When I say that all our students are capable of learning at a high level and have the potential to earn good grades, I think very few faculty would disagree with me. And yet, there is a pervasive (though typically unconscious) assumption in higher education that only a certain number of students can earn an A—that grades are a limited resource.
If we as educators truly want to present university education as a measure of academic excellence, it is critical to challenge this conventional view of grades and consider how instructors across higher education can rethink grading structures. This is one of the most impactful lessons we learned during the pandemic. For over a year, faculty have had to think about grades and grading in new and creative ways as the need for flexibility and a deeper understanding of the connections between our course policies and student outcomes emerged. Building on these experiences, we are at a unique moment in time to think explicitly about where our traditional grading structures and assumptions do not necessarily reflect our core goals, values, or even convey the information we expect of grades. Better still, now is also the ideal time to change them! This post reflects on some important fundamental issues we need to address as a community.
Challenging Traditional Assumptions About Grades
I propose there are three elements that have creeped into traditional views of grades and grading that we need to acknowledge and potentially change: 1) the value of grades is fundamentally associated with their rarity and NOT a reflection of what is learned in a course, 2) grades are too often used to rank students instead of providing a measure of mastery/excellence, and 3) there is an assumption of fundamental limits on mastery that justify a grading curve (fixed mindset approaches).
1) The Value of Grades is Misplaced
If you just listen to how grades are discussed and how grades are used to evaluate students, it becomes clear that it is the relative rarity of a grade that explicitly or implicitly informs its value. This is not surprising given how many things in life have value because they are rare. However, we need to recognize that there is no reason to impose artificial scarcity on grades, which is exactly what a grading curve does. Limiting the number of As, Bs, and Cs and forcing a certain number of Ds and Fs actually devalues the grades we give students by actively disconnecting them from the level of learning achieved in the course.
Furthermore, when we impose a grading curve where a certain number of students must end up with lower grades regardless of their actual mastery of course material, we are creating unfair conditions where some students must fail. We do not even offer the possibility of every student finding academic success—which is directly contrary to what our mission as institutions of higher education should be.
2) Grades Are Not a Definitive Mark of Excellence
A common justification for grading on a curve is that it ranks students. The problem is that, as currently designed, most grading systems do not really accomplish this task. Let’s consider two examples. First, Students 1 and 2 are enrolled in a traditional STEM course with exams that offer partial credit. On one of their exams, Student 1 does not get a single problem completely correct but gets 90% credit for each problem and scores a 90% on the exam. Student 2 gets 80% of the problems completely correct but only earns enough partial credit on the other problems to score an 89% on the exam. Which student is better? The curve will rank Student 1 above Student 2, but is that really what is needed for the student to be successful moving on?
Now consider a course with a major paper where students are required to analyze a set of primary sources. Student 3 has almost perfect grammar and rhetorical structure but not the best analysis of the sources. Student 4 has insightful analysis but struggles with the mechanics of writing. Again, which student should have the higher grade?
In both of these examples, it is difficult to definitively say that one student is better than their classmate. These cases point out the critical feature that grades always average over multiple dimensions. Thinking of grades as an absolute measure of excellence (and therefore an effective means of ranking students) can be problematic in this context. However, despite this clear limitation, we continue to use grades as a means of determining which students are “better” than others. Ranking students in this manner ultimately creates an unfair system that arbitrarily values certain characteristics over others.
3) Academic Performance is Intrinsically Distributed
Finally, in many large classes, student performance does appear to fall on a reasonable approximation of a normal distribution, which is often pointed to as both a justification for using a fixed curve and a justification in assuming that students are “either good at the material or not.” However, there are many factors influencing a student’s performance in a particular course. While every student within a course could master the material at a level that truly deserves an A, in reality there is a limited amount of time available for learning. We all make decisions about what we want to spend our time on. Often by choosing to master X, we just do not have time to master Y. As a result, any individual course will consist of students that fall on a distribution of time and effort that can be committed to the course. This is just one alternative to the existence of a distribution of inherent ability. This and a range of other external factors will always play a role in creating a distribution of grades. However, the existence of natural distributions of grades does not mean we should impose a grade distribution a priori, nor does it imply a distribution of “fixed talent”.
And for courses where this distribution of time and effort is relatively narrow, it should not be surprising that grades are also higher. There should be nothing wrong with this outcome. Instead, this should be evidence that the course successfully communicated intended learning outcomes and effectively guided learning for a group of highly dedicated students.
Rethinking Grading Structures
When considering a student’s performance in our courses, faculty often place the cause of low grades completely on the student or use low grades as proof of a course’s academic rigor. We absolve ourselves of one of our main responsibilities as instructors—to design a course that guides and assesses learning in the context of the broader student experience.
As instructors, we need to be clear and explicit when we define course learning outcomes and the relative weight these skills and knowledge carry in course assessments. Lack of transparency in these areas is unfair to our students. For instance, if one student spends time and effort mastering material that is not heavily assessed, they will likely perform poorly on an exam compared to a student who happens to choose the “right thing” to study.
Why should a student who invested time and effort be penalized because their instructor was not straightforward about the competencies they would be tested on?
Learning is not a zero-sum game. When we ascribe value to grades based on their rarity, we are effectively dictating that some students will succeed at the direct expense of others. As we move forward and consider the future of higher education, we need to explicitly acknowledge these core philosophical and cultural assumptions about grades and grading systems. We must move toward an approach that better communicates what students are learning and the breadth of skills, competencies, and achievements that go into the grade. This is imperative if we want to truly ensure that a student’s grade is a fair and accurate measure of their mastery and excellence.