What Should Grades Really Measure?


BruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

As an instructor you know that grades are the end result or final outcome for your students. What is your reaction when you see their final grades? Does your perception of your students, your facilitation methods, or the assessments change based upon the letter grades they receive? If a student has done her/his best and has not earned a passing grade, how do you react? Perceptions about grades are often related to intended outcomes, including institutional expectations, student learning and teaching effectiveness. Instructors may use grades to measure learning, knowledge acquisition, skill set development, or overall developmental growth. Grades may also be a reflection of students’ sustained effort, their ability to read and comprehend information, and their ability to follow directions. What should grades really measure? This question can be answered by considering the relationship of grades to students’ successful involvement and participation in the process of learning.

Students’ Focus on Grades

Do your students talk about getting “good grades” in your class? Students often pay attention to the grade received for an assignment first as they are concerned about passing the class. They may not consider the importance of what was learned from the assignment and they may not understand that a grade is the result of points earned, especially when a grade is provided without any further feedback. Students may also hold a belief that grades are subjectively assigned, which may be a perceived expectation or the result of prior academic experiences. Instructors can redirect students’ focus about grades by providing objective feedback that addresses assignment criteria, their developmental needs, and the learning objectives. By helping students focus on how the grade was earned and what they need to maintain or improve the resulting outcome, students learn that they have control over their grades.

Instructor’s Focus on Grades

Instructors can utilize a similar approach and place an emphasis on their students’ learning capacity rather than the resulting grades. This perceptual shift also helps the instructor view their students from the perspective of what they are capable of doing. With this focus grades are viewed as a snapshot in time when instructors are able to learn if their students are making satisfactory progress or there are developmental needs that should be addressed. The process of learning, knowledge creation, and skill set development is ongoing and evolutionary. All students have a capacity to learn and for some students their potential to earn improved results may depend upon learning how to build on their strengths and find resources that support their progress. Learning objectives provide guidance by establishing expectations and assessments can measure students’ progress towards meeting these goals. The resulting grade then becomes a score rather than an absolute indicator of knowledge acquired.

If an instructor decides to emphasize the process of learning throughout the class, rather than focus on grades, will good grades follow? If students focus on developing their skills and improving their performance, will their resulting outcomes improve? An emphasis on getting “good grades” does not fully explain for students how they have control over their outcomes and it can detract from their involvement in the learning process. Instructors who encourage students to expand their capacity for learning are likely to create a supportive classroom environment that results in improved performance and participation. As students understand what it means to do their best they are likely to receive “good grades” and more importantly, they will understand the ongoing nature of learning and the purpose of assessments. Instructors that encourage students to believe in their capabilities, while acknowledging their contributions and developmental efforts, are likely to find that they become more concerned about learning and less focused on the resulting grade received at the end of class. Grades should measure developmental progress rather than be an absolute indicator of student success.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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