Signs of life in the Skinner box

I’ve long felt that grades are an outdated mode of determining educational performance. As seems universally supported across the readings this week, grades don’t measure what is learned by the student, only what they were tested on. Grades also encourage limited learning as the motivation becomes focused on passing the test and not learning to learn.

The students have become conditioned, similar to that of mice in B.F. Skinner’s experiments, do exactly what you are told with no variation and you will be rewarded with the grades you want. Deviate from what you are told and your reward will be altered. The conditioning begins early in elementary school and continues with the introduction of honors and AP coursework. Learn exactly what you’re told better than most of everyone else and you will get to move ahead to the next level of rewards, completed course credits in college.

The problem is that for us as academics, like Kohn and others have pointed out, this approach leads to classrooms full of perfectly conditioned college students, seeking their reward and the instructions on how to claim it. But the conditioning is so strong that if for some reason the earned reward is not at the same level as was expected for their work we are faced with emails, upset students, upset administrators and poor teaching evaluations.

This situation is so pervasive and the conditioning so strong that it makes alternative evaluation approaches challenging. Students don’t respond well to abstract criteria they cant necessarily study for. In my grading approaches I prefer written essay statements from the students, formulated from response to various prompts, demonstrating their mastery and understanding of the concepts. I describe the approach to the students in advance as looking for “signs of life” from them, that there is more going on than a parroting back of definitions and theories.

Ultimately, my quest to find their “signs of life” has to be equated back into a numerical grade as the students can’t exist without a grade. But as soon as the grades go out, those unhappy with my assessment will inevitably email me to argue for points back…

4 Replies to “Signs of life in the Skinner box”

  1. What a great post! I do agree with you on your idea that some students learn to pass a test, instead of how to learn. That reminds me of standardized testing and taking the SAT. I have some friends who were focused on ‘passing it’ using tricks and strategies. Do they remember anything they learned from that process? According to them, no. As long as they were rewarded with a higher SAT score it didn’t matter.

  2. Guilty as charged. I was one of those students who would argue for grades, because they seemed so important at the time. Actually, they still are relatively important, because graduate students could get the boot from their programs if their GPA fell below a certain point (…what does this threshold mean exactly?). Like you described, we’ve been conditioned to think of achievement in terms of grades, even though it’s questionable whether actual learning is taking place. The system itself is also entrenched in the idea (i.e. GPA, honor students, standardized tests, etc.). Moving away from that line of thinking seems so difficult, like going against an entire culture. I love how you described learning as finding “signs of life.” Unfortunately, the grading system seems to squash that vitality.

  3. Skinner spoiled it for everyone didn’t he?! I agree that it is challenging to change the culture of assessment and how students think about assessment…but can we explore with the learners about how they think assessment should happen?! If we can co-create syllabi with our learners, could we co-create assessment criteria with them too?!

    1. Co-creation of assessment criteria would be interesting. In some ways we use a delayed co-creation where the students from the year before have significant influence in what will be employed in the next year, but they never get to see the benefits of their input.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *