What We Learned from Four Grading Experts Who Visited SciCourt

We heard  the opinions of several expert witnesses this week. First, Prof. Nathan Kuncel (Psychology) discussed research that reviews the purposes of higher education. Prof. Sue Wick (Biological Sciences) then discussed some of the limitations to the University of Minnesota’s current grading system from a mental health standpoint. Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert McMaster outlined some of the rationale for the current grading system and potential barriers to implementing a change. Lastly, Prof. Michael Rodriguez (Educational Psychology) shared a perspective on possible systematic issues with the current grading system.

To Prof. Nathan Kuncel, We Must First Discuss the Purposes of Education

Professor Kuncel outlined the different perspectives on why students work towards undergraduate degrees:

  1. To learn the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate decisions in the future
  2. To learn the specific skills necessary to successful in particular careers
  3. To create a market signal of what kind of person you are


If we look at the third option as the sole reason for an undergraduate education, Kuncel said he thinks  grades are a sufficient way to evaluate students. He cited literature that showed that grades are a good predictor of how an individual will perform in their future career to support this claim.


However, Kuncel said  if the first two ideas hold true, that higher education is designed to teach students general and technical skills for their future occupations, final grades may not be the best way to evaluate students. In this case, a students’ ability to adapt is more important than their final standing, so consistent and specific feedback could be better methods for evaluating students than final grades. 


Professor Kuncel has also conducted research on academic dishonesty and concluded that grades are not a major contributor to the motivation to cheat. He argued that dishonesty is prominent in many situations and is incentivized for numerous reasons, so it is unlikely that we can conclude that the desire to earn grades is the sole reason for academic dishonesty, and a change in the grading system likely would not decrease its appearance in colleges. 


Prof. Sue Wick Argues the Current Grading System Does Not Offer Flexibility


Prof. Sue Wick discussed that while under the current grading system, final grades ultimately have the same value (that is an A is an A, regardless of the situation), several factors that cause variability in the process are left unaddressed. For example:

  • There is no temporal component of grades. Whether a student crams all of the information the night before a final exam or worked consistently throughout the semester, their final grade does not account for these differences.
  • Grading systems between classes are not always consistent. In some classes, final exams can account for over 50% of a student’s final grades but can be much lower in other classes. However, an A in one class is viewed the same as an A in the other on one’s transcript.


Therefore, with these beliefs, Wick turned to Joe Feldman’s research on how to improve the current grading system. The key characteristics of a new system would include:

  • Mathematically relevant representation, like a 0-4 stepwise scale instead of a 0-100% scale.
  • Assessment based on learning of skills, not timing of them, rewarding students for being able to complete tasks at the end of the semester even if they couldn’t at the beginning.


Wick cited research that showed that there are different types of learners based on speed of learning, and many do not grasp information until the end of the semester. 


Prof. Robert McMaster Believes that Grades are a Good Indicator of Success in the Future


Prof. Robert McMaster strongly asserted that grades are an essential part of the University of Minnesota’s operations because:

  • Grades are needed to evaluate incoming students/applicants. McMaster said high school grades are a good predictor of how a student will perform in college.
  • Grades are needed to differentiate students within a class. Subsequently, not all students should do well or poorly within one class. However, McMaster stated that an A-F system is not perfect in this regard, but it is better than an pass-fail system.
  • Grades are needed to measure academic competency after a student receives their education.


McMaster addressed several concerns behind the University potentially switching to an entirely pass-fail grading system. He said that this would not work for the University of Minnesota because:

  • In theory, instructors already have the ability to switch to a pass-fail system, but most do not elect to do so.
  • In courses required for one’s degree, the University needs to measure proficiency more specifically than pass-fail allows for.
  • An pass-fail may not be well received by graduate schools or employers because it is more difficult to harmonize into their system for evaluating applicants


Prof. Michael Rodriguez Says the Current Grading System Could be Revised

Prof. Michael Rodriguez said in order to evaluate the validity of the current grading system or any potential alterations, we need to consider their interpretation and use. He said common complaints of the current system question these ideals:

  • Evaluation techniques are often too specific and not relevant to material that was taught
  • Feedback does not provide a good picture of a student’s development 
  • Questions can be ambiguous, there can be multiple interpretations, or misleading
  • Assignments and exams do not accurately assess a student’s understanding


Rodriquez stated these thoughts are valid. He said there are certain fundamental ideas that need to be integrated into any grading system:

  1. Grades should be clear indicators of course achievement
  2. Grades should recognize growth by the end of the semester; students should not be penalized for not having prior knowledge or poor performance in the beginning


More generally,

“Grades would not reflect when students learn; grades should reflect what students learn.”


In essence, Rodriguez argued that while grades are not perfect, a refinement of the system can help both students and instructors. This notion is based on the idea that grades can be used to both evaluate student performance, but can also be used to evaluate whether the instructor presented the material clearly.