It’s not often I write a column and then continue to wonder about the arguments it sets forth, but that’s been happening with my recent “Fair Grading Policies” column. Author Daryl Close, a philosophy professor, makes the case that fair grades should be based solely on students’ mastery of course content. When behaviors such as attendance, punctuality, participation, and respect count toward grades, they contaminate measures of content mastery. Students (not very many, mind you) can learn the content without attending class, arriving on time, speaking up, or respecting others. Moreover, grades on a transcript do not indicate that they are based in part on how the student behaved in class. That leaves those who review transcripts to make judgments without knowing exactly what grades measure.
I’ve been trying to find out whether we know how employers and those who consider students for professional programs interpret grades. What do they think a grade measures? Only content mastery? I haven’t found any relevant research; if you know of some, please share the reference. I am sure that not everyone interprets grades the same way, but if most or many see grades as a measure of competence with the content, then conflating the grade with desired, appropriate, even professional behaviors is problematic.
Content mastery does link to skill development in some inseparable ways. Critical thinking is a good example. Some critical thinking skills are domain specific—the idea that we want students who study biology, anthropology (name your discipline) to think like biologists, anthropologists, and so on. Other critical thinking skills cross disciplines, such as the ability to delve into a problem with a good set of questions.
For a long time, many faculty have assumed that students develop critical thinking and other cognitive skills as they confront the content: understanding the material in the course forces them to think. So a good grade implies the application of good thinking, writing, or problem-solving skills. But researchers can now document that although students may develop cognitive skills on their own, encounters with content don’t automatically develop those skills. And in fact, virtually all cognitive skills develop better—more quickly and deeply—if they are taught explicitly. If they are taught and assessed, should they count in grade calculation?
Then there are those professional skills we teach because students can’t function in the profession without them. Nurses must be able to start IVs, teachers must be able to conduct parent-teacher conferences, financial advisors must be able to assess the markets. But in most professions also among the expected skills are behaviors like punctuality, participation, and respect. Should students know how professionals are supposed to act? Is it something they figure out for themselves or something they might reasonably expect to be taught as part of their professional program?
There are underlying questions worth pondering: Does a teacher have the responsibility to promote skill development? If so, what skills should teachers be working to develop? Can those skills be taught without being graded? Do they count more or less than competence with the content? Do we need to challenge the long-standing assumption that grades measure content learning?
While I was trying to sort out the grades and skills conundrum, I ran across a “professionalism rubric” described as a “tool to avoid conflating content knowledge with professional behaviors in academic assessments” (McKeown, 2019, p. 252). Yes! Author Debra McKeown recommends separating the two by offering content points that measure performance on course objectives and professionalism points that assess behaviors “deemed valuable” in the workplace. She uses a rubric to provide professionalism feedback; it appears in her article and includes five major categories: professional growth and learning (which deals mostly with response to feedback), timeliness, attention to detail, development of appropriate professional language, and collaboration and leadership. Not every category is relevant to every assignment. In McKeown’s area, teacher preparation, where professional skills matter a great deal, content points count for two-thirds of the grade and professionalism points are worth one-third; both are adjustable, depending on the assignment and course content.
If you are grading skills, McKeown’s rubric is a great way to provide students feedback. It makes it clear what’s often assessed subjectively and reinforces the value of skills that are essential to learning both in professions and life. It doesn’t resolve the underlying issues of what grades should measure and how to communicate what they assess to those who make judgments based on them.
McKeown, D. (2019). Professionalism rubric: A tool to avoid conflating content knowledge with professional behavior in academic assessments. College Teaching, 67(4), 252–253. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1650708
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