinking is often explicitly reinforced by parents, professors, and prospective employers.

            Grades also have acquired increasingly powerful social force.  Grades are not at all private communication between teachers and students but have a quasi-public role in students’ lives.  The occasions in which students are asked to reveal their grades are frequently some of the most significant moments in students’ lives and connect with some of students’ most important relationships.  There is so much that can rest on grades—parental approval; scholarships; students’ being allowed to continue studying; their being allowed to participate in other meaningful, perhaps identity-forming activities such as athletic participation or study abroad; and their future opportunities such as eligibility for jobs or graduate school.

            Grades then become a form of currency, a symbolic means to negotiate a vast network of relationships and opportunities.  Learning to operate in a system in which motivation is controlled by currency is an important life skill for people to learn to be successful in our culture, but is this really the purpose of liberal arts education?  The savvy student, then, aware of the social functioning of grades, has good reasons to take grades seriously.  The problem is that an orientation towards education mediated by grades is not necessarily the best attitude a student can adopt to reap the full benefits of the most important goals of liberal arts education.

            Grades are essentially numerical and thus can only be appropriately applied to what is measurable, but not everything that is measurable is always measured in a course of study.  A student too oriented towards getting good grades can miss or neglect those components of the course that are not graded.  Furthermore, what is measurable is not always what is most important in liberal arts education.  There are many qualitative ideals underlying the purpose of liberal arts education that cannot be measured on a comparative scale of quantifiable achievement.  In fact, some of these qualitative goals cannot be definitively judged by a teacher—students themselves are in a better position to evaluate these dimensions of their learning. 

Research in cognitive science and developmental psychology reveals that human learning is extraordinarily complex.  While professors can look in on some aspects of the learning process and judge whether students are putting certain words, numbers, or symbols together correctly—even reading past the words and numbers to more general conclusions about students’ conceptual development—there is much about students’ learning that remains invisible even to the most attentive professors.  Students themselves are in a better position to judge many of the qualitative dimensions of their learning, as well as some quantitative dimensions, such as their sense of improvement, the intensity of their effort and engagement, whether they did all of the reading, how well they paid attention in class, and how significant their learning was for them.  But traditional grading can discourage the development and refinement of students’ abilities in these respects, because strong self-motivation and keen self-awareness of one’s own learning can bring a student into conflict with professors’ judgments.  Ultimately, such conflicts are resolvable through thoughtful, mutually respectful dialogue, but our society and our educational system do not teach students how to work through such difficulties, and so the easiest psychological tactic is for students to suppress their self-motivation and subvert their intellectual self-awareness to the authority of their teachers.  But developing self-awareness and developing self-motivation are exactly some of the qualitative ideals underlying the purpose of a liberal arts education.

When teachers strive explicitly to structure their classes in ways that foster the development of self-motivation and push students to engage authentically with their education, they can feel that their ideals are consistently undermined by their students’ efforts to play it safe and try to please the teacher.  Authentic engagement with the educational process is inherently frightening and difficult, exposing the student to a world larger and stranger than previously imagined, demanding that the student reconstruct a sense of identity in order to find her or his place in this newly expanded world.  In addition, authentic engagement with education demands that students push themselves to their very limits—a humbling enterprise requiring great personal strength.  The only way that teachers can reasonably ask this of students is if the class can become a highly respectful and supportive environment:  a context of mutual trust and commitment.  Challenges and criticism offered in a context of trust can be perceived and accepted as exciting calls to growth.  When students trust their teachers and their environment, they can open themselves to the (often difficult) personal transformation that authentic education inspires.

If, on the other hand, students feel that they cannot trust their teachers or their environment, they become guarded and try to play it safe.  Their reaction to challenges or criticism becomes defensive.  If they feel themselves to be in a hostile context, a context of distrust demanding that they prove their worthiness at every turn, then defensively protecting their ego becomes an important survival strategy.  The fear-based learning that happens in a context of distrust may look effective at first, because fear evokes keen attentiveness, but such learning remains at the surface until the pressure is off, at which point much of what was learned promptly dissipates.  The legacy of learning by fear is that many such students get better at manipulating the systems they become cynical about, and become better at appearing the ways others want them to appear.  Such learning, however, does not help students to develop their subtle perceptual powers, or their depth of vision; it is not built upon respect, and it does not strengthen their character or expand their compassion.

Because so much outside of the classroom hinges on students’ grades, traditional grading imposes an outermost context of distrust framing everything that then happens within the classroom.  Even when individual teachers attempt to create a trusting and supportive environment for the students within the classroom, the knowledge that grades will be recorded on students’ permanent, quasi-public transcripts at the end of the semester permeates students’ consciousness at nearly every moment.  Despite the teacher’s good intentions, the grade in this class may have important ramifications in several different aspects of the student’s life.  Therefore, students feel embedded in a context of distrust, where their ability to maintain good relations with their parents, stay in school, keep their scholarships, participate in meaningful extracurricular activities, study abroad, gain good summer jobs, and find their way to meaningful work after graduation all hinge on continually proving their worthiness numerically through grades. 

The situation is made even worse when teachers feel that their own livelihood depends upon playing correctly by the rules, where the “rules” are often understood to include some pressure to “resist grade inflation” by keeping class averages at or below a certain level.  Teachers may also feel under pressure to have a nice, bell-shaped curve of grade distributions.  Such pressures determine a priori that all students are not equal—some are “better” and others are “worse,” and half of every class must be determined to be “below average.”  If a teacher were to say, “all of my students were spectacular this semester—they all understood the most important points I was trying to teach!” the teacher’s colleagues would very likely be suspicious rather than hear such a claim as a testimony of triumph in teaching.  Yet all of us, as teachers, should be striving to help all of our students to learn well, and there should be no a priori reason to believe this to be impossible.  To assume that it is inevitable that some students must fail is to adopt a principle of distrust that betrays the respectfulness we should hold towards all.

Students really do have good reason to worry about grades.  Grades tie their work in individual courses to larger structures in our complex society and thereby become symbolic (but not necessarily accurate) representations to the world of who the student is and how the student will function after graduation.  In serving this role, grades frame education in a context of distrust, demanding that students prove their worthiness again and again or risk losing much of what is important to them.  The fear-based learning that occurs in this context of distrust is superficial and temporary, and only, at best, helps students to become savvy manipulators of our currency-based societal structures.

If there is a distinctively Quaker pedagogy, I believe it must be rooted in Quakerly principles of trust, respect, and commitment to the highest ideals of a wholistic, transformative education.  It is important then for us to explore the question of how we can reform educational structures to frame our educational institutions in an outermost context of trust and commitment that will help teachers to encourage their students to face the more meaningful challenges of authentic education.  We still need to set high standards and ensure accountability—is it possible to do these without relying on the power of fear-based motivators?  And in the meantime, while the system is the way it is, are there ways that individual teachers can encourage authentic learning without letting their educational goals be undermined by the grading system? 

Most ambitiously, I do believe that the grading system can and should be changed to allow for the appropriate evaluation of students’ preparedness for work or advanced study without relying on the fearsome power of evaluation to control students’ motivation.  Possible solutions here include changing to a High-Pass, Pass, Fail system, refusing to convert these qualitative categories to numbers that get averaged together into a single, cumulative grade-point index; another solution might be to institute well-thought-out external examinations, prepared and conducted by people who are trained in fair and useful comprehensive evaluation, leaving the professors to be allies with the students in learning.  Professors would still give students plenty of feedback but would not have to take on the role of evaluating and certifying the students’ mastery of the material while students are still in the midst of the process of learning.  We should continue trying to envision other possible large-scale solutions as well.

Meanwhile, what can those of us who teach within the existing grading system do to create a context of trust within the classroom, despite the current outer framework of a context of distrust?  My own solution has been to institute a system of guided self-assessment in all of my classes.  I do everything I would normally do in designing and teaching each course, except give grades.  I do create the assignments, look at students’ work, and give thorough feedback, but it is my students who give themselves grades on each assignment, along with an accounting of the criteria by which they determine these grades.  What I have learned in this process is that students are both very appreciative of this opportunity, and trustworthy.  They approach their task responsibly, although initially with some trepidation.  By the end of the course, most students say that the process was more difficult than they thought it would be, challenging them to confront their intellectual limitations and questions of morality and personal integrity, but that the exercise did free them to engage more creatively and authentically with the course.  Meanwhile, the atmosphere in my classes has become more open and trusting, and I no longer feel that the educational process is undermined by the cautious and defensive game of tracking scores.

I hope that Friends in higher education can become innovators in the reform of grading and evaluation.  Finding creative new solutions to these problems will not only benefit education in Quaker colleges but may well spark much-needed reform in American higher education more generally.



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