The following is a guest post from Arthur Lewin, Associate Professor, Department of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch College. He can be reached at Arthur.Lewin@baruch.cuny.edu.
What does pedagogy and mathematical physics have in common? The Uncertainty Principle. Physics informs us it is impossible to accurately determine both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. One can know its position, or its momentum, but never both.
Similarly, to the extent that we try to precisely measure “where each student stands” vis-à-vis the others in the class, we inhibit and retard the overall learning process. But to the extent that we focus on the overall learning of the group, the precise measurement of grades is neglected. A Hobbesian choice. But choose we must.
The American educational system, overall, seems to have chosen measurement over education of the group. For example, years ago prep courses for the SAT and grad school admission tests were optional, now they are almost mandatory. Since almost everyone is taking them, those who do not are at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, companies that make the tests, aware that virtually every one has been coached, make the tests ever more convoluted and abstruse, which only spurs students to spend more and more time in test preparation.
So, to teach or to grade, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to err on the side of individual measurement or overall education of the group, for we simply cannot do both equally well, no matter how hard we try to.
Agree. Ken Bain mentions this at his 3-day “What the Best College Teachers Do” workshop (based on his book by same name). Bain asks “should we grade a student (i) relative to others [i.e., on a curve], (ii) based on one’s individual improvement or (iii) relative to a standard?” In large classes (ii) is not really an option due to the ways the system can be gamed. So between (i) and (iii) Bain shares research that shows that there is more overall learning when students are held to standards rather than curves. The challenge is developing the standard. For your discipline, what should every student be able to do or demonstrate to be called “A”? (Now repeat for A-, B+, B-, and so on). And how do you assess this efficiently when you have 80 or 125 students in one section?
Yes, “what is the standard and how do you assess it?” And how will my decisions in this regard affect the tenor, the tone, of the class? Will it induce “fear and loathing” in a fierce quest for individual grades, or will it stimulate close reading of the texts and critical, even creative, thinking? And vice versa, how can real engagement with the material enhance performance on tests and encourage overall learning?