Marks

by John Quiggin on June 29, 2008

The eternal trench warfare between teachers and students over exams and other forms of assessment has long been a popular topic here at CT (unsurprisingly, viewed mostly from the teacher’s side of the barbed wire).

Having been on both sides at different times, I’m an observer of the process these days, since my research fellowship doesn’t involve running any courses (though I give a fair number of guest lectures in various subjects). Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a student, the whole system of examinations and marks was one of the big targets of radical critique; even if relatively minor in the great scheme of things, exams loomed large in our lives, and seemed like a symbol of much that was wrong with society.

That kind of debate seems to have disappeared entirely. While a variety of alternatives to exams have been tried, the pressure to cut costs has driven universities (in Australia at any rate) back to heavy reliance on exams, and, within that, to heavy use of multiple choice and short-answer tests. But the real question is why universities spend so much time and effort on marks and grading, with the consequence of continuous low-level war between teachers and students.

One possible explanation is that they provide useful feedback to students on how they are doing, and to the university itself to guide things like choice of later courses. I don’t buy this at all. Feedback provided after you’ve finished a course isn’t much use, after all, and I don’t see much evidence that marks are used in any systematic fashion to promote educational goals.

Is it to provide a service to employers? This is the standard assumption behind the meal-ticket view of a university degree, and was the central focus of the radical critique back in the 60s. I’m unconvinced of this as well. The value of the assessment is pretty well illustrated by the reliance of graduate schools on their own external exams (GRE and similar) rather than grades from undergraduate degrees. If universities stopped giving out grades, it wouldn’t be too hard for employers to organise their own exams, and there would probably be a net cost saving.

The final, probably correct, and, to my mind, most depressing explanation of marks is that, without them, the students wouldn’t do any work. Rather than being a cause of conflict between teachers and students, marks are a symptom of an inevitable conflict between the longrun benefits of working and the shortterm attractions of procrastination. Of course, an internalised version of that same conflict is a chronic condition of academic life. I suppose scoring well on exams and term papers marks out some students as having at least the minimal capacity to manage that conflict that justifies encouraging them to go on to an academic career.

{ 36 comments }

1

Dave 06.29.08 at 7:35 am

Yeah, cut through any hifalutin’ political interpretations of the situation and you come down to a basic fact of contemporary mass higher education. Most students aren’t there because they love their subject enough to study without sticks and carrots, but they are there to produce a tangible result [for themselves, their parents, to wave at prospective employers…] So everything they do is marked, because otherwise they’d do nothing, and ‘get’ nothing… And eventually we’d stop getting paid…

2

Laura 06.29.08 at 7:39 am

Students want marks. Also, increasingly, they want to know where they ‘came’ in the class even though we do not track that sort of data.

I don’t think continuous assessment is declining quite as much as you imply.

3

jsalvati 06.29.08 at 9:10 am

While I broadly agree, grades mostly serve to motivate us in the short term to avoid procrastination, grades also provide us with useful diagnostic information.

4

Chris Williams 06.29.08 at 9:16 am

ObBook: _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_, which has quite a lot to say about this issue.

5

Mary 06.29.08 at 10:41 am

When tutoring undergraduate computer science I observed an odd tension. Many students wanted good marks, but they didn’t want great ones, as they perceived a conflict between the skills that were required for excellent marks and the skills required in industry.

The conflict has some basis in reality (an excellent computer scientist and an excellent software developer are different things) but had been outrageously inflated in their minds to the point where something being in the curriculum was almost a guarentee to them that they’d never see it in their working life. (I do wonder what happened to the student who thought concurrency — we were teaching threading — was an ivory tower problem.)

I think this depressing phenomenon was partly due to the number of computer science undergraduates in Australia who really want to transfer into commerce degrees if they can just get their average high enough. But for some students it did seem to be another factor in this equation. They wanted to get the degree, they didn’t want to work very hard, and they thought that working very hard would actually make them less ready for the relevant careers than they were before.

6

Tom Fuller 06.29.08 at 10:50 am

It’s not just the students getting marked, at least not in the UK. Funding follows school ratings, and if your students are failing, it may well be considered your fault. Online assessments, which are useful for distance learning and for overseas campuses of the mother institution, are getting more popular, not less.

The introduction of online tools (including software packages that speed the assessment of essays) is reducing the time teachers spend on them, which is a factor in increasing the frequency of assessment. Pop quizzes graded by an online service may be the wave of the future.

7

Odm 06.29.08 at 10:53 am

Re 2:

My university does track that data, by publishing the mean and standard deviation in each course, and it’s fairly important information. Considering that the class average can range from a C to an A, the letter grade itself does not reflect my ability in that subject. If I get a B in a class where the average is an A, I might struggle with later courses, even though I got a good grade.

8

Odm 06.29.08 at 10:56 am

Sorry for the double post, but I should have said that the letter grade does not accurately reflect my ability. Obviously, if I get an A I’m doing well, but if I get a D I should be concerned.

9

Alan 06.29.08 at 12:35 pm

As a Durham University philosophy student who graduated on thursday (I looked lovely in my gown, thanks for asking) I am still in a small amount of shock that my final year assessment was 100% exam based. My gripe is not with the notion of assessment as a motivation to work. Sadly, this is what causes most students to actually do anything. The problem, at least in my subject, is that exams are not an accureate judge of one’s ability. We have to two formative essays per year (one per term for each of four modules, plus a double module dissertation) which are qualitatively different exercises from one hour exam answers. Apart from the dissertation I don’t feel we are actually judged on our skill as philosophers as much as we are for our skill at exams- a very different skill, I think. To spend three years emphasising the time, the thought, the concentration on style involved in philosophy and in writing philosophy and then to assess us on the basis of three essays written in three hours in which some are liable to panic seems somewhat paradoxical.
I understand the pressures of marking and continuous assessment on academics. However, in philosophy at least, pop quizes and end of year exams will not indicate who is actually good at the practice of philosophy. I have a feeling it is the same in similar subjects.

10

ScentOfViolets 06.29.08 at 3:18 pm

I would suggest that exams such as these also provide a paper trail. Grades are given out at the end of the semester, yes, and without going into any detail here, I see trying to abolish them as tilting at windmills. So, given that grades have to be awarded, what’s the ‘best’ way to do them? Well, the ‘best’ way, at least in my mind, would entail a one-on-one evaluation, or a three-on-one evaluation of a student with an oral presentation combined with a question-and-answer grilling. Yes, I know that this is expensive.

But getting past that, it is more ‘subjective’. If a teacher awards a grade at the end of the semester based upon their ‘feel’ for the student, it leaves them open to all sorts of accusations (lawsuits!) if there is not some sort of written record. I’ve had to defend my grading several times – do _not_ throw anything away, _ever_ – and have always been able to justify the grade a student has disputed.

If you don’t have that sort of backtrail, grading students could become . . . expensive.

11

Matt 06.29.08 at 3:21 pm

I think that part of the reason for exams like the GRE and LSAT and the like isn’t so much that grades are per se, unreliable, but rather that, at least when applicants come from a huge variety of institutions (as in the US) it’s useful to have some sort of common measure. The GRE and the like are obviously highly imperfect, and it’s clearly not the case that everyone has an equal chance to do well on them, but they do go some way towards providing a common metric. Without them, I fear, graduates of less prestigous undergraduate institutions (like me!) would have even less chance of getting in to top graduate and professional programs.

12

a 06.29.08 at 3:38 pm

“If universities stopped giving out grades, it wouldn’t be too hard for employers to organise their own exams, and there would probably be a net cost saving.”

Surely it is to the employer’s advantage that this cost is born by the student and/or university, and so the present system is to the employer’s advantage.

Is the claim that society over-all would bear a lower cost by employer-run exams? I can’t see how. There are different systems in different parts of the world, but take e.g. the American system. Exams are given periodically and often over the course of four years. How can a private employee hope to match the breadth of that kind of system of evaluation? How could a prospective employee hope to take more than one exam which would match that comprehensiveness?

Sorry, but it seems pretty clear to me that exams are for the benefit of future selectioners, be they employees or graduate schools. On the other hand, since a major function of universities is to provide this service of evaluation to society, I don’t see how one can eliminate exams, without implying a drastic decrease in the size of universities.

13

a 06.29.08 at 3:39 pm

“If universities stopped giving out grades, it wouldn’t be too hard for employers to organise their own exams, and there would probably be a net cost saving.”

Surely it is to the employer’s advantage that this cost is born by the student and/or university, and so the present system is to the employer’s advantage.

Is the claim that society over-all would bear a lower cost by employer-run exams? I can’t see how. There are different systems in different parts of the world, but take e.g. the American system. Exams are given periodically and often over the course of four years. How can a private employee hope to match the breadth of that kind of system of evaluation? How could a prospective employee hope to take more than one exam which would match that comprehensiveness?

Sorry, but it seems pretty clear to me that exams are for the benefit of future selectioners, be they employees or graduate schools. On the other hand, since a major function of universities is to provide this service of evaluation to society, I don’t see how one can eliminate exams, without implying a drastic decrease in the size of universities.

14

F 06.29.08 at 4:27 pm

You missed a little bit with your point about GREs. Although schools in the US do rely heavily on the GRE for the standardization reasons given by Matt, college GPA is also an important criterion for most grad schools. So those marks are not ignored.

15

Aidan Kehoe 06.29.08 at 4:54 pm

As someone who has never graded a paper, but who has had to rely on anonymously-graded exams for quite a lot of important things, anonymously-graded exams eliminate the issue of not getting on well (or at all) with the teacher, and I am very happy about that. I would be ware about studying something with continuous assessment for exactly that reason, though I have acquired lots more social skills in the interim.

16

Aidan Kehoe 06.29.08 at 4:54 pm

Oops, “wary”, not “ware”.

17

ScentOfViolets 06.29.08 at 5:32 pm

For those who against exams for whatever reason[1], what would be a better way to award grades? Specifically.

If universities stopped giving out grades, it wouldn’t be too hard for employers to organise their own exams, and there would probably be a net cost saving.

It’s not just employers who use those grades. Case in point, I have two students who received 50% on their first calc exam. Why did this happen? Being able to go back an look at their grades from pevious classes really helps as a diagnostic – in the case of one student, they recieved a 55% in their required algebra class, which is a C –(barely barely passing, if you get my meaning.) And they also had to take the remedial class before that, which they also barely passed. In the case of the other student, they did well in two previous classes, which tells me that their algebra skills at least are up to par.

18

Witt 06.29.08 at 5:41 pm

There is a key distinction between evaluation and feedback. I was mightily disappointed when my work received only an evaluation (grade) and no feedback (comments, critique, suggestions) from my instructors.

That illustrates the fact that grades are almost never intended to help the student improve. They are a sorting mechanism, a general proxy for willingness-to-stick-to-it (or willingness-to-jump-through-hoops), and in some technical settings a reasonably accurate snapshot of whether the student is mastering the material.

I will yet again recommend Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, which lays out quite astutely the costs to jazzing up our work with external motivations such as grades, in contrast to evoking intrinsic motivation.

Oh, and to this: without them, the students wouldn’t do any work leads to the question, so what? Quite literally, what would happen? Some young people might not do any school work if they were not being graded. As a result, they might leave school. That in and of itself is not a problem. The fact that our society is set up with relatively few (and relatively disparaged) pathways for rising out, or choosing not to pursue higher education, is a problem.

Learning to do unpleasant but necessary things is part of maturity. Learning to do pointless and stupid things because a lot of other people are very, very invested in the game they have set up is not.

19

Dave 06.29.08 at 6:10 pm

“without them, the students wouldn’t do any work leads to the question, so what?”

Well, sometimes I quite agree… but on other occasions I think that, in the absence of evidence that many of my students have any comprehension of their own long- [or even medium-]term interests, the ability to apply *some* pressure is useful, considering myself, as an educator, as having therefore a role in helping them discern what their own long-term interests actually *are*.

And, as I said before, it helps to make sure we get paid… Though I do also prefer to think that *nothing* I teach my students is “pointless and stupid”. De gustibus….

20

phil 06.29.08 at 6:40 pm

I think that Japanese Universities don’t give grades, though this may have changed now, and that employers regularly set entrance exams to graduate schemes. Even int the UK employers will give tests as part of their recruitment.

Also I sometimes found that exams and essays would provide perverse incentives in that you would stick with what you already know instead of exploring something new and interesting.

21

Righteous Bubba 06.29.08 at 7:29 pm

I think that Japanese Universities don’t give grades

They’ve always marked as far as I know.

22

Clare 06.29.08 at 9:07 pm

When I objected to my own prelims and finals at Durham University, my brother commented that he didn’t think it was unreasonable to expect that students who’ve been attending lectures and doing readings on a subject for the past year should be able to say something intelligent about it at the end. After many years of being a student and now a teacher, I see his point. The problem perhaps is less the exams themselves, as painful and difficult as they are (or certainly were at the time), but when, as #9 commented, the official determination of “how you did” is based on exams, and exams alone. I certainly don’t believe that continuous assessment is the answer — although I thought so back when I was an undergraduate. But appreciating that there are several ways to confirm one’s understanding of a subject (oral examinations? Dissertation/thesis?) is critical. None is particularly pleasant or easy, of course, and I doubt that there’ll be a way to gauge mastery that is ever pain-free for students.

23

phil 06.29.08 at 9:35 pm

I think Japanese Universities give grades for individual pieces of work and students have to gain enough credits to be awarded a degree. I am not sure how, or if, the degree is given an overall grade or classification.

It seems that it is more important which university you got to, so all of the pressure is on entrance exams and then finding a job. This looks like an interesting article although I only started to skim it.

24

abb1 06.29.08 at 11:05 pm

There are few in the world who attain to the teaching without words, and the advantage arising from non-action.

25

Matthew Kuzma 06.30.08 at 3:04 am

I don’t think demonstrating that employers could do without college transcripts is enough to rule out any influence from employers. Regardless of what could be, employers do use grades and so students and colleges are under pressure to work within the current system.

Also, to the degree that you’re right in saying that grades are there so students do work, I’d say that ultimately that serves the colleges more than the students. It’s easy to have a class without grades; it happens in just about any opt-in teaching situation ever. I’m currently learning karate from someone and learning quite well without grades. But the only students who attend classes of that kind are people who have their own drive and don’t need extrernal motivation. Colleges that only appeal to that market will quickly find themselves in the same financial predicament as anyone trying to sell art.

26

Mike M. 06.30.08 at 8:47 am

“The final, probably correct, and, to my mind, most depressing explanation of marks is that, without them, the students wouldn’t do any work.”

Well, what about the students at schools like New College in south Florida where students don’t receive grades, but instead get written evaluations, or Reed College, where grades are withheld as long as they get a C or better. As a student, I know that I’d rather get evaluative feedback than a letter or number.
(By the way, I don’t got to either of those colleges, but judging from their reputations the lack of grades hasn’t affected the student’s work ethic.)

27

Thom Brooks 06.30.08 at 9:27 am

I think John is (perhaps even sadly) spot on. Of course, it is not true of all students: we all have many students who would do the work because they enjoy it and see the benefit of it. (It is also always the case that there are a few who work so hard out of a love for the subject, but who sadly don’t perform as well as one would have expected.) All in all, it does seem that the purpose of exams is to ensure students do some work. Evidence? Check out student attendance patterns in courses where there is an exam or alternative assessment. It can be striking.

Above a commentator notes: “Funding follows school ratings, and if your students are failing, it may well be considered your fault.” Well, yes and no. Ratings of a department are not determined solely by undergraduate student achievement (even if some UK league tables do take into account the percentage gaining 2:1 or above). Students can “fail” and a department can gain funding if the department’s reputation for research is exemplary. Instead, this commentator reminds me of the ol’ “No Child Left Behind” legislation in the US where schools are punished if their scores do not improve year after year. Of course, it is the very best schools — those schools where 95% or higher of students succeed — that are punished most by such a system, as (a) there isn’t much room for any improvement and (b) 100% is near impossible to achieve, especially in schools that cannot vet students prior to commencing studies.

28

Pete 06.30.08 at 1:32 pm

Don’t forget that clear, fair marking works in favour of social mobility, whereas unclear or no qualification system tends to result in employers picking the same sort of person as the interviewer…

29

SamChevre 06.30.08 at 2:12 pm

If universities stopped giving out grades, it wouldn’t be too hard for employers to organise their own exams, and there would probably be a net cost saving.

This may be true in Australia, but is definitely not true in the US.

It is perfectly legal for an employer to hire only students with a 3.5 GPA or better from a top ten school. It is illegal for an employer to give a test that isn’t tied to job-specific skill and make that a condition of hiring.

30

mpowell 06.30.08 at 2:35 pm

I guess it’s cheaper to only use end of term exams for grading purposes, but is it that uncommon to have multiple exams and homework assignments form part of the grade as well? I believe that his how it normally works in the US, and it provides both useful feedback and an evaluation tool for graduate programs and employers. In my experience, grades from a typical US college are a pretty good evaluation tool….

31

Tracy W 06.30.08 at 2:36 pm

Oh, and to this: without them, the students wouldn’t do any work leads to the question, so what? Quite literally, what would happen? Some young people might not do any school work if they were not being graded. As a result, they might leave school. That in and of itself is not a problem.

Well as someone who is personally hopeless at providing internal motivation to do anything hard, it would mean I would have dropped out of school, or alternatively spent the rest of my life there, and therefore not had the interesting mass of information in my head that provides me not merely with comfortable employment, but lots to think about in my off hours. I don’t know why, but unless I have a deadline I utterly avoid thinking about anything I find mentally difficult, which is extremely weird as thinking about things that I find mentally difficult is in the long run one of the most rewarding things I can do in my life, and I also know that if I don’t do any hard thinking for a couple of months I get desperately bored (but not bored enough to make myself sit down and do some hard thinking).

If there are a significant number of other people like me, in having a grave tendency to procrastinate, then unis stopping awarding grades would cause a problem.

32

rea 06.30.08 at 5:19 pm

I don’t feel we are actually judged on our skill as philosophers as much as we are for our skill at exams

Good thing, too–otherwise, you’d get a cup of hemlock instead of a diploma . . .

33

christine 06.30.08 at 6:20 pm

“The final, probably correct, and, to my mind, most depressing explanation of marks is that, without them, the students wouldn’t do any work.”

Well, don’t we all need some external motivation from time to time? Many academics I know, who are very motivated, say they submit abstracts/papers to conferences to give them an incentive to finish their research. How is an 18 year old deciding that they’ll sign up for a class, as per tracy w at 31 so that they have an incentive to learn any different?

34

Dave 07.01.08 at 10:32 am

@33, it’s not. In order to disagree with the premise, you have to have a sadly idealised view of what motivates students, of their view of how they fit into the world, of what they intend to ‘gain’ from attending university, and how they’re all going to change the world [and perhaps levitate the Pentagon] if only they were freed from the repressive grip of The Man….

The genuine tragedy [or is it comedy?] is that some posts here seem to point in that direction.

35

Simon 07.02.08 at 12:07 pm

I’ve studied Philosophy (and continue to) at a number of Australian Universities and the increase in assessment is a phenomena I have personally noticed too. A course I am taking at the moment requires five short answer responses to various questions each week. Each response only has a value of a single percent! On top of this, this same course has three essay items. Quite a bit of work for a single course, on both sides of the fence.

I’ve never really been offended by assessment, however, so long as there are relevant and thoughtful comments left by the teacher. My objective is to learn so the comments is what I desire. Pretty hard to leave good comments on hundreds of short answer responses every week though isn’t it?

36

Laura 07.03.08 at 4:52 am

Those types of 1% assignments are almost always intended to make sure students prepare for their tutorials, Simon, especially when university rules forbid tying any part of the mark to attendance.

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