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On the value of assessment…

Marks are really rather arbitrary. I have this fear, when marking, that I’ll double mark a paper/project submitted by a student (i.e. I’ll mark it once with comments and a grade…and then, because I forgot I had already marked it, do the same again)…and provide completely different comments or even a different grade. A prof at U of Ottawa decided to take a different approach: Give every student an A+ at the start of the course. In his words:

It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned.

Of course, the tenured prof was fired.

The use of grading for evaluating students is recent, all owed to William Farish.

UPDATE: Just noticed D’Arcy Norman had already posted on this: “As we continue moving toward a more individual and portfolio-driven assessment of a person’s abilities, philosophies, and educational contexts, grades become less meaningful anyway.”


  1. Charles Nelson wrote:

    “Arbitray” has the notion of being unrestricted and unreasonable.

    My own grading is informed by my readings in my field, my colleagues, and by expectations at my institution. Yes, I’m the finally “arbiter,” but there are restrictions, and my grading is not capricious.

    Perhaps you can explain why you believe that grading is arbitrary.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles wrote:

    P.S. Correct my spelling for “Arbitray” to “Arbitrary”. Thanks.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Jennifer Courduff wrote:

    As a professor at a local university, I develop rubrics for assignments and give them to my students the first night of class. When students turn in assignments, I evaluate them based on the rubric. If the assignment is not A work, the student is required to revise the work until it meets A quality as specified by the rubric. This makes the entire process more objective for me.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Frances Bell wrote:

    One of the main reasons for me that assessment is important is that it is valued by students, superficially in terms of a mark or grade, but much more effectively once they can use assessment and feedback to inform their personal improvement.
    Like Jennifer I use rubrics, and encourage students’ active use of them by asking them to use the rubric to ‘mark’ the work of a published author.

    Monday, February 9, 2009 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  5. I think the only arbitrary behaviour in this case, its the violence of the university against Rancourt. This is not about assessment, this is about arbitrary violence.

    Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  6. And later, we can talk about assessment. If possible without handcuffs.

    Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink
  7. Virginia Yonkers wrote:

    I have graded papers twice (especially when they are posted on the internet) and am always surprised at how consistent I am. My remarks may differ, but it is rare that I am 2 points off from my original grade.

    I don’t understand how a tenured professor could be fired for not “grading” students more than A+. I do wonder though, how he handles students that don’t come to class at all. In that case, he is not teaching students (or helping them to learn) as they can “pass” the class without having learned anything.

    I start with a minimum grade if all students do the minimum work (a C). Students can then work on achieving an “A” by doing as much work as it takes to achieve the “A”. There are 1400 possible points they can earn and an “A” requires “940″ points. Students can hand in as many assignments as they want to receive whatever grade they are willing to work for. I am always surprised at the number that are satisfied with the minimal. But that is their choice.

    Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  8. Michael wrote:

    Robert Pirsig’s protagonist Phaedrus in “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” did much the same thing by starting the semester by handing out the exam to his students, in an attempt to free them having to try and second guess the assessment and really see their subject. He was likewise in trouble.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

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  1. LMS, Assessments and RoI « CCK08 - Viplav Baxi on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 6:57 am

    [...] February 14, 2009 in CCK08 | Tags: CCK08 Janet Clareysparked off some serious thinking in my head about, really, what we are measuring in terms of RoI on training initiatives. The post in question was Rob Wilkins’ Why do we sacrifice? and you can find our conversation in the comments (and hopefully contribute your thoughts too!). George raises some relevant ideas too in his post On the value of assessments. [...]