The grading dilemma

August 31, 2011

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–Photos by Fayyaz Ahmed/Dawn.com

When it boils down to it, one of the most insidious problems with our education system is its emphasis on grades. Every year, thousands of students are reduced to a letter or number that is not really a reliable indicator of caliber or intellect. How can one diminish a student’s two year effort to one mark earned after a two or three hour exam? Yet this is precisely what we do. The negative impact of this grading on the way our students think, operate and see the world is becoming increasingly obvious.

Educationists and psychologists argue that a reliance on grades as a tool to motivate students is actually detrimental to the process of learning. Having taught for over three years myself, I agree. I cannot make a student love to read by brandishing a -10 at him. To force students to study a subject out of fear is to make it a drag for them. Bonus marks or failing grades serve only to increase anxiety and resentment; they do nothing to motivate students to take an earnest interest in the subject that they study.

Moreover, since grades are the only thing that students are taught to care about, they put in just enough effort to scrape by. I have seen students harass university professors to ‘narrow down’ the scope of a literary text and tell them which ‘five questions’ they should study from so that they can do well in an exam. Ideas such as research, the joy of discovery in critical thought and delving deeper into the book just because it is a profound read leave these students cold. Will all this extra effort be graded? No. Then why do it? So much so, that end of year examinations with their selective studying and cheating do nothing to promote learning or education: many rote learners will proudly boast a first division on their university degree and yet be unable to string a coherent sentence together.

Perhaps the most detrimental effect that our emphasis on grading has had is to kill the spirit of creativity. Most of our A/B graders are not risk takers. They like to play it safe. They don’t like to waste time studying anything ‘outside the syllabus’. Most of all, they hate to make a mistake, a quality which, according to Sir Ken Robinson, is the very antithesis of creative thinking. Solutions to a problem are acquired only after trial and error. But a schooling based on tests, quizzes, evaluations and exams does not reward but rather punishes any ‘out of the box’ approaches. 

This is not to devalue all our A-graders. Rather, it is to say that the A grade devalues students who are intelligent, hard working, and passionate about learning, because it gives no credit to the extra work they put in over the course of their study. The system does not motivate them to take on anything that will challenge them – if they can get an A while sitting within their comfort zones, then so be it. A system based on grades rewards the very mediocrity that we complain is seeping into our national character.

Lastly, grades just aren’t reliable. Some of my most brilliant students are not good exam-takers and it is monumentally unfair that the work they put in during two or more academic years is completely disregarded in one examination session. Many universities and even schools have to resort to interviewing applicants and potential students, despite their excellent grades, because their results do not necessarily indicate work ethic, diligence or intelligence for that matter.

If education is the route to success and the foundation of society, our system seems to be creating a nation that is lazy, apathetic and which cuts corners. There is no joy in learning here. There is cynicism with statements like ‘So what if I didn’t attend school, I got an A didn’t I’? A society where the end justifies the means and a single grade determines a student’s fate is a society bound to stagnate. Not only do we need to re-think the amount of emphasis we give to education in this country, we also need to focus on how to educate our youngsters and what we are teaching them in the process.

Shazaf Fatima has studied English Literature from the University of Karachi. She is a teacher and a writer based in Karachi.

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