Do Grades Really Reflect Rigor?

Just the opposite is true. Flip the question and consider the many ways grades fail the learning process. Grades tend to inhibit curiosity by encouraging students to do only what is required to earn an A.
11/06/2014 05:26 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015
Education book on table in library
Education book on table in library

I work for an institution that, with full board support, questions conventional wisdom in all aspects of pedagogy and operations. Not all college presidents are so fortunate. My next few posts here will explore questions related to unconventional approaches and academic rigor. I hope to debunk some common myths and perhaps stimulate thoughts of change elsewhere.

Myth number one: An academic program without grades can't be very rigorous.

Just the opposite is true. Flip the question and consider the many ways grades fail the learning process. Grades tend to inhibit curiosity by encouraging students to do only what is required to earn an A. How many professors hear the question, "What do I have to do to get an A?" in their first class of the semester? Without an arbitrary stopping point, students excited about their work often push beyond expectations for an A, at times surprising even themselves with what they accomplish.

Narrative evaluations are teaching tools. Grades don't tell a student anything about what he or she has done well, or might have done better. Students receiving detailed narrative evaluations can understand the strengths and weaknesses in their work and how they might improve it. Grades will not be part of students' lives after they leave school; detailed feedback on performance almost assuredly will. Narrative evaluations function more like "real world" evaluation.

In research that Hampshire College recently conducted with our students, we found that those who thrive in our ungraded program tend to be strong collaborators and highly empathetic. Those traits are sorely needed in a world of increasingly complex challenges far too large to be solved without cooperation and cultural understanding. Students who don't have to compete for grades can both pursue their own excellence and learn to work effectively with others.

Some argue that grades are necessary to sort out the winners and losers, and determine who gets to go on to the next level. I don't accept that premise and neither do the graduate schools and professional schools that find Hampshire's narrative evaluations to be real indicators of rigorous study and accomplishment. Two-thirds of our students go on to get graduate degrees, and we are in the top 1 percent nationwide in sending students on to the highest degree in their field.

There is a strange irony in the notion that grades assure rigor -- how rigorous can grades truly be when at some elite institutions an A has become the most commonly awarded grade? Grade inflation makes it difficult to talk meaningfully about quality and excellence. Rigor in education is not about being told how well you did, but about being told what you need to do next in order to improve.