Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Source: Wikimedia, CC 3.0

A University of Georgia professor is being ridiculed for offering a class in which students can give themselves any grade they want.

Predictably, that’s pointed to as the latest example of colleges’ dumbing-down so a bachelor's degree attests to little more than having paid all that money.

And certainly, legitimate arguments can be made in favor of grades. After all, few of us would go to work every day if we didn’t get paid—Grades are students’ pay. Indeed, most students do work harder and thus learn more when they have to earn a good grade.

But underdiscussed, a case can be made not only for allowing students to grade themselves but for eliminating grades except for on a comprehensive exam that must be passed before graduation. (See this article's last section.)

Intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic. We’d rather our child behave well because s/he believes it’s the right thing to do than simply to get a reward or avoid a punishment. After all, throughout life, we’re asked to do the right thing in the absence of external consequences. Eliminating grades moves motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.

And if the instructor does his or her job—teaching material that’s important to students’ lives, does so in a compelling way, and gives assignments that are meaningful to students, many will work hard. Issuing grades is a way for professors to get away with poor instruction—Even in the worst-taught courses, most students will work hard to get the grade.

Students focusing on the grade causes many to cut class, use Cliff's Notes, cheat on exams, and buy term papers—That’s a thriving industry that would decline if there were no grades and if, before getting a diploma, students had to pass the comprehensive graduation exam described below.

Of course, some students aren’t mature enough to work hard despite a lack of grades, and candidly, when I was in college, one professor did tell us upfront we’d all get A’s and I did work less because of that. But it’s at least arguable that greater net good accrues from eliminating grades.

The case for eliminating grades is strengthened by the need to reduce student stress. Today’s college students face greater pressure than we may acknowledge. Today, many students who did poorly in high school are being pushed into college, where they usually do poorly despite hard work—To not go to college is viewed, unfortunately, as a path to second-class citizenship. That’s ironic because the competent tradesperson is worthy of at least as much respect as is the typical career-undertrained bachelor’s degree holder from Podunk State. And all college students are facing a more challenging future than did the previous generation  College and housing are much less affordable today and the job market for good jobs is tougher. Ever more white-collar jobs are requiring technical and soft skills and the Damoclean swords of automation and offshoring hang close to employees’ necks.

The graduation exam

Yes, before granting students a bachelor’s degree, they should be required to pass an exam attesting to bachelor’s-level competence in reading, writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, citizenship, connoisseurship, and in one's major. While of course, that high-stakes exam would be stressful, it serves the crucial purpose of ensuring that the diploma is worth more than the paper it’s written on.

But it’s undue piety to tsk-tsk at a professor who dares to try an experiment in building intrinsic motivation while reducing student stress by, in one course, allowing students to grade themselves. I'd like to see an experiment in which one of the nation's colleges that is struggling to stay afloat, eliminated all grades except for said comprehensive exam.

Update: A reader, Peter Christiansen, emailed me to say that the New York Times just reported on a successful such experiment with middle-school students.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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