Benefits of Grading?

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

It is always in the days leading up to the end of the quarter that I am reminded of how powerful grades are as a motivator at Stanford. When the quarter begins, there are notably interesting conversations on a range of intellectual topics as students engage in new classes and explore new ideas. But by the end of the quarter, those conversations are hard, if not impossible, to find (case in point: I was eating with a table of eight for 30 minutes last week before someone finally said anything. And it was a request for a napkin).

It is also around this time of the quarter that I attempt (always unsuccessfully) to reconcile grading with the fundamental nature of education. A liberal education is about exploring different subjects, engaging with the knowledge of the human legacy and experimenting with varied ideas. Yet, how can one explore when there is always that looming grade just 10 weeks away? How can one experiment with new ideas and have intellectual conversations when there is a midterm a week (in addition to the usual load of problem sets and essays)?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first real intellectual stimulation here at Stanford has been writing an honors thesis - an opportunity to explore a topic without that looming grade in the background. For the first time, I have been able to chart my own course, take a different direction for a little while and still manage to gain an enormous amount of knowledge about a host of different topics.

This process of writing a thesis has made me particularly angry at how Stanford has slowly changed its grading to become less about intellectual discovery and more about differentiating students. Believe it or not, it was not always like this. Just a little more than a decade ago, Stanford used to make the official transcript a record of achievement - students could withdraw from classes quite late in the quarter without penalty. One could test the waters in a class until almost the final and still back away without harm or foul.

Compare that system with the one we have today: students are forced to lock in their classes by week three. That could mean less than six lectures have elapsed before a student has to decide which of a handful of classes is most valuable for their education. It also means that little assessment has been given to a student, preventing informed decisions, as well.

This tightening of the drop deadline and lack of feedback only encourages students to pursue the safety of the fields they know, and it is unfortunate that the faculty of this school believe that convenience is more important than intellectual exploration.

Writing a thesis has also forced me to come to terms with one of the complex aspects of my intellectual journey - my views on science education. I have written before on this topic, but I have to say, my views have become much less subtle.

I used to defend the kind of science training that schools like Stanford provide - large lecture classes mixed with personalized research to get experience in a lab. I believe it is unconscionable to defend this system now. Most science classes at Stanford are graded on a curve. I have tried to understand the pedagogical reason for such a system, and I have now given up - there simply is no value.

The point of assessments like grades is to provide individualized feedback to a student to indicate a level of progress in a body of knowledge. That is the antithesis of grading on a curve, which is designed to differentiate students as a group, sort of like sheep being separated into USDA Prime meat and other categories.

What would make sense in practical training like engineering and science is a bar system - did people learn the material at a level consistent with the goals of the program? Instead, we use a relative system in which students compete with one another for a few choice awards. I used to compare the sciences to the law school in terms of competition for grades, except the law school has moved off the curve now. The sciences are alone in their metrics.

Imagine a system in which students do not have to compete with each other for grades, but instead spent that brain energy on learning the material for their own benefit. The bar can be set high, but every student has the capability to meet the bar and get top marks. Education, instead of a competitive venture, could become one of cooperation, of shared intellectual discovery.

But who am I kidding? This is a university, and the pursuit of knowledge and learning in the sciences is not a priority. We would have changed the system a long time ago if that were the case. Instead, we will continue to fret about the lack of scientists and engineers in this country (I wonder why?). As for me, I have a problem set to finish.