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Duke Professor Says Grades Are Overrated

The Supreme Court revealed Monday that they would not take on a case challenging the No Child Left Behind act, requiring tests on math and reading in grades three through eight, and once again in high school.

But according to Duke University English professor Cathy Davidson, testing – and grading in general – hampers learning.  Inside Higher Ed reports that Davidson allowed her students to grade themselves this academic year in her class, Your Brain on the Internet.  Now, she says, “It would take a lot to get me back to a conventional form of grading ever again.”

You can read her blog to learn more, but simply put, Davidson asked her students to sign contracts detailing the standards against which they should grade themselves.  She says “the students each ended up writing about 1,000 words a week, much more than is required for a course to be considered “writing intensive” at Duke (even though her course didn’t have that designation).”  She also said that the writing “was better than the norm.”

“I think students were going out on a limb more and being creative and not just thinking about ‘What does the teacher want?’ ” Davidson said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, everyone in Davidson’s class is getting an A.  But Duke senior Lacey Kim says it isn’t because students were easy on themselves – or each other.  Kim says “peer pressure is a very influential thing,” and the knowledge that fellow classmates would be critiquing her work made her feel that “everyone had insightful and varying experiences to share.”

That certainly seems to better mimic the atmosphere of the workplace, in turn better preparing college students to be free-thinking and unafraid to contribute bold ideas in a competitive, but collaborative, environment.  But could this work for students in earlier grades, too?  Davidson thinks so.

She’s seen this type of grading experiment done with kids as young as sixth grade, and says, “The kids are amazing if you set it up right and make this a responsibility.”

Of course it’s easy to judge and assume the good professor simply wanted a reprieve from the hard work of grading, but she notes she “added an individual comment on every student essay” without assigning a letter grade.  Davidson said as a result, she felt less resentful about giving feedback.  (Anyone who’s ever graded a stack of papers knows how painstaking it can be – and that the student whose paper is on the bottom of the pile might either pay or be rewarded based on the quality of the papers on top of it.)

SUNY Fredonia Theatre Department Chairman and Distinguished Teaching Professor Tom Loughlin enacted a similar grading experiment several years ago, and says he found the experience “a mixed bag.”  He says, “The better students were harder on themselves.  That was interesting to me.  The better kids tended to give themselves lower grades than I would have given them and the average kids gave themselves grades that probably were grades they would want to achieve as targets, but which they didn’t necessarily earn.  I didn’t get any instances where a kid who actually deserved a low grade gave themselves a high grade – someone who earned a C- giving themselves an A.”

Loughlin says, “Kids on the whole are aware of what grades they deserve and what grades they want.  Self-assessment is not a bad idea generally, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to record those grades as an instructor.”

Would you be upset if your child’s teacher allowed his/her students to grade themselves?  Do you think a more process-oriented approach to learning would help your child thrive?

Photo: Chicago 2016 via Flickr

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