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B+ and that’s my final offer

Should students be able to negotiate their final grades?

There’s plenty to hate about grading. Professors hate coming up with the grades, for one thing, and, unless the grades are very high, students hate getting them. Besides, the whole process, as almost everyone seems to agree, interferes with the learning dynamic. Knowing the importance of grades, students work towards the grade more than learning itself. Professors resent students who only seem to care about what’s going to be on the test.

Many solutions have been suggested. Pass/fail grading has been proposed as a way to get students to learn for its own sake, but there is good reason to believe that,  for most students, a pass/fail system discourages hard work. After all, why do your best when you’re going to get the same grade as the guy next to you who’s just sliding by?

Contract grading –where students are guaranteed a certain grade provided they do enough work–has similar problems: how do you distinguish those who have superior mastery of the material from those who have merely got the gist of it?

A few years ago I had a conversation with a close friend of mine who proposed a radical solution to this problem, a solution I have never had the guts to try: negotiated grades. The idea is that students would do their normal work throughout the year, getting feedback, but not actual grades. The students might be required to come and talk to their professor a couple times over the course of the semester to get a sense of how they are doing, and at the end of the course they would meet, look over all the work the student has done and decide together on what would be a reasonable grade for that work.

This model has a lot of potential. For one thing, marking papers would be less onerous knowing that no specific grade had to be applied. The feedback would no longer be designed to justify the grade but rather to really help the student to improve. The student, out from under the tyranny of constant evaluation, would have the freedom to really try things, knowing that one bad result is not going to sink her chances in the course. Most importantly, the student and the professor become what they ought to be: two partners in learning rather than a stern master and a cowed apprentice.

The potential for disaster is also great. It’s easy to imagine students slacking off all year, telling their friends it’s okay because “in this course you just get whatever grade you want.” And what happens when the student comes to the final meeting confident that he has done A-level work while the prof thinks he deserves a D? Do they meet in the middle with a C+ or B-? Or does the prof get final say? But then what happened to the negotiation? And isn’t there an incentive for students to high-ball their profs by proposing a grade higher than they deserve so that they end up with something they are happy with?

I will probably continue to mull this idea for some time. It’s like cold fusion — it’s such a revolutionary  idea that someone has to be working on it. If anybody makes it work, let me know.

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