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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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OPINION | Tulane should eliminate traditional grading systems

Decades of research undermine the efficacy of traditional grading systems. Should Tulane move towards alternatives? (Taylor Fishman)

It is common to hear professors make jabs at their students for “only” caring about their grades. As a result, students are taught to be cautious when speaking to professors about grades in an effort to offset their preconceived — but completely accurate — notions that they care solely about their transcripts. Students are coached to disguise legitimate concern for evaluations that will either expand or limit future opportunities as a passion for learning and a commitment to improvement. 

In Tulane University’s trademark course, Taylor Your Life, students discuss Carol Dweck’s research on fixed versus growth mindsets. The fixed mindset assumes that an individual’s abilities are inherent and static, and that success is a confirmation of these abilities. A growth mindset, on the other hand, assumes that one can improve their abilities through effort. 

“Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience,” Dweck explains

In a study conducted by Dweck, children were given two different types of praise after completing questions from an IQ test. Children were either praised for getting a good score an ability praise or for the effort they put into solving the problem an effort praise. 

“The ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent,” Dweck said. However, 90% of the effort praised students “wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.”

Dweck’s study deduced that those with a growth mindset which was cultivated in this instance by effort praise were more likely to want to learn new things and take on new challenges, while those who were ability praised were more likely to shy away from challenges. Her research concluded that those with a growth mindset were more likely to be successful. 

Similar research has affirmed these conclusions and proved that when individuals have to complete work that is graded, they choose less challenging material, perform less optimally, derive less pleasure from their work and express more feelings of anxiety. Moreover, grades have been proven to not serve as an accurate reflection of a student’s learning or an adequate tool for providing constructive feedback. 

So the question follows, why does a school that promotes cultivating a growth mindset in a course they proudly advertise structurally function in a way that inhibits students from cultivating this mindset for themselves?

And even further, if extensive research that has been available for decades clearly demonstrates the negative impacts of grading on students, why do educational institutions continue to do it?

The folly of grading systems can especially be seen through the grading methodology found within the A.B. Freeman School of Business. 

According to its website, core Bachelor of Science in management courses are expected to have a maximum class GPA between 2.700 and 3.000, while elective BSM courses are expected to have a maximum class GPA between 3.000 and 3.333. In other words, Freeman relies on a curved grading system, which in its essence means that some students must fail in order for others to succeed, even if the work of failing students is satisfactory. Not only is curved grading categorically cruel, but it creates an overly competitive learning environment that is antithetical to the university’s purported core value of collaborative engagement.

A major shift is necessary in education policies and standards across the board. Numerous books offer alternatives and address how institutions can shift their practices, such as “Making Sense of College Grades: Why the Grading System Does Not Work and What Can be Done About It” or “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To).” 

Tulane must put in the work that always comes with branching away from convention in order to prioritize the well-being of its students and meet the standards that its mission statement expresses. 

Alfie Kohn articulates these ideas thoroughly in his essay “The Case Against Grades” where he writes, “‘Like it or not, grading is here to stay’ is a statement no responsible educator would ever offer as an excuse for inaction. What matters is whether a given practice is in the best interest of students. If it isn’t, then our obligation is to work for its elimination and, in the meantime, do what we can to minimize its impact.” 

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