The Almighty 'A' is the Death of Learning

Its no secret grade inflation is cause célèbre at universities, but the pressure to give A's is a Frankenstein of our own design. Like hog futures, real estate, and diamonds, an A only holds the intrinsic value we assign it.
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Grade inflation, helicopter parents, and students demanding unfounded grade raises can all be traced back to one thing -- worshipping at the Temple of "A". We can blame entitled students or their overbearing parents for a classroom full of kids driven by little more than a GPA score, but truth be told as professors we may have done the damage ourselves. Educators have lorded that tiny letter over our students as a gilded carrot at best, or a threat at worst. The unsavory result is that when an A becomes the only marker of quality work and a satisfactory academic experience, everything else important about learning is overshadowed in the process.

Its no secret grade inflation is cause célèbre at universities, but the pressure to give A's is a Frankenstein of our own design. Like hog futures, real estate, and diamonds, an A only holds the intrinsic value we assign it. We've made certain our students, their parents, and future employers see high letter grades as a valuable commodity, and so they are. Unfortunately, an A average may be a false marker for success. There is growing evidence that what students are actually capable of after they leave college has little do with what's on their transcript.

Elle Kaplan, CEO at Lexion Capital Management, states that when assessing a potential job applicant, she has become more concerned with "passion and professional achievement" than GPA. Kaplan believes that "grades have an inflated level of importance that does not always translate directly to the workspace." This notion is backed up by Stanford professor, Linda Darling-Hammond, who notes that: "In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills." Unfortunately, there is currently no metric for soft skills in academia, and according to Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at NYU, GPA is an merely an indication of who is a better student, not a measure for social and communication skills crucial to the workplace.

The spike in grade inflation is sometimes attributed the pressure to ensure students can use their transcripts to find work after school, but the fateful result is that inflation might be diminishing the value of an A. Jerry Goolsby, Director of Loyola University New Orlean's MBA program, states MBA degrees are becoming "largely irrelevant because of dumbing down of the curriculum and grade inflation."

Inflation aside, the value of grades across disciplines is incredibly subjective. Paul Kimelman, CTO of Luminary Micro, addresses the bias that: "someone who gets all A's in 'communications' at a university is probably not working as hard as someone who gets all A's in physics. Yet this is all subjective. Why would we assume that physics is 'harder' than, say, literary critique?" He goes on to note that: "many 'hard' subjects are about memorizing and repeating well-defined steps. Literary critique has no well-defined guide posts, and so requires a deeper understanding of what is to be done."

Assessing the true value of an A in the mire of inflation and subjectivity can be debated to no end. The real concern is whether or not students are fully engaging in the class material. If the primary focus of a classroom experience is get an A, student's may be afraid to push themselves into uncharted territory, take on a more challenging project, or test new ideas. After all, treading the known path will most likely result in a better grade.

Dominic Randolph has coined a new set of early education terms -- the "fragile thoroughbred". The fragile thoroughbred is a top student who has achieved academic success, but faced very little challenge in doing so. These students have what Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck describes as a "fixed mindset". One of many traits associated with a fixed mindset is the desire to appear smart rather than experience the discomforts of learning and growth: "the main thing I want to do when I school-work (or any other "work") is to show how good I am at it."

When it comes to fixed mindset students, Randolph asks: "How do you create systems in a school that confound that easy belief: everything's perfect, everything's fine, and I'm always going to be an A student. I think that's an interesting question when you have the pressure of college admissions. The colleges are looking for these perfect transcripts... I'm interested in growth. And unfortunately the college admission system isn't looking for growth right now."

Kimelman echoes this sentiment. He states that many schools put so much more emphasis on "homework versus actual understanding that they are measuring behavior and compliance far more than what has been learned." He goes on to state that grades are only a good measure of success in "compliance-oriented fields."

In my own classroom I see evidence that highly calculated compliance can easily be disguised as "learning." I can't tell you how often students come to me with two ideas for a film project and ask me which one I think is better. They defer to me with the hopes if they pick the one I like they'll get an A. I try to tell students their films are for them, not for me, and they should work on the one they will get the most out of and enjoy making. I explain that both ideas could work, but the idea that they connect with is undoubtedly going to get the best result. This is just one of a number of ways I see students trying to comply, so I try to keep a keen ear to when a student is looking to please rather than perform.

Helping students understand that good work is process is important, and I find that assigning a final letter grade early on eliminates the process. In her studies on grit and learning, psychologist and MacArthur Fellow Angela Lee Duckworth notes that students rarely see professional work as the result of a series of failures and revisions. As professors we know our journal articles, lab research, and creative endeavors are all on their hundredth draft by the time the world sees them, so why are we giving students final grades after they submit an assignment we only gave them two weeks ago?

Moreover, professors frequently assign grades without detailed explanations of why an assignment succeeded or failed. Students see the B-, rather than how they can improve. I've tried to remedy this by giving lots of feedback and allowing time for rewrites, which reduces the pressure for me to give lenient grades. I grade hard the first time around, but give thick paragraphs of feedback. Students can opt to revise the assignment taking my feedback into consideration and resubmit for a higher grade. Most important, my feedback comes in the form of questions rather than prescriptive statements or suggestions. Again, I'm not trying to get students to please or imitate, I'm trying to get them to think.

Since I implemented this method two years ago, I am shocked how many students elect to rewrite. Rewrites are by no means compulsory, but nearly every student has voluntarily done second and even third draft to improve their grade, sometimes just to go from an A- to an A. I'm taking full advantage of the broken system -- students can achieve their Almighty A, but they're improving in the process.

It's a challenge to imagine having enough time to leave feedback and re-grade assignments when we are already overwhelmed with responsibilities, but reconsidering your syllabus might help. My solution is to give less work and more feedback. I'd rather have students do three assignments over and over again until they get it right, instead of six assignments completed once.

I'd be happiest if we academia moved towards an ungraded, project-based structure like the MIT Design Lab, but if we insist on this antiquated system to assess learning, let's do everyone a favor and stop telling our student's to worship at the Temple of A.

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