Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Do Grades Kill The Magic of Learning?

I was reading Mark Guzdial’s blog this morning (A goal for higher ed: “There is magic in our program. Our program changes lives.”) and as often happen it got me thinking. His daughter is in a summer program with no grades and no tests. The idea is that students are there for learning’s sake. Scott McLeod also had a recent post about learning for the sake of learning - Summer of Code Scott’s family is learning to code on their own (with help from some online resources he lists.) Again there are no grades involved. It’s about learning.

Grades bug me. One summer I was teaching summer school at a prestigious boarding school. One of my students was very concerned that her good but not exceptional grade in my course would bring her GPA down to the point where she was not the top student in her class at home.This has stuck with me for probably 20 years now. How can we have a system where the grade is more important than the learning? And yet that is what we have.

I took my first computer science course near the beginning of my university career. I loved it. It was magic. I spent every free hour for the rest of my college career learning as much as I could. Some of it in classes but much of it on my own and with peers. My transcript may show how much (or how little) I cared about grades but my career over the last (gasp) 40 years shows, I think, shows how much I like learning.

I was lucky in that I had professors who encouraged experimentation and independent learning. They all seemed much more interested in us learning than in the grades themselves. It is an attitude I hope my students see in me as well.

There is a magic in knowledge, in learning, in ideas. There is no magic in grades. The hard thing is getting students to want to learn things. Passion from teachers can help. It is something I strongly believe teachers need to have to be good teachers. But it is often not enough. Grades are the club we use to force students to do things that we believe they will learn from. This often results in short term learning that fades with time. Hardly a good thing. In the long term this emphasis on grades as a mix of carrot and stick detracts from learning.

The trick, if you will, is to find other motivations. Motivations that come from within the student rather than being forced on them externally. As I look though my curriculum and plans for next year I will focus on what students found as fun. What made them want to learn more for themselves rather than just for the grade. When students want to learn to solve their own problems they seem to learn so much more that really does feel like magic.


Mike Zamansky said...

Some times grades substitute for having skin in the game - something to keep the kids honest in terms of there preparation. Look at the drop out rate for MOOCs vs when there's a grade on the line.

There are all kinds of kids that respond to all kinds of motivation.

Now, I'd rather not have grades and focus on what the kids can do and in the case of what I teach, what they build but not everyone's me.

Garth said...

In a couple of my programming classes the grade I give is a warm and fuzzy thing. We do a lot of exploring, tinkering with languages or hardware and just general looking around. The grade is based on effort. It would be nice to have a Pass/Fail option but those seem to not look good on a transcript.

To many high school kids no grade means no work required. Veg out for a semester. It take a mature kid (or adult for that matter) to actually want to learn for fun.