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On Grading, Assessment and Learning

Not teaching, and thus not grading, this semester has left me some space to think about the most important part of the learning process. 

March 25, 2015

“We’re not paid to teach; we’re paid to grade!”

This is a joke my husband and I had, when we were both surrounded by essays and exams. This was the most unpleasant part of our jobs, and perhaps you would use a stronger word than unpleasant. My husband, in particular, knew my affinity for what I once understood teaching to be: speaking in a room full of people about topics I was interested in and passionate about. LEARNING WAS HAPPENING. That’s what I loved. Grading, however, was always a bitter reminder that perhaps learning was not, in fact, happening at all.

Standing in front of the classroom, my authority was almost absolute. I largely dictated where things went and how they went. The grading showed me that I, in fact, had almost no control at all. Each mistake, each misunderstanding, each omission – they were all implicit challenges to my authority as their teacher.  They failed, I failed, no one learned much of anything, least of all me.

When I started doing peer-driven learning, the one thing I didn’t give up control over at first was the grading. Take over large parts of the syllabus, hand over classroom space, but I had to hold on to the grading, ultimate arbiter of how successful they had been, how we had all been. But what was I really grading at this point? Who was it really for?

For me, of course. And parts of the peer-driven learning class were given over to assessment, the requirements of the institution and accrediting bodies that learning was in fact happening, having come to the same conclusion that I had that grading proved nothing, but doubling down on grading, rather than letting go. Assessment has taken over the most-hated role for instructors, more loathed in many cases than grading. At least grading we can still feel we have some control over, but assessment…

Now we know how our students feel. Or at least we should. Our students have learned to accept assessment, from No Child Left Behind onward. They also obsess over their grades, desperate for their GPAs to remain high enough to maintain whatever scholarship, support, or activity they require. Or maybe their entire identity is wrapped up in a high GPA. These are things that are done to them. Learning…learning is never considered.

What if assessment and grading and evaluation were seen instead as the most important part of the learning process? Because where does learning really happen? When we are confronted with the limits of our knowledge and push ourselves past them. How do we know if that confrontation doesn’t take place? And that it takes place as a conversation, an iterative process, rather than a something we are all subjected to?

What if we approached grading as an opportunity? What if we saw it as the most important parts of our jobs? What if the institution saw it as the most important part of our jobs, not in offering us new ways of avoiding it, but actually supporting the work? What if students saw it as the most important part of their learning, rather than the most important part of their eligibility, legitimacy, identity? 

None of these ideas are new, even new to me. But they have come together in my mind this semester because I don’t have to grade. I really had the time and space to ask, as I see my colleagues and friends, friends who are dedicated pedagogues and teachers and generally see meaningful evaluation of student work an essential part of student learning, slowly succumb to the frustration.

First slowly, then all at once.

In my role as a faculty developer, I am now always confronted with the assessment question, the learning question. The best ideas seem to die on the vine of grading and assessing. I struggle with how to get us all past it. Or through it. Or over it. Or off it. But it is always there, with our students demanding grades and our institutions demanding assessments, and faculty wishing there were more hours in the day.

I teach again in the fall. Maybe I’ll call the assignments something different, grades something else. This is all learning. It is hard. 


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