The Classroom Matters

We greatly appreciate the thoughts that The Outlook staff writer, Katherine Jaffe, shared in her opinion piece titled, “What Really Matters: GPA or Activities?” Three main points framed Ms. Jaffe’s opinion: 1) grades should not define students; 2) grades are unimportant because of grade inflation; and 3) hands-on and work experiences are more valuable than classroom learning. As educators and administrators from two different content areas, we felt compelled to respond and offer some of our unified thoughts. There are no easy answers to questions regarding the relationship among grades, classroom learning, and out-of-class experiences. To be worthwhile, experiences both within and outside the classroom have to be transformative for students. We have seen students transformed through course readings, lectures, class activities, written assignments, and educational experiences outside the classroom. There is no one best method of learning for all students, which means that professors must provide a diversity of opportunities within their classes for students to learn in a variety of ways. There are many ways to encourage students to think in new ways about issues with which they are familiar (what sociologists call “making the familiar strange”), and to think about issues that they have never considered. 

Regardless of the subject, a strong classroom experience should help students expand their abilities to answer serious questions in innovative and creative ways based on evidence that can help improve upon the worlds in which we all live – not just for themselves, but for others as well. To present classroom learning and experiential learning as separate and unrelated entities creates a false and harmful dichotomy. The two need to be connected – and indeed are often connected – in most university missions and realities. Furthermore, one of the concerns we share about project-based learning is that professors who do not have experience with such modes of education may require professional development to be able to execute such endeavors with a high level of competency and confidence.  But we also recognize that given the current technologies, there are so many innovative ways to bring project-based and group learning into our classrooms. Unfortunately, many students are uncomfortable with the grading of group work. 

Grades – whether for individuals or groups – are simply a way for professors to assess how well students have learned the required materials, are able to apply what they have learned to different situations, and to build upon what they have learned to create new knowledge. Sometimes grades do not reflect the transformative experience of a college class. Some students may learn a lot in a class, but only receive a C. Other students may receive a higher grade, but not get as much out of the class as the C student. That said, students today have many competing commitments. Grades provide students with an added incentive to focus on the learning process rather than on the many other aspects of their lives that may pull them away from the serious business of learning. 

On the other hand, we agree with the author that grading can indeed get in the way of learning. We certainly advocate the use of less reductionist methods of grading than the letter grade method, such as a grid method where the major learning goals of the course are scored, rather than simply listing a single letter grade. Unfortunately, such grading methods should translate into measures of assessment of which future employers or graduate program directors can make sense; otherwise, our students may be trapped by such grading methods rather than liberated.  

The bottom line is that if college does not teach students to think in innovative, creative, and critical ways, then we are failing our students. But to say that classroom learning is less able than hands-on experiences to create a transformative education for students is extremely short-sighted and perpetuates a narrow and harmful “either/or” point of view rather than a wide “both/and” reality.  The assumption that grades are a meaningless assessment tool is equally short-sighted.  But if the assessment tool is invalid, or the tool is abused by those wielding it, then as scientists (from both natural and social science disciplines), we agree with the need to re-evaluate our teaching and assessment methods.