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The Real Purpose of Learning: Why Haverford Should Change the Way it Grades

Additional reporting by Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe

This article is the second in The Clerk’s “Grades Series.” In this installment, we explore how the current system of numerical grading is flawed. Prior to this article, The Clerk sent out an anonymous, self-selected survey about grading at Haverford. Over 300 students responded.

GPA is a measurement that is often associated with intelligence and future success. Grades at Haverford, however, are rarely a topic of conversation. And the stigma around the discussion of grades prevents an honest institutional exploration of the role they play in learning.

While not explicitly written in the Honor Code, the self-selecting community of individuals Haverford seeks is often one for whom talking about grades is taboo. As stated by a former Haverford student (who requested to remain anonymous) who transferred this year to the University of Pennsylvania, “people [at Haverford] were very, very private about their grades, probably as a result of the Honor Code.

Though often eschewed in conversations about academics, grades are inherently a part of the academic experience at this institution. By neglecting to discuss the importance of grades, then, we fail to acknowledge some of the shortcomings that ensue from the 4.0 GPA scale, as Jonathan DeWitt expressed in the first installment of this series.

Since Haverford transcripts are exclusively comprised of numbers that increase in inconsistent intervals (e.g. 3.0 to 3.3 to 3.7), students can become frustrated when they feel their work or learning for a semester might merit, say, a 3.5 instead of a 3.3. This was a common complaint in The Clerk’s survey about grading at Haverford, which was sent out earlier this year to all Haverford students.

Many survey respondents also expressed frustration at the difference in “average” grades across departments.

“It felt like in humanities classes, you were doing something wrong if you didn’t get at least a 3.7, whereas in science and math classes you were lucky if you got a 2.7,” added the UPenn transfer.

Another source of student dissatisfaction as expressed in the survey is the lack of obligation for professors to return final exams and essays, though this also varies by department.

I think it would be nice to get the final exams back,” noted a survey respondent, echoing a common sentiment from the survey. “Often times I wonder what grade I got and how that influenced my overall score and I think it has the potential to give me a lot of feedback.”

20% of students surveyed said that they “rarely” received feedback on final papers or exams at Haverford. That said, Haverford professors are not prohibited from providing more information than just a number when they grade. In fact, at some institutions, additional commentary beyond— and sometimes in lieu of— a numerical grade is the norm.

At Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, professors rely heavily on the use of “Evaluations.” According to its 2015-2016 Student Handbook, these written forms of assessment “stress individual strengths and weaknesses and give students a more complete sense of their progress [as compared to exclusively traditional grades].” 

According to Emma Kirby, a senior at Sarah Lawrence, Evaluations often “strengthen the mutual respect between student and teacher.” Kirby adds that the Evaluation is intricately tied to one’s own effort in a course.

“If a teacher is going to have to examine my role in the class, I want to increase my effort. Everyone forgets [his or her] own identity and participates in class, and this is reflected in our Evaluations.”

In a way that numerical grades cannot, Emma describes the Evaluation at Sarah Lawrence as “illustrating an academic process, a detailed account of a variety of work and ideas.”

Indeed, students at both Sarah Lawrence and Haverford don’t talk about grades, but for different reasons. Where Sarah Lawrence students receive detailed feedback that transcends pure numbers, Haverford students’ evaluations effectively amount to a competitive measuring stick. In its attempt to participate in the standardized numerical system of grading, Haverford has implicitly allowed students to forgo the single most important aspect of their years here: learning.

Learning can’t be represented by a single number on an oversimplified scale— not by a 2.7, a 4.0, or any number in between (though granted, not a 3.5). Unlike Sarah Lawrence’s evaluations, which stress the development of a student over the course of a year or a semester, Haverford’s grades neglect to show learning in this way.

Grades at Haverford can be interpreted as meaning different things— for some professors, a grade is an indication of an individual student’s effort in the course. For others, a grade represents the quality of the academic work in relation to other students’ (within or outside of the class). Without a conversation at Haverford about grades, we cannot be certain about what they mean and their implications for student learning. To an extent, this burden falls on Haverford’s professors to explicitly clarify what a grade entails in their courses. In retaining the numerical system of grading coupled with the hushed culture surrounding grades, Haverford is implicitly neglecting the very pedagogical purpose that an institution of higher-learning serves.
Selected Questions from The Clerk’s survey. Click for in depth commentary from respondents.


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