Our approach to changing the grading policy shows how a Middebury education is failing us all

By WILLIAM KELLEY

The coronavirus pandemic has created unfortunate situations and tough decisions, with limited time to consider our options. One example was the need to rapidly modify the college’s grading policy to accommodate these new circumstances. This challenge brought with it a valuable opportunity: the chance to evaluate the extent to which our actions as a community reflect the values and goals of a Middlebury education.  

The crisis, which fundamentally uprooted standard pedagogy, also laid bare the shortcomings of our current grading system.  Under the best circumstances, our grading system only pretends to be equitable; the current situation exposes how it discriminates against and discourages students who do not come to Middlebury from privileged backgrounds.  Even for the most well-prepared students, grades can stamp out the desire to seek out challenges and engage more earnestly with the learning process. 

The first two stated values of the college are: “We give priority to the academic mission.”  and “We welcome change. We seek out innovations and ideas that improve the College and our community.”

Our mission statement claims that the college’s goal is to teach students to engage the world through rigorous analysis and independent thought.  Should our grading policy serve that goal?  Or should we use a system conducive to workforce preparation and constructing the most eye-bulging resume?  The college does have some responsibility to help its students in these latter regards, but these are not the main objectives of the college.  Middlebury prioritizes the academic mission. 

While good grades may have a positive impact in the professional world, the college’s central responsibility is to encourage learning.  This entails creating the best learning environment for every member of its community.  In this particular semester, perhaps this means that students should not have to fear how their personal circumstances might manifest in their grades.  In every semester, grades should be a tool for learning, not the ultimate objective of our education.  

A professor’s substantive comments about where an argument could have been stronger, or the opportunity to compare an erroneous proof with the correct one, helps students develop their capacity for rigorous analysis and independent thought; a final mark does not achieve that goal.  Testing does play an important role in the learning process, but assessment is a two way street.   In addition to providing a way to show what students have learned, grades allow teachers to evaluate their own methods.  If students are not scoring as well as they should be, should those kids try harder? Maybe there is some disconnect between students and instruction.

Perhaps the idea that learning is directly reflected by grades was planted in our heads by an insecure teacher who, without the threat of a grade to draw students to class, would be left without anyone to teach.  This idea was then internalized by us overachievers who, bolstered by gold stars, learned to define ourselves in terms of As and Bs.

Our mission statement claims to welcome change.  But we were so caught up in trying to preserve our grading system that we were unable to think of creative solutions to this problem.  Indeed, we were stuck considering modifications to options (standard grades, Pass/D/Fail) that exist under normal circumstances. Universal A was not the most practical approach, but at least it demonstrated some creativity.  It felt as though there was genuine fear that by eliminating grades, everyone — both students and professors — would be completely untethered from their essential purpose.  

Being able to think critically and act independently requires the confidence in ourselves to challenge what other people are doing, or what we have done in the past.  A decision about our grading policy should not be defined by considerations of how employers or graduate schools will treat our students, nor should it merely attempt to preserve the status quo of our educational approach.  There may be merit to such strategies, but they are not rooted in the values of Middlebury College. 

I believe in the mission statement of the college. It reflects a productive approach to learning and our role in the world.  Learning in a community that adheres to these values is what constitutes a Middlebury education.  Our approach to the grading policy this semester demonstrates that we — students, professors, and college leaders — have lost sight of the values we committed to live by.  Unless we recommit to those goals and values, the Middlebury education we get may not be the one we came for.

William Kelley is a member of the class of 2021.

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