How We Judge Learning (and How It Judges Us)

Today, I had an incredible, exhausting, inspiring hour today with Matt, the relentless and caring personal trainer at our gym.  Before we dove into the tough stuff, he tested me with astonishing precision, creativity, and care to see range of motion, strength, flexibility, all that.   Because I was in a bad accident several years ago, he was especially careful to test there, to gauge and have a baseline to build upon.   I felt in entirely competent hands.

And then today was grueling . . . in a good way.  I was willing to work far harder than I would ever work on my own, to push to places I would have thought too difficult or even scary on my own because he was consistently and carefully there. His expertise, too, was part of what I was relying on.

My motivation was at 100% from all that. Far more than it would have been if he hadn’t been there, incomparably more.

So there’s a teaching practice and a metaphor and a question here:  I wonder how motivated I would have been if someone had told me, before hand, that Matt was required to grade all of his clients on a bell curve and that he would be giving failing grades to the bottom 20%  of us.

What if my gym boasted its “high standards” and judged its trainers on their ability to weed out the bad ones among us.  What if he could only be judged “excellent” and “professional” at what he does if he was willing to fail some subset of us . . .



  1. Cathy,
    I absolutely love how you experience every element of your life as a potential teaching moment. Your gym session with Matt the trainer has led you to write about one of the most disturbing elements of grading in higher education. Concerns about grade inflation aside for the moment, shouldn’t it be reason to celebrate if a group of intelligent and highly motivated students, in the hands of a gifted and skilled educator, would all be able to succeed in a grand fashion? And why would anyone apply statistical models of inference testing to a single classroom anyway? The entire point of statistical inference testing is that you would need a large number of students (participants or ‘n’) to make such predictions in the first place.

    I have always believed that every student in a class of mine has the potential to get an A. In fact, that becomes the very standard by which I judge my own success. Alas, reality is that everyone will not get an A, but the responsibility for that outcome will lie with the students themselves and will not be because of some statistical power game that I choose to foist upon my students. Brava to you, Cathy, for giving this topic some much-needed air time.

  2. Hi Richard, That’s just a wonderful comment. Since I write for a very large public, it is important to come up with everyday life examples that help make the conventions of formal education look like the idiosyncracy, not like the “natural” way of doing things. I love how you ran with this. I may quote you in the chapter I’m finishing right now, “The Invention of Failure.” The concept of failing a course was developed very rigidly as part of Taylorism and compulsory public education in the nineteenth century and the statistics were being co-invented partly to justify this system that they purportedly explained. Many thanks!

  3. I read something this semester for an Intro to Queer Studies course that has stuck in my mind all semester: “EVEN WEAK LINKS IN THE CHAIN ARE LINKS IN THE CHAIN.” (Caps in original—I’m not yelling at you!)

    This is from a beautiful book from 1977 by Larry Mitchell called “The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions.”

    I keep returning to this quote as I think about learning, teaching, assessment, student-centered pedagogy…in other words everything! Students walk into the classroom knowing that, while there may not be a bell curve, they will be graded on a scale from A to F. I think having to assign letter grades is among, if not the, the worst parts of teaching. To think back upon the quote, our job is to strengthen all links of the chain to make the entire thing stronger. And to help students to understand that this belief is part of what a classroom truly can be–supportive of everyone’s learning with less judgment.

    How can we judge learning according to this principle? I’m not sure yet, but I have been trying to incorporate this philosophy into my pedagogy this semester.

  4. Very important and interesting comments everyone.

    I have some friends who grew up abroad and went to international schools and they are amazed when we compare the grading scales we used in college. So in the US, they say, 75 (a C) is considered average? If the scale is 1-100 shouldn’t 50 be the middling mark? How does anyone have a fair chance to get an A when you only have the top 7 or 8 points to fall into?

    It’s like the grading scale is rigged, they conclude. Perhaps it is.

    How can a student come into a class on the first day and feel motivated to succeed when the grading scale on the syllabus basically says “one false move and it’s over — say goodbye to your A.” There’s an anxiety created here that is not at all conducive to learning.

    It’s one thing to motivate yourself and another to be in competition with yourself and I am worried that the growing emphasis on grades and grading scales has turned the classroom from a gym, where students can train and exercise their minds, into a mine field — where one missed class or bad quiz can knock them from that very narrow “A” range. I hope we can continue to consider how to take much of this fear of failure out of learning.

  5. Ryan and Irene, thank you for these comments. I think grading is so demoralizing for everyone because it so narrowly captures learning and so cynically reduces a process to one very crude final product. The “Gentleman’s C” has existed at Harvard since alphabetic grading was introduced at Harvard in the late 19th century. So grading really means “you can’t fail at elite schools” and, now, it means that even an A- is failing. Of course! If you have to have perfect grades and perfect test scores (average Kaplan-style tutoring for tests is $8900 a year per child), why shouldn’t you earn the top grade? I actually don’t think that is a rhetorical question. Why shouldn’t you?

    But then the reverse question is, what does it matter? What does it mean? That you had a family either with the means or the determination to spend $8900 a year on your test-taking cram school so you could get into Bronx School of Science so you could get into an Ivy League? It’s a tragedy of inequality, socially. It’s a tragedy of imprecision, statistically. It’s a tragedy of motivation, psychologically.

    One of my former students, from when I was at Michigan State, one of my first doctoral students ever, teaches at Schoolcraft Community College in Livonia, MI. Steven Berg wrote a comment on one of my HASTAC blogs:
    “Designing classes for success

    My syllabi are designed so that if students attend class regularly and do the homework, they are guaranteed a 70% (2.0) in the course. Of course, if students attend regularly and do the homework, it is likely that they will do much better than a 2.0. I do gave a lot of high grades, but they are earned grades. My classes are demanding–but they are designed both for rigor and for success.” I like that a lot.

    Here’s my original blog post on “The Invention of Failure”:

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