OPINION: The case for a Hogwarts grading system

When immersed in the modern literary masterpiece that is the “Harry Potter” series — what with the classic good versus evil plotline, the moving message of the power of love and friendship and the totally-not-a-retcon reveal of Dumbledore’s sexuality — most people probably don’t devote much attention to the grading system used by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Pomona College’s associate professor of history Pey-Yi Chu, apparently, is one exception. 

This semester, entering Chu’s Global Environmental Histories class, I was intrigued to learn we (along with her other class) would be using a “modified Hogwarts” grading system to better adjust to the complex realities of distance learning. Having observed this grading system in action for about a month, I feel the Hogwarts grading system is an innovative method to encourage students to put as much participation and effort into the class as they can while taking into account the unique stresses of studying away from campus.

Under the Hogwarts grading system used in Chu’s classes, all assignments are graded on a descending scale of E (Exceeds Expectations), A (Acceptable) and N (Needs Improvement). This is similar to the system that Hogwarts uses in the books, where there are six grades ranging from O (Outstanding) to T (Troll — yes, really). Chu modified this system so that achieving an A or E on all assignments translates to a regular A in the class, and one’s overall grade decreases the more Ns one has; therefore, in terms of class grade, there is no difference between receiving an Acceptable or an Exceeds Expectations on any particular assignment.

In the Global Environmental Histories syllabus, Chu described the grading system as one that “puts greater weight on the completion of assignments to an acceptable standard than on hierarchical distinctions in quality.” This is, therefore, a labor-based grading system: above the minimum standard of quality required to get an Acceptable grade, the only significant distinction in grading concerns the effort put into the work, not necessarily the quality of one’s product. Therefore, the modified Hogwarts grading system’s objective is to push students to try as hard as possible for each assignment, rather than to separate students’ work into quality-based rankings.

This is in no way an “A for effort” situation: I have found that the acceptable standard is not at all easy to meet, and cannot be achieved without a comprehensive understanding of the material. 

Speaking from personal experience, under a regular grading system, I have sometimes felt incentivized to put less effort into assignments that will not affect my grade as much; under the Hogwarts system where every assignment effectively has an equal impact on overall grade, students are encouraged to try equally hard on all of them.

Labor-based grading could be uniquely suited to distance learning because, according to Chu, it could help alleviate the inherent disadvantages that some students face when trying to study away from campus. Due to a student’s particular living situation, they may face difficulty maintaining the same quality of work as when they were on campus, even as they put in as much or more effort as previously. 

“What we’re trying to do is not to impose these quality distinctions that reinforce existing inequalities, but to lift everyone to that acceptable standard level, and acknowledge the labor that goes into that work — meeting people where they are,” Chu told me.

Furthermore, Chu repeatedly emphasized that this system places the onus on the professor to clearly specify their expectations, which she believes can be especially helpful to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“There’s all this literature about the ‘hidden curriculum,’ which means the intuitive ways of ‘doing school,’ that people who come from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds will pick up, because they go to schools that are more well-resourced,” Chu said. “[Labor-based grading] encourages the instructor to be transparent; what does Acceptable mean? People who may not be able to intuit that will have it actually spelled out, and know what it takes to make the Acceptable level.”

Since an Acceptable is as good as an Exceeds Expectations in terms of cumulative class grade, some might say that this system pushes students to “settle” for an Acceptable rather than working to their highest “Exceeds Expectations” potential. Personally, though, I feel the Hogwarts system encourages one to try as hard as possible to ensure one meets the threshold for an Acceptable; getting an Exceeds Expectations (which Chu gives relatively rarely) is nice but ultimately incidental.

“To the extent that you can still get an A [in the class] without doing exceptional work, maybe that would affect how much people work at the margins,” said Michael Kuehlwein, professor of economics at Pomona, speaking about how such a system would affect student incentives. “But if you want to be sure that you get an A, you would probably try to get above the bar so you can get an E. As long as the standards are high, I don’t think there would be any problem there; I think the incentives would be fine.”

A survey of my Global Environmental Histories class found an overwhelmingly positive reception for the Hogwarts grading system, with an average score of nine on a scale of one to 10 (10 being most favorable). All respondents said they would prefer that the class use the Hogwarts grading system over the regular system, and two-thirds said the Hogwarts grading system had increased their participation and effort in the class (the rest said it had no effect).

In the end, any grading system is only as good as the professor using it, and the Hogwarts system works in tandem with the great efforts Chu takes to encourage everyone to participate in her class. There are some classes that might not be as well-suited to a Hogwarts grading system, like math and science classes where most assignments consist of solving problems, as there is less leeway in grading and the ability to solve problems correctly is ultimately paramount (in Chu’s Global Environmental Histories, practically all assignments are writing-based). 

Still, labor-based grading certainly merits further experimentation, and the current conditions of distance learning provide the perfect opportunity to mix things up. 

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

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