Putting a Face on Theatre
So...hopefully I won't get into huge trouble for this, but I'm going to share something that I tell all of the students in all of my upper-level classes on the first day: I don't believe in grades, and I find they disrupt the learning process.
"Egad!" you say? "Blasphemy!" Yes, I know. You're probably making the same face as some of my students the first time they hear me tell them how I feel about grades. Many react with panic, frankly, as the only measure of success they've known is the coveted--and all-to-common--"A." (The other face I see on the first day is utter confusion, as I tell them I don't believe in cheating, either. Not that I don't think they shouldn't do it, but that I don't believe it exists, except in schools: in "real life," we look up facts, figures, equations, or whatever, and confer with our peers, our mentors, and respected professionals all the time--if it isn't cheating in real life, why is it cheating in the classroom?)
I don't believe in grades. They disrupt the learning process. When a student's goal in class is to earn an "A," they are focused on the wrong thing: they should be focused on what they are learning, not on the grade they are receiving. At one point in the history of education, that was the real purpose of grades: they provided a tangible measurement of student progress; of retention of information; of ability to follow a procedure or access a mental model of a knowledge domain, providing important feedback on progression through the curriculum. But most of the students I see don't use grades as a feedback device; somewhere along the way, our educational system has failed to teach them that the proper response to a less-than-stellar grade is to find out what facts you didn't know, what methodologies you didn't employ, with what spaces in the knowledge domain you were unfamiliar. Rather, many students I see respond to poor (or even "average" grades) by becoming despondent and unsure of themselves, or becoming belligerent, believing their hard work has "earned" them an "A."
Even those students who do well in class--earn "good grades"--fail to miss the point many times, focusing their pride on the achievement of grades, instead of on the acquisition of knowledge or advancement of learning. Grades become a distraction from learning, when they should be a tool to help students (and instructors) measure the gap between where a student is in the knowledge domain, and where they need to be. So I've jettisoned grading from my curriculum. (For the most part: I need to have some "quantifiable numbers" to keep administrators happy--after all, I have to assign students a grade of some sort at the end of the semester. More on that below.)
Feedback (which, in an ideal learning environment, grades can provide) is essential to learning. Feedback allows for two kinds of calibration to occur in the instructional process: first, it allows instructors to measure the gap between where students are (conditions) and where they need to be (outcomes), and adjust the curriculum as necessary to help bring students along. (Though I risk a firestorm by saying this, in some ways, if students are failing, it may sometimes be in part our fault, because the curriculum may not be effectively designed to meet the instructional conditions of our students, who may be working hard but still not succeeding.) Second, and just as important, feedback allows students to develop an ability to self-calibrate; students don't know what they don't know, and feedback is an important part of not only letting them know what they don't know, but also helping them learn to recognize for themselves what they don't know. (Process-control oriented readers will recognize the PID loop in the instructional design process, I hope.)
Without grades, feedback becomes...time-intensive. It involves just-in-time correction of methodologies, presentation of mental maps, and guidance in application of procedural information. Effective feedback requires a recognition--in as much as possible--of each student's individual instructional condition, and adapting the manner in which material is presented--in as much as possible--to suit those conditions. It involves praising correct application of material, encouraging discovery and attempts to apply learned material, and corrected misapplied material. It can be...exhausting.
(Additionally, if an instructor is not careful, too much identification with a learner's instructional conditions can lead to the unintentional shifting of instructional outcomes. It can be tempting to redefine the outcomes for a particular student if they find themselves ill-prepared for the course, or if they are unable to successfully navigate the knowledge domain. Maintaining rigor while providing encouraging feedback can be difficult, admittedly. But not impossible.)
I do use grades. I do measure student coursework against expected outcomes. Without doing so, how would I calibrate my teaching? What I don't do, however, is hand back a lot of graded material throughout the semester. I tell my students to focus on learning. I suggest to them that they should be able to tell from the amount (and type) of verbal/written feedback that get from me how they are doing in class. (Specifically, I say, "You'll know if you're doing poorly.") But I also make a commitment to them to pull them aside and update them on their grades if they are ever in danger of dipping lower than about a B. (This is a safety net they need, I think--lest their focus on grades cause them to worry every class session about "how they are doing" simply because they don't know.)
It is a crazy idea. But I have found it to be very successful; the classroom becomes an environment of exploration of ideas, a place where students are excited about learning new material and trying out new (to them) concepts. With the emphasis on "earning good grades" excluded from the classroom, students spend their time learning, and learning to learn.
Caveat and indemnification: I do this with my upper-tier and graduate classes. This is not an approach that students in lower-tier classes and younger students are necessarily ready for, nor will it work in larger classes, because of the amount of individual attention required!