My Thoughts about Grades and Grading

Marty Wood

Department of English, UWEC

Students who are considering the possibility of enrolling in one of my courses deserve to know in advance how I think about learning, assignments, and grades. I am publishing this page mostly as a service to them, and I apologize for its lack of design elegance to any others who may visit here.

I have noticed lately an increasingly significant gap between my own understanding and my students' understanding of what assignments and grades are all about. Because I am the one assigning the grades, and students are the ones who must live with them, it seems only fair to explain just what I think about all this.

For me the most important event that can happen in any course is that a student will learn something. Two things, really--the specific content of the course itself, and a set of skills and techniques for solving problems in this area. Both are crucial, and yet I think that many students focus only on the first of these two, and that is a mistake.

If you have focused specifically on the course content, then when you leave the course you possess only a memory of information that might be too specific and temporary to do you any lasting good (except, maybe, at cocktail parties). But when you focus on the more general, problem-solving abilities you've used as you've encountered the content -- things like inspection, analysis, a critical attitude, creativity -- you are paying attention to those parts of the course that will stay with you the longest and serve you the best -- much more enduring things than merely the content of one course, or one academic semester, or even one baccalaureate degree. And this is the real advantage of higher education -- to help students to become adaptable, insightful, thoughtful solvers of complex problems. The world needs such people desperately. In contrast, the world does not particularly need very many people who only partly remember the facts, figures, and content of courses they took many years before.

Because of these beliefs, I try not to design "static" assignments -- whether they are tests, or papers, or anything else -- that simply measure what you have learned up to that point. Static assignments ask you to show that you have paid attention and can follow directions. They measure how much of the course information you know, but don't ask you to apply what you've learned to new problems. They ask you to look at where you've been, not where you're going.

I don't want my assignments to concentrate on looking back and repeating. In fact I hope they hardly do that at all. Instead, I want my assignments to be dynamic, to provide you with a new problem, a challenge you have not met before, a complex task that makes you use not only what you have learned but also the skills you will develop while you are struggling with the assignment. And I do mean "struggling." I am pleased when students don't really understand at first what they are asked to do. In fact I am happiest when students panic at the first sight of each of my assignment descriptions. If you are confused at the beginning of an assignment, then I am doing my job. You will only learn the necessary skills while doing the work. You will only truly understand the assignment after it's done.

This will mean certain frustration for many of you. Perhaps you've previously believed that all you need to do is pay attention, follow directions, and repeat what you have heard in class, and you will get good grades. That will not happen here. Basically, I will not give enough directions. I won't tell you, "Do this step first and then this one and this one and you will succeed." In spite of some dearly felt yearnings out there, in other words, there is no Treasure Map for this course, leading students to the buired "A." Instead, I will offer problems for you to solve. Using the methods of the course, you will discover or create the solutions as you complete the assignments.

If this works well for you, and you meet the challenge with inventiveness and intelligence and courage, you will probably get a good grade. Or, on the other hand, if you keep hoping for more directions, or you put off the work until you think you understand it, or you look for risk-free, clever shortcuts to "give the teachers what they want," you will probably get a low grade.

Either way, I am not concerned about whether you like your grade. Obviously our purposes are different. You may want to get the highest grade you can, while I want you to learn these problem-solving skills. In my view a very low grade could be the greatest learning tool a person could receive. In your view a low grade may be disaster. You need to acknowledge this difference in our purposes, and accept it, knowing that my purpose will be the only one that determines what grade I will assign your performance. Or you have an alternative--you can drop this course, and find one that better suits your own purpose.

Marty Wood [UWEC Web] To return to a course page, click on its number:
Department of English

Honors 304

English 257

Updated: February 7, 2006

English 393