Just Follow the Rules

“Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning” (Kohn, A. 2011)

After reading this quote I immediately remembered my previous teaching experience in Kuwait. My assessments were structured in a way that an argument is presented, and students would answer based on their background knowledge that reflect on the learning outcomes of the curriculum. I faced two problems. First was the difficulty in developing a unified marking scheme that will be fair for any answer, and because there was simply no right answer, anything they wrote was just a matter of perception. Secondly, students that did not receive satisfactory marks rushed to me, expecting a justified explanation as to why I marked them down. I felt that my students are only concerned about their grades, and forget their interest in what they were learning. If I had the option to give them all full marks I would have, but unfortunately I was trapped in a set of rules by the institution that allowed me to be selective as to where to distribute my As. In other words, the students with better answers than others received an A. At the end of each semester every instructor had to submit their class’s grade distribution that follow those rules:

  • Not having more than 20% A’s
  • Not having more than 20% F’s 
  • Ensuring at least one got an A
  • Ensuring at least one got an F

If any of those rules has not been met, the instructor had to go through a justification process. They believed that it’s either the instructor is too easy with the students, or too hard, and that one of the instructors’ responsibilities is to achieve a well distributed graded class. I believe that if this system is avoided in all institutions at a global scale, there will be much less pressure on both the student and the instructor. Students will also have the freedom to learn what interests them, instructors will have the freedom to teach from their heart, and both will enjoy the teaching and learning process.

The educational systems need to lower the burden on students because the systemized grading systems are de-motivating students to learn. Vanderbilt University (2017) lists 8 strategies for motivating students, and the top 2 techniques that I would highly recommend are:

  1. Placing minor emphasis on testing and grading
  2. Giving students as much control over their own education as possible

Those recommendations will set a platform for our students to be able to express and share their ideas comfortably which will have a positive impact on their future.



Kohn, A. 2011. The Case Against Grades. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/

RSA Animate. Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Vanderbilt University. 2017. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/




About Dalya

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  1. This is enlightening, but not aytpical unfortunately. In a lot of institutions, especially in ones “over-seas”, metrics are held over department head’s heads (sorry) in order to maintain a perception of rigor in the academic programs. It ends up being a sign of either appearing to be too strict, or more often than not, appearing to be too lenient (god forbid). The unfortunate nature is exactly what you said, the students end up chasing the grade and not the lessons. I once had a professor in a graduate course who taught mostly 1st years, withhold all grades. I went in knowing that this professor gives mostly A’s and A-‘s, but others coming fresh from over-seas or undergraduate programs where GRADES MATTER, were anxious the entire semester. He sought to remove that angst and have us focus solely on the material. By the next semester, the rest of our cohort had understood that our course grades matter very little in comparison to what material we would learn and how we could apply it to our research/lives.

  2. What you said about forced distributions and the frustration (in my opinion) they can cause really resonates with me. As a work study I often heard the grumbling of professors in my phil dept at UVM about this very thing, and it always struck me as an odd model to have. After all, what if you have a really good class and they, even by the problematic evaluatory metrics, excel overall? Do the Bs suddenly become Fs in order to meet the “bell curve” that (wrongfully) we (wrongfully) think represents the distribution of human ability? Where did we and universities learn about this “normal distribution” anyways and why do we still think that it’s true?

  3. Absolutely. I can relate to it during my first experience behind the scenes of Academia. Some professors had the pressure to be “liked” by their students and getting positive reviews and inflated the grading system so they can meet student’s expectations. And students came to class with the expectation of getting a “A”, just like the grade depends on the professor, not their performance and efforts. Unfortunately, this is heart breaking and one of the tragedies of our educational system.

  4. Dayla, I fully agree with your suggestion. One of the problems with grading is that the distribution requirements are given by the institution. In that sense, Virginia Tech is no different. There is very little an instructor can do within the confines of such a system.

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