Is Grading a Necessary Evil?

In preparation for this week’s discussion, I have decided to post on the question, “Is grading a necessary evil?” In order to answer that question, first you would have to define a “necessary evil”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “necessary evil” as something unpleasant that must be accepted in order to achieve a particular result. I, however, think that definition is a little inadequate, and if you allow me to indulge myself (which I can because this is a blog post, my blog post) I can find a better definition. Wikipedia defines a “necessary evil” as an unsavory thing that must be done or accepted in order to achieve a better outcome.

Now that we have framed what grading could be, let’s start with some evidence that stood out to me from Dan Pink’s TedTalk. He ended his talk with three summative points:

  1. 20th century rewards and extrinsic motivators only work for a specific set of circumstances, not broadly.
  2. If-then rewards often destroy creativity.
  3. The secret to high-performance isn’t rewards and punishment, but that unseen intrinsic drive- the drive to do things for their own sake.

During his talk, I equated grading as the extrinsic motivator, as what was probably expected. So, to explain these points in terms of grading, I would summarize it as:

  1. Grading only works in specific circumstances that do not require outside the box thinking.
  2. Receiving a grade often lowers creativity in assignments.
  3. Replace an extrinsic motivator, like grading, with an intrinsic motivator would lead to high performance in classroom settings.

This evidence does support the first claim of being a necessary evil as it is unsavory. However, this evidence does not support the second claim of achieving a better outcome. In fact Dan Pink argues that extrinsic motivators, like grading,  actually lower the outcome, especially in creativity and performance. When, Pink was explaining the MIT experiment, having a tiered reward system did not equate to better performance, unless it was on repetitive mechanical tasks, which are not the point of a high education system.


Image result for is this on the exam

Just a short comic to break up the test. Every teacher’s thought process when asked, “is this going to be on the test?” – PHD Comics


In this frame of reference, I cannot definitively say that grading is a “necessary evil”. Grading, ironically, scores well on the evil aspect as there is evidence from 1990s through today that it can actually worsen student performance and confidence. However, it does not seem necessary at least to me, and that is echoed in “The Case Against Grades”. Alfie Kohn explained that grades can be replaced. A few suggestions by Kohn were to stop putting letter or number grades on individual assignments, but instead offer qualitative feedback. And, then to allow for democratization of final grades instead of using a cumulative final exam to decide a final grade. These practices have begun to be introduced in secondary education, and will be an uphill battle to incorporate them into high education because grading has been ingrained into the educational system as a whole.

Therefore, I don’t view grading as the a necessary evil, but rather the greater evil to the educational system, to which we do not have a lesser evil as a possible choice. Grading will not be solved overnight, everywhere throughout the educational system, but it can be solved one classroom, or program, or school at a time. I have already begun to think of ways to limit the use of numerical grading in my future classes, and I highly encourage you to do the same as well. I look forward to any comments that can further this discussion, even if you totally disagree with me.

4 thoughts on “Is Grading a Necessary Evil?

  1. Britton, I like all of your thoughts. I remember reading the material from Alfie Kohn and loving his suggestions about leaving feedback instead of ratings or letter grades. Thinking from a student’s perspective, it still stresses me out a little bit because grades are all we know. Comments and true feedback are way better than a single letter or number grade could ever be. However, again, it is just so ingrained in all of us to wait for a number or letter grade so we can figure out how well we did on an assignment or course compared to the rest of our peers. I want so badly for the educational system to be shaken up and overridden and for grades to be the seldom exception to the rule, not THE rule. I’ve thought so much about grades for a few weeks now. In my future classes, I would rather take the time to meet with students, have discussions about my course material, and find out what they learned from the course material, what they liked, what they found fascinating, etc. I also like to imagine that my classroom would have room for way more hands on activities than just me lecturing and talking at them. That way, they will have real skills to take into the world instead of just the info I talk at them with. Anyways, great post, and I agree with all of your points!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree that this was a great post! I really enjoyed reading it and I think you brought up a lot of great points! In addition to giving feedback as opposed to a numeric grade, I think it is really important to allow for revisions and failures and restarts. When students are just evaluated based on one score at one point in time, it is a make or break situation. But what if we help students along the way and let them figure out what is working well and what is not, how to take something and make improvements. I think there would be so much learning and growth in that! Thanks for the post!


  3. Thank you for your post. I agree with you and of course, we all have heard about the incompatibility of reward and punishment (specifically the role of grades) with the skills that our students need to obtain to be effective members of the society. As you also mentioned, I have been thinking that how to put this in practice. Maybe it’s not possible with the current structure of academia and schooling system when GRE and SAT are important factors of getting into a program. I cannot think of any class that I have taken that did not assign a grade to any project, or assignment, no matter how wonderful the experience of sitting in class has been, and regardless of the format of the course. Even now, the main reason behind blogging and commenting for many of us is because it is part of the grade! So I would love to hear your ideas of how to remove grading and still be part of the whole academic system.


  4. I agree with you about the necessity of replacing the conventional way of grading with more recent options. However, grading might not be entirely left aside forever. I accept the fact that grades are extrinsic motivations. Nevertheless, I think the way we grade (e.g., assigning heavy points to mid-term and final exams) is particularly problematic. There are many options for better grading. I think one possible solution is to either entirely get rid of mid-term and finals or assign lower weights to them or make them optional. Instead, instructors could include lab activities, take-home assignments, projects, out of class learning activities (e.g., attending conferences, etc.) and many more options that reflect how students performed during the class. At the end of the semester, there could be bonus points to encourage students to catch up. All of these could be evaluated either quantitatively or qualitatively. Although taking this approach requires a significant amount of time to be spent by the instructor, I think the positive results will pay back the time and resource investment.


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