Why how we grade students is fundamentally wrong.

Video games build failure into the equation of success. It is part of the challenge and though it may not seem so, failure is carefully crafted into a game to make you realize that success is not being handed too you. Resetting is a low cost outcome, frustrating, but low cost and if the game is well balanced, will immediately get you to jump back in to trying again. Without being too glib, video games (minus the cheats and hacks) may have something to teach us about learning.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” Confucius

We learn every time we go through a process and fail. It is key to deeper learning and we simply do not reward it enough (or at all). Truth is, not rewarding or at least acknowledging the importance of failure in learning, has brought us to an unfortunate state of education where the focus of many students is less on learning and more on the badge that a grade awards or the actual points that comprise the grade.

Akin to Michelangelo releasing the sculpture trapped within the block of marble, most grading frameworks provide the students with grades as a subtractive process. Students start with at theoretical A+ and then through a series of unfortunate events, slowly chip away at that 100% until they reveal their final grade. Am I being too negative? Isnt it possible that everyone starts out with no grade at all and works their way up to a final score?

I would say no, because the framework we provide students is not one of building to a perfect grade but of the erosion of possible perfect achievement. The frenzied activity around drop/add periods in college is partly due to this situation. Students have to decide if they feel that they can achieve the grade they require, and often, the better option for them is to drop the class rather than engage with the material more seriously to actually learn it. There is typically no way to climb out of a hole dug by x number of points missed.

I do understand where this mode of assessment came from. Teachers, faced with too a large number of students to mentor individually needed a way to evaluate progress and move on. There was/is no time to dig into issues to assure understanding. This became the students responsibility. The horizon of learning is not the semester but the period from exam to exam (unless you are faced with the dreaded cumulative final). Efficiency over effectiveness caused by a lack of human resource.

Today we still have a limited number of teachers and crowded classrooms, but advances in technology now give us tools that make it easier to build failure into the fabric of learning experience. The technological ability to automate quizzing provides an opportunity to enable students to test themselves, allow them to fail and test themselves again until they prove that theyve mastered a topic. Making failure part of the learning process should reduce student stress about the abstraction of a grade and allow better focus on the desired learning outcomes.

Today students can start with a blank slate and work their way up to that 100% and quite possibly learn their subjects more effectively. Testing engagements can be constructive engagements -challenges- that not only provide feedback to students about learning, also enable and reinforce it. I challenge you to try a video game and fail a couple of times. See if you havent learned something.

“Failure is success if we learn from it.” Malcolm Forbes