How do you measure student learning? There are countless books, dissertations, education departments, and policies on the subject, even professional conferences. One of the many distinctions of SIT’s MA in Teaching is its grading policy. This paper, a recent restatement by faculty for one another following campus-wide discussion, provides insight into the MAT experience. These strong statements have grown from attentive faculty reflection over many years. Your comments are welcome.
Grades change the fundamental relationship we work so hard to build with our students, a relationship of trust, support, encouragement, and recognition. Within that relationship, our critical feedback can and does have great impact, but this feedback is crucially not a label or a judgment. This allows the feedback to be taken in fully and acted upon.
Our students and alums have told us quite clearly and almost unanimously: we don’t need or desire letter grades. Indeed many alums have said the presence of a Pass/Fail system was a positive factor in their decision to apply. Many cite negative experiences with letter grades as undergraduates (both those who achieved high averages and those who had difficulty). Our students respect us for taking a principled stand on assessment and not passively accepting the convention of letter grades.
Letter grades inevitably introduce an undesirable element of competition among students. Alternatively, professors who give mostly “A” grades undermine and compromise the system.
Our students have entered doctoral programs at the finest graduate schools in the country without problems and are in high demand by school districts, including during their internships. We simply have not heard a significant number of complaints at either level. Where a graduate program seeks a GPA even for previous graduate work, there is usually a way around this. Graduate schools have a tremendous amount of other material to base a decision on, including undergraduate GPA, GRE, recommendations, portfolio, application essays, and interview. Any graduate school that rigidly refused to accept an application because the student had done graduate work in a pass-fail system is undermining its own pool of desirable applicants.
In MAT, we work in a development mode with our students. Our work is highly individualized in many courses. We accept students where they are in terms of their background in the content and their intellectual dispositions with regard to the subject matter. In linguistics for example, we have students with strong backgrounds and many without any background. In some courses, we create different sections for students with different backgrounds in the area. In a letter-grade system, it is in the student’s interest to be placed in the lowest possible section in order to increase her chances for the highest grade. Again, the whole dynamic is impacted by the presence of grades. Even students whose ideology is “I work to learn, not for the grade” can be substantially influenced to revert to habit and “work for the grade” as soon as they find themselves in a graded system.
In an intensive program, students have to make hard decisions about allocating their time and energy for individual courses. A pass/fail system allows them to pursue study in courses of personal importance or interest by spending less time in other courses. In a letter grade system, by contrast, each course requires time and effort for a student to attain high grades. To get high grades in all courses, students are forced to work harder, thus making an already intense program even more intense. Also, for students whose English language proficiency is not strong, a letter grade system increases the pressure and the intensity.
A pass/fail system conveys a message about collaboration and cooperation that is the core of our educational mission. The attainment of world peace is not about competition and status; rather it is about creating circumstances where differences are honored and all are valued for who they are and what they bring. The essence of our work is collaboration, inclusion, and the very challenging work of bridging differences toward a common goal. A pass/fail system is the key to showing students how this work can be done.
With a pass-fail system, we can be true to our mission, our history, our values, our students, and ourselves.