TED Conversations

Mark Barnes

ASCD, International Society for Technology in Education


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Isn't it time to eliminate grades in education?

Give a student an F, she's learned nothing. Giver her an A, and what has she learned? Still nothing. Grades are subjective crutches, used by teachers because they either do not know any better, or because they are forced to give them by an archaic system.

Grades should be replaced by meaningful narrative feedback, which helps students understand what learning outcomes have or have not been mastered. Feedback also encourages learning, while grades only stifle it.

It's time for grades to be eliminated.


Closing Statement from Mark Barnes

This conversation was a remarkable experience -- one that gave me plenty to think about and to write about in my upcoming book (ROLE Reversal, ASCD 2012). I believe that many people here seem at least open to the idea of moving beyond the subjective, punitive grading system that we use today. Some still believe that grades are the only way to evaluate learning. It appears from the discussion that, in most cases, this is because they haven't been exposed to formative assessment and self-evaluation over summative testing and grades. Grades are a measuring tool, and not a very good one. The problem is not just grading but the idea that measurements are necessary in the first place. Learning should never be measured. Rather, it should be shared, discussed and evaluated openly; these discussions should be accompanied by objective feedback that guides students to other possibilities and to reflection and self-evaluation.

Upon consideration of all comments here, I remain steadfast in my belief that education needs ongoing narrative feedback. Any other system is arrogant and a mistake.

Thanks to all who participated.

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  • Jul 28 2011: I think the problem is not in grading itself, but in the methods how we evaluate students.

    Taking exams is an efficient way to evaluate students and give them gradings, but it can only find whether he/she memorized the stuffs, I think. Short time period, many questions... Sometimes I feel that I'm just learning how to choose answers and memorize stuffs.

    Instead of exams, we can do something else such as essays, experiments, presentations, group activities, and so on. What about increasing the ratio of these activities in gradings?(for example 65% activities and 35% exams - about three to one) Eliminating exams will be a really hard work for now because we've been taking exams for many many years. However, we can gradually decrease the ratio of exams, and increase the ratio of other grading methods.

    Quick actions can cause problems that we couldn't see before the change. When the new problems come up, we cannot easily deal with it, and also we cannot restore the system. Then our efforts will go fruitless. I think we have enough time to find the real problem and find the way to solve it. We must be calm when dealing with the education system, because education is a long range-project. We have to consider many factors, and you know this!

    I think what we need is a compromising attitude. Thanks!

    I have seen many students be disappointed at themselves after got 'F'... and I have failed too. 'Fail' can be a really heavy burden for students. It discourages them and gives too much stress... we should reform this first.
    How could we encourage students to learn and make them happy? I think this is what we're looking for..
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      Jul 28 2011: While I too feel like exams encourage cramming and robotic learning, it's still one of the easiest ways to assess learning. Multiple-choice tests are the easiest to administer, and are one of the most counterproductive- just guessing on the ones you don't know doesn't tell the student or the teacher what skills need to be further explained.

      I think essays and short-answer tests are the most important tools for educators. They are, however, more time consuming to grade. I like experiments as a part of the grade because it helps foster a sense of reality in the learning experience. Some teachers in my high school, when dealing with Laboratory grades, would deduct points off a student's Lab grade if their experiment produced too high a percent error.

      My problem with including things like presentations and group activities in the grade is that they can become too subjective, especially when all students have an ample time to prepare. While public speaking and presentation are important in real world job markets, I hate to think a student who possesses a mastery of the subject would loose standing in an academic class, not because her theory or application or understanding was wrong, but because she failed to dazzle her audience. Some schools integrate "Leadership" classes to help students become more outspoken and assertive. While I'm sure they make great tools in encouraging students to grasp the material, it doesn't help much in ranking them.
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        Jul 28 2011: The use of group work is interesting. With a group project you can't know who was the brains and who just signed their name to it. But group work and the ability to collaborate is important, so maybe it has a place. My instinct though is that it's not workable and we'd be straying from the purpose of assessing academic ability. Keep tests of individual ability and group ability separate. I think feedback notes would be much better than a grade when reporting on someones group work, but a year or so down the line, no-one would be interested in these notes - only fresh notes. Only the grade for individual work would last. Employers always ask for grades, even if you got them decades ago - this needs to change too.
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      Jul 28 2011: JaeYong, when you say "I think we should reform this first", referring to students getting Fs and being discouraged, what do you mean?

      Though I agree that students should be evaluated using a variety of tasks, I see some unexplained contradiction in your argument. What is so different if you get an F on your essay or presentation and if you get an F on your exam? The fact that one is more subjective of the teacher than the other? But how does that affect the students?

      In any way, every kind of grading system would not be perfect when it is universally employed. And I think that the real problem is not about the ratio of exams to other grading methods, but the lack of integrity and fervor of teachers in educating the students and their reluctance to mentor each individual with special attention. I have repeatedly mentioned that there are exceptions, some great teachers out there who have been true source of inspiration for some, and what we need is an increasing number of these "exceptional" teachers who will not abuse the grading system, (whether it's percentages, letters, or narrative feedbacks) and use it with care to nurture the students.
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        Jul 29 2011: Hi. You're right that a great teacher is what we really want, but I hear a lot of blame put on teachers, when I think it's the system that's more at fault. A good system and ROLE type principles take the pressure off the teacher to be this all inspiring surperhero. They just need to be honest with the students, and the students have to understand that they, not the teacher, have to do the work. Then the teacher has time to monitor and handle problems with individuals. Students can learn for themselves once they get the idea. Then they're not at the mercy of fate, where a lucky few get an exceptional teacher, but most do not. It just occurred to me, that what we traditionally think of as an exceptional teacher, might do more harm in some cases as they create a dependence, and the student, once in a different class will always blame the new teacher for not being as good, rather than taking responsibility for their learning.
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          Jul 30 2011: Hi Ian.
          I did not elaborate enough on my response because I had written a separate answer of my own before. I do believe that the system is more at fault as well. In fact, I believe there needs to be an entirely new system for educating the teachers to advocate innovative learning, because frankly, I think the system of educating students is already overwhelmingly programmed while the system for teachers is underdeveloped.

          Of course students should take the responsibility and put in their best efforts in learning. But as it has been mentioned numerously throughout the course of discussion, they are often discouraged due to the current grading system accepted and used by the teachers. Not many teachers know much about customized education due to the lack of "good system" you've mentioned, and ultimately, the teachers do their job in giving students the grades that they deserve, but without instigating them to do better. They are often brutally honest, but with no hint of encouragement.

          Eventually, when a student gets an F, the blame is on the student. He's the one who failed. He's the one who didn't study. But we know there are many students who are not as motivated as the other, who need a stronger lead and push from the teachers, and I think it's important that we put a little more focus on the part of the teachers as this discussion board has decided to do.
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        Jul 30 2011: Yes, like you say, brutal honesty is seldom useful, and probably given more often out of anger or spite than a desire to educate. A teacher with good personal skills, who can relate well to students is obviously better. I think most teachers are willing, but get jaded, and lose their idealism in the day to day grind. I didn't do traditional teacher training; I trained to teach English as a foreign language, and then got on the job training. I decided against mainstream school teaching because I disagreed with the methods so much. I think the 9 mth training course would have been largely a waste of time. I worked for the UK government a few years back, and one of the focal points of the management training was about giving effective feedback - it's a universal need. As has been mentioned, but is perhaps worth reiterating, there's not one kind of teacher: each teacher should express themselves as a means to inspire others. Whatever training we give teachers, I think it should be fairly straightforward, so as to instil important basics, like good feedback, but without constraining the natural behaviour and style of each teacher. We want diversity in our teachers, just as we want it in students - that's what I think anyway.
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          Jul 31 2011: Hi Ian. Firstly, I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and expanding my view.

          I think what you're saying is all true. I think most teachers lose their initial passion or vision because it's so difficult to challenge the mainstream teaching system. I also think some of these teachers who are willing, just simply don't know what to do. They want to encourage students to do better; they want to promote a new learning program. They just don't know where to begin. And I think that's where our system has failed. They have failed to widely accept innovative teaching methods, and consequently, failed to let the teachers have autonomy over creating unique teaching styles. I think the education system is now slowly beginning to adjust to the diversity of students' abilities; but at the same time, they should also consider, as you have said, the diversity of teaching styles. The current imbalance of the two systems, one for students and the other for teachers, needs to be eliminated in order to promote an "education for all."

          I'm entering college this fall. I've had to take a gap year to work and earn the money first, because education, particularly for international students like me, is ridiculously expensive. I'm lucky to have found a school that was willing to support me for the most part, but there are so many of us out there, who are paying an exorbitant sum of money for education. And maybe that is why I feel so critical towards teachers who do not "try their best." But then again, this is only coming from a biased perspective of a student, who has always wondered "is education (more specifically, schooling) really worth all this money and struggle?" I sincerely hope I will be able to study with some inspirational teachers who can help me self-discover and self-develop.

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