No numbers

We know that grades are really quite arbitrary and that turning numbers into letters, while something we can do, is actually not that strongly coupled to evaluating learning or demonstrating mastery. Why? Because having the appropriate level of knowledge and being able to demonstrate it are not necessarily the same as being able to pass tests or produce solutions to assignments.

For example, if we look at Rapaport’s triage approach as a way to evaluate student interaction with assignments, we can then design our learning environment to provide multiple opportunities to construct and evaluate knowledge on the understanding that we are seeking clear evidence that a student cannot just perform tasks of this nature but, more important, can do reliably. We can do this even if we use “Good, getting there, wrong and no submission” rather than numbers. The duality of grades (a symbol and its meaning) degenerates to something other than numbers anyway. Students at my University didn’t care about 84 versus 85 until we put a new letter grade in at 85 (High Distinction). But even these distinctions are arbitrary scales when it comes to evaluating actual learning.

A very arbitrary scale.

Why are numbers not important in this? Because they’re rarely important anyway. Have you ever asked your surgeon what her grades were in school? What about your accountant? Perhaps you’ve questioned the percentage that your favourite Master of Wine achieved in the tasting exams? Of course you haven’t. You’ve assumed that a certification (of some sort) indicates sufficient knowledge to practise. And what we have to face is that we are currently falling back onto numbers to give us false confidence that we are measuring learning. They don’t map. They’re not objective. They’re often mathematically nonsensical. No-one cares about them except to provide yet another way of sorting human beings and, goodness knows, we already have enough of those.

Ah, but “but students like to know how they’re going”, right? Yes. Which is where critique and evaluation come in, as well as may other authentic and appropriate ways to recognise progress and encourage curiosity and further development. None of which require numbers.

Let me ask you a question:

Does every student who accumulates enough pass tokens to graduate from your program have a clearly demonstrated ability to perform tasks to the requisite level in all of the knowledge areas of your program?

If the answer is no, then numbers and grades didn’t help, did they? I suspect that, for you as for many others including me, you can probably think of students who managed to struggle through but, in reality, were probably never going to be much good in the field. Perhaps 50% doesn’t magically cover competency? If 50% doesn’t, then raising the bar to 75% won’t solve the problem either. For reasons already mentioned, many of the ways we combine numbers to get grades just don’t make any real sense and they certainly don’t provide much insight into how well the student actually learned what you were trying to teach.

If numbers/grades don’t have much solid foundation, don’t always reflect ability to perform the task, and aren’t actually going to be used in the future? Then they are neither good nor true. And they cannot be beautiful.

Thus, let me strip Rapaport back one notch and provide a three-tier grade-free system, commonly used in many places already, that is closer to what we probably want:

  1. Nothing submitted,
  2. Work in progress, resubmit if possible, and
  3. Work to competent standard.

I know that there are concerns about the word ‘competency’ but I think it’s something we’re going to have think about moving on from. I teach engineers and computer scientists and they have to go out and perform tasks successfully if people are going to employ them or work with them. They have to be competent. Right now, I can tell you which of them have passed but, for a variety of grading reasons, I can’t tell you which one of them, from an academic transcript alone, will be able to sit down and solve your problem. I can see which ones pass exams but I don’t know if this is fixed knowledge or swotting. But what if you made it easy and said “ok, just point to the one who will build me the best bridge”? No. I can’t tell you that. (The most likely worst bridge is easier, as I can identify who does and doesn’t have Civil Engineering qualifications.)

The three-tier scale is simple. The feedback approach that the marker should take is pretty clear in each place and the result is clear to the student. If we build our learning environment correctly, then we can construct a pathway where a student has to achieve tier 3 for all key activities and, at that point, we can actually say “Yes, this student can perform this task or apply this knowledge to the required level”. We do this enough times, we may even start to think that the student could perform this at the level of the profession.

Wait. Have we just re-invented competency-based assessment? There’s an immediate urge to say “but that’s not a University level thing” and I do understand that. CBA has a strong vocational focus but anyone who works in an engineering faculty is already in that boat. We have industry linked accreditation to allow our students to practise as engineers and they have to demonstrate the achievement of a certified program, as well as work experience. That program is taught at University but, given that all you need is to get the degree, you can do it on raw passes and be ‘as accredited’ as the next person.

Now, I’d be the first person to say that not only are many aspects of the University not vocationally focussed but I’d go further and say that they shouldn’t be vocationally focussed. The University is a place that allows for the unfettered exploration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and I wouldn’t want to change that. (And, yet, so often, we still grade such abstract ideals…) But let’s take competency away from the words job and vocational for a moment. I’m not suggesting we turn Universities into vocational study centres or shut down “non-Industry” programs and schools. (I’d like to see more but that’s another post.) Let’s look at focusing on clarity and simplicity of evaluation.

A student writes an essay on Brecht and submits it for assessment. All of the rich feedback on language use, referencing and analysis still exists without the need to grade it as A, B or C. The question is whether the work should be changed in response to the feedback (if possible) or whether it is, recognisably, an appropriate response to the question ‘write an essay on Brecht’ that will allow the student to develop their knowledge and skills. There is no job focus here but pulling back to separate feedback and identifying whether knowledge has been sufficiently demonstrated is, fundamentally, a competency argument.

The PhD, the pinnacle of the University system, is essentially not graded. You gain vast amounts of feedback over time, you write in response and then you either defend it to your prospective peers or have it blind-assessed by external markers. Yes, there are degrees of acceptance but, ultimately, what you end up with is “Fine as it is”, “Do some more work”, and “Oh, no. Just no.” If we can extend this level of acceptance of competency to our highest valued qualification, what is the consistent and sound reasoning that requires us to look at a student group and say “Hmm, 73. And this one is… yes, 74.”? If I may, cui bono? Who is benefitting here?

But what would such a program look like, you ask? (Hey, and didn’t Nick say he was going to talk about late penalties?) Yes, indeed. Come back tomorrow!

5 Comments on “No numbers”

  1. Julie Kerry says:

    Competency-based education and assessment is big in MedEd!


  2. Julie Kerry says:

    Apparently I’m already out of date – we have moved beyond competence to performance. How competent we are within our natural habitat. These are combined in a series of “Entrustable Professional Activities”


    • nickfalkner says:

      So… competence. 🙂


      • Julie Kerry says:

        Yes, but contextual competence. Mainly in medical education the difference between how you manage a standardized patient scenario, versus your first day of internship after you have graduated and a real patient comes in at 2am that you have to manage. One can be adjudged competent in the former, but ones actual performance in the real world fall short. The goal or challenge is to then get everyone to the point whereby they can manage in that real world environment by defining what exactly we expect that intern to be able to do.


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