Panos’s recent blog post on “Why I will never pursue cheating again” is a detailed description of how he dealt with copying in his class and why he’s tired of it. It seems that many a teacher immediately identifies, and so do I. Here is my fantasy way of totally solving the problem: stop giving grades.
For me, the worst part of the academic experience is giving grades and everything that surrounds them: writing exams, grading them, dealing with appeals, designing student assignment according to their gradability, making sure that every student task is legally well-defined, dealing with cheaters, etc. I would estimate that more than half of my teaching time goes to grading-related activities and less than half the time goes to real teaching. I would estimate that the situation for students is about the same: more than half of their time is spent on optimizing their grade and less than half of it on optimizing their understanding, the latter smaller half including also time that both improves grades and knowledge.
Beyond being an amazing waste of time, the whole grading thing is extremely harmful to the educational atmosphere: most teacher-student interaction is devoted to grade-related issues which immediately puts them on confrontational mode. The atmosphere in class deteriorates to students being only interested in what’s “going to be on the exam”, forcing the teacher to structure all material in well-defined testable modules, rather than optimize for educational value. As grades become the most central part of the educational experience, even students who used to be interested in learning stuff, are trained to focus on grades only. An “optional” homework exercise is ignored unless it comes with a grade bonus (in which case, it is treated as mandatory, in light of the grade maximization goal). The list goes on and on.
There certainly are some reasons why grades are beneficial, but I think that their total weight is not sufficient to justify the great costs. I would say that the main reason that we grade is since we really are not in the business of providing an education but rather in the business of providing degrees. To award a meaningful degree you need to grade. To deliver a meaningful education you do not. I know that I shouldn’t complain since the degree-awarding business (aka higher education system) is really a great one to be in, but I do wish that someone would design an education-delivery one.