Since I suggested that getting rid of grades might be the single easiest way to focus faculty attention on more meaningful assessment, I’ve been thinking about the alternatives.
One alternative is the Learning-Based Pricing proposed in Teaching Naked. No one needs a further incentive to get elective surgery: all you want is a result. If you are paying for this result, then you have an incentive to get that result as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The new outcomes-based health care models reward hospitals for the number of patients who don’t come back. As with school everyone SHOULD have an incentive to keep you from returning, but in both school and health care, the current financial model rewards the institution when the patient or student returns. (And schools that have improved advising or looked at schedules and funnels to get more students graduating sooner, have also had to deal with the loss of revenue.)
I still think the best alternative is meaningful assessment. What have students learned since they have been here? As part of the Bologna accords, degrees from most countries (where there are also no letter grades) now come with specific learning outcomes that are assessed before award of the degree.
You can even gamify your life. Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell says that the combination of gamification and sensors will improve our life by giving us incentives to eat better and brush your teeth and maybe even ride the bus (because the government gives you points that can be used for tax credits if you ride the bus). Don’t think anyone will do things for points? Listen to his data about how much real money people spend to buy virtual money in Facebook games.
The idea is that people like points and they like winning. Gaining points becomes its own reward. They call them loyalty point or reward cards, but the rewards, are for you. You probably know some of those people who make a few airline extra trips in the fall, just to keep their travel perks. The Nissan Leaf comes with a video game CarWings that puts drivers in competition with each other to see who can use the least amount of fuel when they drive. The Ford Focus designers teamed up with IDEO and Smart Design to create “EcoGuide,” on the dashboard: it is a game where you are rewarded for eco-friendly driving with a leaf and vine that grows. Hit the accelerator and it withers. Gamificiation can change behaviors.
We are probably not ready for full gamification of higher education, but just for a minute, think of this alternative to grades: universities could separate learning points, from attendance points and civic points or social points. We know that being your fraternity president or doing volunteer work counts for something, but employers might quickly sort out how much. Grades currently include all sorts of things not related to learning: attendance, punctuality, participation, and the ability to follow directions, for example.
It is true that like grades, points would be an external incentive program, but historically, that is what has worked (and how we got here in the first place.) In 1909 Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell discovered that students were content with C grades and were hardly studying at all. He was also unhappy that the best and worst student ended up with the identical degree. Taking his cue from competitive athletics, he introduced both Latin honors and grading on a curve. While not a perfect solution, both had the desired effect, and student effort increased (See Christensen and Eyring, 2-12, p. 93) It might work again.
I’d like to hear other alternatives!