Do Grades Get in the Way of Learning?

An appropriate topic for the end of the semester is the relationship (if any) between grades and learning. I think most teachers would agree that grades and learning are not obviously synonymous. At this time of year I tend to see grades as a necessary evil – we give grades because it’s what we do. I don’t mean to be cynical. At the least grades are a great motivational tool for instructors. At best grades are an indication of student learning that rewards positive outcomes. In lab, I see that certain learning outcomes are not reflected by grades. I am thinking of laboratory skills and kinetic problem solving. I confess that the bulk of the lab grade rests on student indicators that are usually expected in any science or non-science course: 1) ability to manage assignments, 2) following directions, 3) adjusting to instructor expectations, and 4) skilled communication. Some more unique indicators may be: 1) ability to use chemistry databases to find information, 2) observations, 3) collecting and presenting laboratory data, 4) interpretation of data involving some critical thinking. I have never done a “lab practical” for grading. I have given “technique points” to students for good laboratory performance but that was too subjective for me – it is easier to punish bad technique rather than reward good technique. All-in-all I find it a challenge to accurately grade laboratory outcomes that are somewhat unique to the laboratory experience.


  1. Posted December 8, 2008 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I agree that grades are not necessarily conducive to learning, and that they are a necessary evil. Scores that lead to grades can help to show learning or lack thereof, but the assignments must be carefully designed so that they actually measure learning in someway. So many scores we give are for doing work that must be done, ie managing assignments. Hopefully, when a student jumps through our hoops this will lead he or she to learn something important. As instructors, we can see the importance of practice with seemingly basic operations. However many students cannot see that repetition creates a foundation without which more advanced skills cannot be attained.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Posted December 16, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    The connection between grades and learning is definitely sketchy. I learned far more in my C General Chemistry II than I did in my A Sociology, Psychology, World Literature II, and geography combined.

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