The majority of students from the Business school who come to the Schwartz Institute to rehearse their company or industry analysis powerpoint presentations seem to look at the rehearsal process as an opportunity to improve a necessary skill. This has been one of the most rewarding aspects for me of my work as a Communication Fellow: the students are always grateful for the help in improving their public-speaking skills. They are motivated by the idea that they are helping themselves. I like that I do not have to grade their work for them to see it as important.
The institution of grading students on an A through F scale has done a horrible disservice to education. It has falsely given the impression to generations of students that the teacher or the professor has some ultimate authority over the value of their work, as if their own assessment of what they were doing was somehow secondary. The result of this institution is a division among most students into two groups — a group motivated by competition and the drive for the teacher’s approval, and a group lacking in motivation with little interest in the teacher’s assessment. What is missing all too often among students in both of these groups is the sense that their education is their own.
I have found several methods of correcting this problem that work within the extant system. By far the best of these methods is to ask students to write self-evaluations. All teachers who have ever taught a graded course know that students approach them to apologize for not having completed an assignment — the proverbial “my dog ate my homework” moment. The self-evaluation taps into the students’ innate authority over their work which is too often evident only in their apologies. If you ask students to write about how they have approached the assignments of the class and you ask them to write about their own perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses, they very quickly begin to realize their own agency in the learning process and to begin take responsibility for their own education.
Of course the best thing, I think, would simply be to do away with grades and grading altogether. I know that for many people this suggestion amounts to advocating “mere anarchy.” Without the carrot and stick, there would be no motivation anywhere among students, no assessment, no accountability. It’s true that in all likelihood, the students who come to me to rehearse their powerpoint presentation are not motivated purely by their own desire to improve. Their presentations are graded and they want to get a good grade. Well, perhaps this is true. But in a time when the movement for standards has taken over every level of education, I find some comfort in recollecting a different ideal.