Are Grades and Tests the Best Way to Measure Learning?

The other week in class, I was speaking with a classmate about grades and learning. We were opining about how sometimes, getting the right answer (on an assignment) shouldn’t necessarily be the goal of the assignment. That is, shouldn’t learning be the goal? Shouldn’t improving one’s storehouse of wisdom be the goal? Shouldn’t understanding be the goal?

Of course, that is the intention with these assignments — that one will learn/understand the material. After having spent (almost) an entire semester on the other side of the classroom, I certainly have [some] empathy for teachers and their assignments. While I don’t have to report to a department chair, I understand that in order to measure students, there needs to be something measurable and I understand that tests/assignments have become the easy way of doing this. Should this be acceptable, though?

I recently came across an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses this issue:

According to this view, the nature of teaching and learning should be measured instead of relying solely on an outcome like a grade or a test. Students should be exposed to courses and assignments that require them to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn, and sort through contradictory arguments.

Such opportunities are described in research literature as “deep approaches to learning.” They figure prominently in Thursday’s release of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement. While Nessie, as the survey is known, has long sought data on those practices, this year’s report replicated and extended the previous year’s findings, which showed that participation in deep approaches tends to relate to other forms of engagement, like taking part in first-year learning communities and research projects.

This article has sparked a great deal of debate in the comments section, too. Here’s one comment that I found particularly on-point:

I do not want to be an apologist for the way things are, because it is always possible to improve our practices and in many respects we are responsible for the critical view the public have of us (honestly, it isn’t all the fault of right wing politicians with an anti-intellectual bent); however, higher ed adminstrators and the higher ed press have to stop treating each new study, each new innovation and each new utterance from some rich person suddenly interested in, but also dismissive of, higher ed (I’m looking at you Bill Gates) as the silver bullet  that is going to transform and save higher ed.  My head is not in the sand, I know higher ed (particularly public higher ed) is going through rough times but the panicked responses of the folks in charge is truly dismaying.


I once wrote about the need to shift towards Waldorf- & Montessori-like education. When I wrote this, I was thinking more about elementary and high school. I wonder — what should the model look like for college/university? Should it also be Waldorf- & Montessori-like? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a question worth asking.

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3 responses to “Are Grades and Tests the Best Way to Measure Learning?

  1. Jeremiah, I have gone far beyond this question since my work at The Circle School. Why not go deeper and ask “Why do we need to measure other people’s learning?” Is the purpose to provide helpful feedback to students so they can monitor their own progress? Is it for the purpose of competition, so we can know who is the valedictorian (or other sorting reasons? Is it for motivational purposes, the adult equivalent of gold stars? Is it for credentialing purposes, so we can say “this kid did the work and passed the tests”?
    I would argue that the answer is all of the above, and they all stink. None are compatible with today’s world, job market, culture, or practice. If you’re a good programmer (writer, manager, entrepreneur, welder, secretary, etc) and have a portfolio of your work, it will take you MUCH farther than the diploma/degree by itself. Degrees are essential for people who need that paper to assert their adequacy, and for people who want to work in fields where such paper credentials are valued more highly than excellence (such as teaching).

  2. There is another danger in grades: when people get a good grade they sometimes mistake it to mean that they are finished learning about that topic/chapter/subject. “I got a 4.0 in grad school, so now I’m an expert.” Nothing is further from reality, and nothing kills lifetime learning so effectively. Raise your hand if you know someone with multiple advanced degrees who can’t even ____ (fill in the blank with an essential life skill)

    Students who grow up at The Circle School are extremely effective at knowing their strengths and weaknesses (accurately), and are highly capable of making a case for themselves and their work, with or without third-party credentials. This happens BECAUSE they don’t receive grades, not in spite of it. Students are perfectly capable of figuring out how much they are learning without an authority figure measuring it for them, especially if others in the community (not just professors) are encouraged to giving honest feedback.

    Sorry for the lecture… touched a passion-point! Great essay, and a very forward-thinking question (which I did not help to answer, I’m afraid!)

    • Hey JD! I didn’t think you were lecturing — I appreciate your response. There’s two key points that I wanted to highlight: portfolios and 4.0s. I think you’ve made a great point that a candidate with a portfolio (rather than simply a diploma) is probably a better equipped candidate. And, a 4.0 (or even an advanced degree in a topic), can lull someone into thinking that they’ve fully “mastered” a subject.

      I remember seeing a PPT with an image that had a circle. The images that followed were zoomed in on a portion of the circle illustrating that the extent of one’s knowledge (by way of a PhD or extensive study) was just ever so slightly broaching outwards from the circle. The metaphor was meant to show that even though one spends a great deal of time studying a subject, there’s still a great deal to know.

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