Tuesday, April 8, 2014

No points

Several years ago students began to ask me a question I’d never heard and didn’t know how to answer: “How many points is this worth?” I had, and still have, no good answer. I have no points.

My first attempt at an answer — “Well, everything’s out of 100” — sent one asker into a panic. And then I realized what was going on: an increasing number of college classes are organized by points, five for this assignment, ten for that. The work of the semester adds up to several hundred points. So a grade of 100 attached to a measly page-long piece of writing appeared to be cause for concern.

My next attempt at an answer was to point out (as my syllabus already pointed out) that all the writing in a course added up to, say, 60% of the semester grade. So an assignment of, say, four pages, about 20% of the writing, would equal 12% of the semester grade. But that isn’t entirely accurate (I would add), because the best writing grade would count more heavily. Thus the essay would end up counting for more or less than 12%.

As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. And “12% of the semester grade” isn’t likely to signify much to anyone.

My most recent attempt at an answer is too simple but more satisfying: I average everything to make the writing part of the grade. The details are on the syllabus: writing is 60% of the semester grade, with participation and a final examination counting as 20% each. End of story.

But not the end of my dismay about “points,” a system that fosters unhealthy attitudes toward coursework among students. A point system encourages academic gamesmanship — choosing opportunities for maximal and minimal effort. Students make such choices all the time: study harder for this exam, let this quiz go. But attaching a number to each bit of work explicitly demeans daily incremental effort, the effort that shows itself in quizzes and short assignments (and makes it more likely that a student will do well with larger assignments and examinations). Losing five points here, five points there — it’s too easy for a student to think, So what? I’ll ace the big test and win. Thus a point system demeans the work of learning, which is a matter not of picking targets and acing tests but of engaging a body of knowledge and practice, patiently, over time. How many points are, say, a musician’s daily scales and etudes worth? All of them.

[The worst use of points: as “extra credit” for attendance at an event, turning an occasion better experienced for its own sake into a trivial number. Bad alchemy.]

comments: 2

The Crow said...

You sound like a good teacher: conscientious, dedicated to your subjects and students; one who truly gives a damn about what he does and the effect he might have on others' lives.

Wish there had been more like you in my life. I might not be any more of a success than I am now, but I believe my life would be richer.

Michael Leddy said...

I always have a tough time knowing what to do with a compliment. So I will just say thank you. Thanks!