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I appreciate your post. While I agree that grading can be a good experience for graders (as you argue), I think we should be thinking more about what grading - as part of the academic institution - does to the relationships within that institution. In this respect, I believe that grading is a giant distraction to the doing of philosophy. I think of it as a necessary evil in the sense that if I had full control over the classroom, as a collaborative research organization, I would not assign any grades at all.
We need to distinguish between grading as assigning a peer-ranked evaluative score to a student's attempt at philosophy, and grading as providing a structured source of constructive feedback (brute information). We can engage in the latter type of relationship without the need for the former. Indeed, this is how we relate to our peers. Most of us would agree that our peer relationships would be damaged if we started to assign peer-ranked evaluative scores to our professional interactions. Why not think our interactions with students are similarly being damaged by the fabricated 'need' to grade?

See http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grading/ for a better statement of these sentiments.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jared: Thanks for your comment!

I'm apt to (respectfully) disagree. It's interesting. When I visited the link you provided, and I saw the title of the piece--"Grading: The Issue is Not How But Why"--I immediately disagreed...and I still disagreed after reading the piece. I'm still inclined to think it *is* how we grade that matters. Let me explain.

The piece you linked to mentions studies on how extrinsic motivators are often counterproductive. This is true. Like all empirical studies, the studies report trends--in this case, a trend of extrinsic motivators leading to less motivation. But, these are merely trends. In the studies--and we know this from real life--*some* people are motivated extrinsically. (Indeed, the piece you linked to obliquely alludes to this, saying that extrinsic motivators "frequently" undermine motivation--but frequently is just that: not always!).

So, here's what I try to do. I try to emphasize intrinsic motivation. I tell my students to focus on improving their work, as that's what ultimately matters--and I give them many opportunities to improve their term-paper grades. In my experience, this practice simultaneously reaches those who are intrinsically motivated (e.g. those who want to improve for its own sake), but it also reaches those who are more extrinsically motivated (e.g. those who want a better grade).

And, I say, the proof is in the pudding. When I used to hand back term-paper drafts with comments but no grades, only the intrinsically motivated students revised and turned them in more. It's only when I started to assign grades to them that a much broader array of students started turning them in again and again, improving their work.

So, in least in my experience in the classroom, it very much matters (A) that I grade, and (B) how I grade.


Hi Marcus,

Thanks for your reply. I think you draw a helpful distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I'm glad to hear you were able to increase engagement by assigning grades as opposed to not.

I still worry about the practice though. Perhaps my concern is: why are (extrinsically motivated) students responsive to grading? I'm worried that they are motivated in this way because grading is a practice that they are forced to accept and be responsive to if they are to participate in academic institutions at all. These look like adapted motivations to me, and that should lead us to question how grading as a part of the academic institution is impacting our relationships with students and their engagement with the course content.

This is a question about institutional design in academia. Admittedly we don't have as much control over that as we do our own classrooms, but I still want to raise the 'why grading?' question. In the meantime, evidence from practitioners (like you) on the 'how to' grade question is also important - so thanks for sharing yours.

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