Students at Pomona College by default receive a numerical grade from
1-12 in each class. They may take elective courses pass/no credit, but a pass/no credit course does not offer students a different sort of feedback on top of the 1-12 number scale. Our current
grading system does not capture the many ways students learn and contribute in
class, or how faculty challenge and evaluate students. Our hierarchical numeric
grading system promotes extrinsic A-seeking and penalizes intrinsic learning in
classes with hard graders.
Number grades penalize students taking courses with
professors who have more difficult grading standards and single out professors who give more critical
feedback than their peers. Thus, students may choose one course
section over another because they can receive a higher numerical grade with the
same or less quantity and quality of work. This is particularly true for introductory-level courses with multiple sections and for electives. Students might avoid an elective course
because they know they will have to work harder to get a high grade. The
prospect of a low grade in a course with a hard grader might discourage some
students and lead them to drop the course.
Students would have more incentive to invest time in classes
with hard graders if they got written evaluations, because professors would be
able to give students detailed and constructive comments to complement the
number grade or, even better, replace it altogether. Professors who are less generous than their peers
could state as much and destigmatize a low grade in the eyes of parents and
graduate school admissions officers.
Written evaluations also offer a chance to describe
students’ individual contributions to their classes. Students learn and
contribute in different ways, and written comments would offer a place for
professors to comment on the particular strengths of a student. Students could
take what they learned from reading their evaluations and apply it to more
courses and situations than is possible with a number grade.
Changing Pomona’s method for assessment of student learning is
difficult because we are part of a consortium with mostly standardized grading
policies. Furthermore, medical and law schools want to see how an applicant
compares with peers, which incentivizes a numerical assessment system that
ranks students. One option to reconcile these requirements with a different evaluation system would be to keep numerical grades but add written
comments for context.
Critical Inquiry seminars are the most promising courses for
supplanting or replacing numerical grades with written evaluations. Students
need detailed, written feedback most as they acclimatize to the rigor and format
of Pomona courses, and the Critical Inquiry
course serves as that introductory writing course during the first semester at Pomona. Critical Inquiry courses are
uniformly small and discussion-based, allowing for ample student-professor
interaction. Changing the form of assessment in Critical Inquiry courses will
not directly impact students at the other Claremont Colleges.
Publications in academic journals receive detailed written
feedback from other writers. Work evaluations are likewise more comprehensive
and tailored than the numerical grades Pomona students receive. To facilitate
intrinsic and self-reflective learning based on interaction and communication,
we need to create and promote forms of assessment that are more detailed and
holistic than a number.
Nicholas Sundback PO ’14 is an International Relations major from Washington, D.C.