Nearly a decade ago, I gave an examination in a course on ancient Greek philosophy. Among the questions students could answer on the examination was this one: “Socrates has often been praised as an outstanding teacher. Do you agree that he is an outstanding teacher? Why or why not?” My students’ responses showed their characteristic wit:
“Stimulating teacher, but annoying that you’d never know when (or where!) the class meets.
There’s always ‘that one guy’ in every class. Socrates should’ve done more to shut that guy – Euthyphro, Thrasymachus, whoever – up!
Is there a Form of the Teacher? If there is, Socrates is it.”
Yet the response that has stuck with me cut right to the core of a central problem about teaching philosophy in an academic setting:
“He was great, and the key was simple: everyone learned, but no one got a grade.”
No records exist as to whether Plato, Socrates’ star student, gave grades at his Academy. But as philosophy has evolved into an academic subject in the nineteenth century, grades (“marks” for my United Kingdom audience) have come in tow. But what should we make of this practice from a philosophical point of view? My own judgement is a decidedly negative one: grading students, I have come to believe, is philosophically suspect as a tool for engendering philosophical understanding and ultimately bad for philosophy both as an academic discipline and as a human pursuit.
One common worry about grading, especially in the philosophy classroom, does not trouble me: some might believe that grading cannot be fair because it is unreliable. Too many variables influence how an instructor grades, many of which (that a student is likeable, say) ought not to influence their grades. Unreliability might be a particularly pressing worry in philosophy, a “subjective” discipline where (some would assert) there are no “right answers.” Now if critics of grading have in mind that with respect to philosophy, there are no easy or uncontroversially right answers, I agree. But it hardly follows that every answer to a philosophical question is equally plausible or that every philosophical position is on its face equally defensible. Suppose a student turns in an essay defending the thesis that it is morally permissible to create human newborns for the sole purpose of roasting and eating them, or defending the thesis that metaphysical materialism is true because all of reality is simply the mental life of a single alien life form. These are, I take it, unlikely philosophical claims. As such, a student who argues for such theses will face greater scepticism than one who argues for less outlandish claims. The student will have to do more to overcome the reader’s scepticism. This does not mean that the student ought not try to defend claims like these. But it illustrates that even if the ultimate truths about ethics, metaphysics, and the like, are elusive, not every philosophical position starts off on the same epistemic footing.
More importantly, not every way of defending a philosophical thesis is equally plausible or credible. Some rest on arguments that are logically valid, some do not. Some defences rest on accurate and charitable interpretations of philosophical texts or ideas, some do not. Some are cognisant of objections, some are not. An academic philosopher is trained to recognise these differences. A good philosophical grader, I contend, looks primarily not at what a student purports to believe, but why she purports to believe it. And there does not seem to be any special reason to doubt that a well-trained philosopher can evaluate students on how effectively students rationally defend their views.
So we should not be overly worried about the reliability of philosophical grading (and if there are worries here, techniques such as standardised grading rubrics and anonymous grading can mitigate them). A more serious worry about grading in academic philosophy concerns validity. Even if our grades are consistent and reliable, do our methods of grading actually track what we think they do? Here questions arise about precisely what grades are supposed to track. Let me raise two points in this regard.
First, grades (it is often said) should be based on merit. Underneath this platitude is significant disagreement about what makes a grade merited. In a paper called “Fair Grades,” Daryl Close argues that grades are merited when they reflect only students’ mastery of some body of academic content. For Close, grades have only one legitimate purpose, to convey information to the wider world (parents, prospective employers, etc.) about students’ academic performance. Any other use of grades, including using them as rewards or punishments to motivate desirable student behaviours, is unwarranted and unfair. As Close sees it, even if attendance, effort, participation, etc., typically help students attain higher grades, they should not be graded on the basis of those behaviours or dispositions. As critics have noted, even if we accept Close’s claim that the purpose of grading is informational, it may not follow that it would be wrong to grade students on desirable behaviours.
Compare these two students (they’re adapted from a NewAPPS blog post by Mark Lance, newappsblog.com/2013/10/grading-in-academia-and-martial-arts.html):
Fortunate: The daughter of a philosophy professor and a computer programmer, Fortunate arrives in class already having read smidgens of Plato and Descartes in high school history classes. She has well developed skills in writing and logic. Fortunate finds her introductory philosophy course a breeze – she rarely attends class, interacts with her instructor or peers, or engages with the assigned material. However, she produces high quality essays and exams throughout the term, and easily earns an A for the course.
Diligent: Diligent had never encountered philosophy before enrolling in his introductory philosophy course. He finds the subject bewildering, unsure how to read philosophical texts or critique philosophical arguments or positions. Diligent feels far more comfortable with subjects with clear, well-established answers and procedures. Diligent reacts to his bewilderment by attending class regularly, visiting the instructor’s office with questions, and creating a study group with other students. Diligent’s work early in the academic term is work, but by the end of the term, his essays and exams are of the same quality as Fortunate’s. Based on his work throughout the term, Diligent would earn a B.
An instructor must assign grades to Fortunate and Diligent. What grade would most adequately broadcast to the larger world a correct message about Fortunate’s and Diligent’s performances? Close would presumably argue that Fortunate’s body of work is stronger, and to that extent, she ought to receive a better grade. But Diligent seemed to have earned a better grade. Although Fortunate began with greater advantages than Diligent, by the end of the course, she is not any better at philosophising than Diligent is. If what I mean to broadcast is some fact about their respective aptitudes in philosophy, then Fortunate and Diligent should receive identical grades. If what I mean to broadcast is something about what other parties (employers and so on) can expect from Fortunate and Diligent, there’s a case to be made that Diligent should receive the higher grade.
We see here echoes of familiar disputes within philosophical ethics. Close plays the backward-looking deontologist here: Grades should be allocated according to how well tasks were performed. Grades are thus akin to compensation for one’s outputs. Close’s critics are like forward-looking consequentialists: Grades are more like predictions of what a student can or will do. (One possible resolution to this impasse is to adopt the approach known as mastery or standards-based grading. See Patricia L. Scriffiny, “Seven Reasons for Standards-based Grading,” in Educational Leadership) My point here is not to settle this dispute. Rather, I simply underscore that serious questions can be raised about the validity of grades inasmuch as philosophical disagreement exists about what grades should track. If we cannot agree on what grades ought to reflect, how can we even go about determining if grades reflect what they ought to reflect?
A second point about validity relates to Close’s claims about using grades as motivational tools. Even if Close is correct and instructors should not use grades this way, it is positively naïve to suppose that students aren’t heavily motivated by grades. (Rebekah Nathan’s immersion memoir, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Freshman, provides ample evidence for this.) This fact introduces a Heisenberg-like problem: we cannot straightforwardly use grades to measure any fact about students and performances that is itself influenced by grades. But since grades often do motivate how students operate as learners, learning is itself changed by the presence of grades. Grades, in other words, are not psychologically neutral interventions into the learning process. For this reason alone, we should be at least a little sceptical about grades’ validity. Grades change the learner and are therefore likely to influence what we can capture about student performances and student learning by grading them.
Unfortunately, an established body of research suggests that grades introduce factors into the learning process that are detrimental to learning. (A philosophically-oriented summary of this research is offered by Jennifer McCrickerd, “What Students Deserve: A Grading Policy that Supports Learning,” in Philosophy Through Teaching, Esch, Hernberg, and Kraft, editors). In psychologists’ parlance, grades are extrinsic motivators. Grades reward students for learning (well, they are supposed to). Hence, extrinsically motivated learners in effect attend to two objectives at once: what they are learning and the grades that count as rewards for learning. For extrinsically motivated learners, learning is a triad involving the self, the subject to be learned, and external motivators such as grades. For these students, grades are rewards or punishments for what they have done. Grades thus contrast with intrinsic motivators, such as a desire to answer a question one finds compelling. The intrinsically motivated student is rewarded by learning, and thus directs her attention or motivation almost exclusively at the task of learning. Intrinsically motivated learners tend to retain more of what they learn, take on more risks in their learning, attach value to what they learn, are more excited by learning tasks, and use modes of learning that go beyond surface ideas to deeper meaning. For intrinsic learners, learning is a dyad involving the self and the subject to be learned. For these learners, grades are information about what they know, what they don’t, and how they might improve. As Plato emphasized in the Republic, education is the product less of inculcation than of “turning the soul” toward the right things. Similarly, the intrinsic learner has turned her soul toward the objects she is trying to master rather than fixating on rewards external to those objects.
There is little doubt that intrinsically motivated learners learn more and better than extrinsically motivated learners. This is doubly true in philosophy, I suspect. Philosophy can be a harsh discipline, demanding that its practitioners master a set of challenging argumentative skills. At its best, students progress in philosophy by harnessing these skills to a sense of curiosity, exploration, and puzzlement. To address problems whose resolution one finds inherently worthwhile renders learning more enjoyable and enchanting. Grades, in contrast, serve to introduce anxiety into the learning process, giving students a reason to fear failure. In a way, learning should be anxious. Indeed, ample evidence suggests that the most effective learning is the product of mild anxiety. But grades introduce anxiety from the outside, tying a student’s performance to her future personal and professional goals. This anxiety leads to risk aversion, making students conservative and diffident. In fact, the most consistent findings from studies of grading is that traditional grades lead, as Alfie Kohn puts it, “students [to] think less creatively, lose interest in what they’re learning, and to avoid challenging tasks.”
This contrast between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation also highlights another drawback of grading. Grading changes the role of the instructor in ways that are detrimental to the instructor-student relationship. Much of what a philosophy instructor does can be described as a kind of intellectual coaching: giving students feedback, encouraging them where necessary, correcting their missteps, and so on. The instructor serves here as a guide. Grading forces instructors into a schizophrenic position. For myself, I find this a nearly impossible set of roles to fulfil simultaneously, one minute the student’s ally and partner, the next her judge and jury. Too many students have been acculturated to see their teachers as their antagonist. But education is most effective when students see each other as teammates. This does not mean that, in philosophy for example, we don’t challenge students’ opinions or reasoning. Again, the example of Socrates is salutary: he didn’t coddle his students, letting their muddled thinking go unnoticed. But he did so within a larger pedagogical context where he and his students shared an underlying devotion to the pursuit of philosophical knowledge. His interlocutors (aside from those Plato clearly depicted as hostile) may have been wary of Socrates’ arguments, but not wary of Socrates. Grades, on the other hand, poison the educational relationship, making students and instructors suspicious of one another. With the spectre of grades looming over the educational process, virtually every act by students or teachers is viewed through the lens of grades. It influences how we see one another, with both parties assigning every question, comment, or interaction a grade-related significance. Students hear an instructor offering constructive feedback on an essay as indicating how to improve a grade. Instructors hear a student compliment as an attempt to curry favour and raise a grade. Grades also corrode the relationships among students, especially if the grading is done “on a curve.” How can students learn from one another if they are not peers but rivals competing for a scarce resource?
No doubt grading is convenient for all parties involved: for parents and school administrators, they serve as a shorthand for student performance or ability. Grading students is easier for instructors than assessing them in a formative way (though I haven’t mentioned how unpleasant grading can be for the instructor). But the case against grading is powerful, resting on epistemological and ethical considerations. We can’t be confident that grades track what we want them to track – and it’s not obvious what grades should track. Beyond this, grades encourage our students to see their contributions to their education as investments in a commodity instead of as steps along a path of inquiry. Grades are motivational imperalists, squeezing out other motivations more directly conducive to learning. And for a discipline like philosophy, with its putative aim of engendering wisdom, grades are a bane, encouraging students to perceive philosophy as a static body of knowledge instead of the lively and kinetic practice of inquiry it actually is.
My student thus had it right about Socrates. His students learned not despite the absence of grades, but to a large extent because of the absence of grades. Of course, as an academic philosopher, I can’t get away from grades. My students have come to expect them, and of course, my employer does too. Still, if I had my way, we’d dump grading (at least in the incarnation we have at present). And for now, when my students ask that age old question, “Will this be on the test?” I can only answer “Unfortunately, yes.”