Degrading Grading

by kiminogomi

In the Business section of the New York Times for Saturday, March 24, Alina Tugend cites research from the fields of psychology, communications, and business indicating that the impact of negative criticism is disproportionately great compared to positive feedback. The experts cited for the article recommend sparing and carefully-timed use of critical remarks as more apt to produce constructive results.

This gibes with what faculty often perceive as a disconnect between their communicative purposes when grading and how students react to their comments (it also reflects how we as faculty feel about certain types of comments on student evaluations). We know that grades increasingly don’t have the desired effect, an issue that Davidson’s research in Now You See It addresses very convincingly. The Times article gives me one more piece of the puzzle: students, like ourselves, are much more vulnerable to criticism than either of us pretends to be. Even a practice I myself follow in writing comments, of starting with positive feedback, comes under scrutiny here: Stanford’s Clifford Nass suggests that starting with one critical remark and then a list of positives may be more effective. And Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile (nice name given the topic!) reports that while progress in work projects is strongly valued by most employees, perceived setbacks are much more destructive than Incremental progress is constructive.

So how do we provide effective formative assessment without triggering defensive and counter-productive behavior? One suggestion I have is to switch emphasis from grading to marking. As Davidson points out, we grade to provide boot-factory-style stats; I suggest that we mark as collaborators and editors. If we speak of marking as separate from grading, we make a clearer distinction between formative and summative aspects of our role. Not that marks shouldn’t inform grades, but if we simply grade on what needed changing then we unconsciously emphasize the negative aspects of our relation to learning. And grades should be based not only on marks but on more intangible aspects of student performance such as development, personal growth, and collaboration. If that’s hard to quantify, good: that’s precisely a step in the right direction. And if administrators can be persuaded to look beyond simple metrics, and can persuade trustees in their turn that this really is progress, then the shift will occur easily. The Times piece by pointing out that these insights are at work in the business world can help us begin to make the case for a less degrading form of assessment.