Can we do this? We already have.

How does one actually turn everything I’ve been saying into a course that can be taught? We already have examples of this working, whether in the performance/competency based models found in medical schools around the world or whether in mastery learning based approaches where do not measure anything except whether a student has demonstrated sufficient knowledge or skill to show an appropriate level of mastery.

An absence of grades, or student control over their grades, is not as uncommon as many people think. MIT in the United States give students their entire first semester with no grades more specific than pass or fail. This is a deliberate decision to ease the transition of students who have gone from being leaders at their own schools to the compressed scale of MIT. Why compressed? If we were to assess all school students then we would need a scale that could measure all levels of ability, from ‘not making any progress at school’ to ‘transcendent’. The tertiary entry band is somewhere between ‘passing school studies’ to ‘transcendent’ and, depending upon the college that you enter, can shift higher and higher as your target institution becomes more exclusive. If you look at the MIT entry requirements, they are a little coy for ‘per student’ adjustments, but when the 75th percentile for the SAT components is 800, 790, 790, and 800,800,800 would be perfect, we can see that any arguments on how demotivating simple pass/fail grades must be for excellent students have not just withered, they have caught fire and the ash has blown away. When the target is MIT, it appears the freshmen get their head around a system that is even simpler than Rapaport’s.


Pictured: A highly prestigious University with some of the most stringent entry requirements in the world, which uses no grades in first semester.

Other universities, such as Brown, deliberately allow students to choose how their marks are presented, as they wish to deemphasise the numbers in order to focus on education. It is not a cakewalk to get into Brown, as these figures attest, and yet Brown have made a clear statement that they have changed their grading system in order to change student behaviour – and the world is just going to have to deal with that. It doesn’t seem to be hurting their graduates, from quotes on the website such as “Our 85% admission rate to medical school and 89% admission rate to law school are both far above the national average.

And, returning to medical schools themselves, my own University runs a medical program where the usual guidelines for grading do not hold. The medical school is running on a performance/competency scheme, where students who wish to practise medicine must demonstrate that they are knowledgable, skilful and safe to practice. Medical schools have identified the core problem in my thought experiment where two students could have the opposite set of knowledge or skills and they have come to the same logical conclusion: decide what is important and set up a scheme that works for it.

When I was a solider, I was responsible for much of the Officer Training in my home state for the Reserve. We had any number of things to report on for our candidates, across knowledge and skills, but one of them was “Demonstrate the qualities of an officer” and this single item could fail an otherwise suitable candidate. If a candidate could not be trusted to one day be in command of troops on the battlefield, based on problems we saw in peacetime, then they would be counselled to see if it could be addressed and, if not, let go. (I can assure you that this was not used often and it required a large number of observations and discussion before we would pull that handle. The power of such a thing forced us to be responsible.)

We know that limited scale, mastery-based approaches are not just working in the vocational sector but in allied sectors (such as the military), in the Ivy league (Brown) and in highly prestigious non-Ivy league institutions such as MIT. But we also know of examples such as Harvey Mudd, who proudly state that only seven students since 1955 have earned a 4.0 GPA and have a post on the career blog devoted to “explaining why your GPA is so low” And, be in no doubt, Harvey Mudd is an excellent school, especially for my discipline. I’m not criticising their program, I’ve only heard great things about them, but when you have to put up a page like that? You’re admitting that there’s a problem but you are pushing it on to the student to fix it. But contrast that with Brown, who say to employers “look at our students, not their grades” (at least on the website).

Feedback to the students on their progress is essential. Being able to see what your students are up to is essential for the teacher. Being able to see what your staff and schools are doing is important for the University. Employers want to know who to hire. Which of these is the most important?

The students. It has to be the students. Doesn’t it? (Arguments for the existence of Universities as a self-sustaining bureaucracy system in the comments, if you think that’s a thing you want to do.)

This is not an easy problem but, as we can see, we have pieces of the solution all over the place. Tomorrow, I’m going to put in a place a cornerstone of beautiful assessment that I haven’t seen provided elsewhere or explained in this way. (Then all of you can tell me which papers I should have read to get it from, I can publish the citation, and we can all go forward.)


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