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DECEMBER 20, 2010

Chapter title page "A" students

A few weeks ago, inspired by this chapter in the book The Art of Possibility, I told students in three of my four classes that they would each get an automatic "A" for their final project.

I wanted to see what would happen if I removed what we usually consider an incentive for the students to work hard and do a good job: the grade.

Author Benjamin Zander explains his thinking:

We give the A to finesse the stranglehold of judgment that grades have over our consciousness from our earliest days...

The practice of giving the A allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against these students. (p.33)

As I said earlier in Advice to an "A" student, grades are not always a good gauge of a student's skills and/or imagination. Learning doesn't necessarily happen when a student gets an A, and the opposite is equally true. You can get a "bad" grade for a project even though you learned a lot.


As much as I try to set up and define clear criteria to make grading as objective as possible, I must admit that in a design class every grade is to some degree subjective. When choosing colors, typefaces, and arranging elements on a page you make educated guesses. You are influenced by personal preferences. It's not math where everyone can and should arrive at the same answer.

So, how did this little experiment work out?

In both Web Publishing and Media Design I'd say the quality of the work was as good as I'd expect under the typical grading set-up. Many students did great work, with no sign of slacking off because their grade was assured.

The only difference I noticed was a tendency for some students to do the minimum in terms of quantity, e.g., just two pages of a website.


In one class we talked about this experiment and some students felt that it wasn't fair to those who worked harder. Their thought was that lazy students could submit any old thing and still get the same grade. It didn't happen, though. None of the projects looked to be thrown together at the last minute. Some were better than others, of course, but that happens no matter what the grading process.

After finishing all the grading I went back and tested what would happen if I replaced the "A" with a grade that would be typical for that student. So I might replace the 90 points with 70 for a student who'd done subpar work all semester long. Guess what? There were only two cases where this changed the students' final grade significantly, moving a high "D" to a low "C".

What next?

My limited experiment with giving an A certainly is different from the more comprehensive approach described in the book: telling students at the start of the semester that they would get an A for the entire course. In Zander's experiment he added an important requirement: each student had to write a detailed letter describing what would have happened to them by the end of the semester that explained the "extraordinary" grade.

This letter adds an important piece to the puzzle. It forces students to think about their goals, educational and otherwise. Describing outcomes before they happen sets high expectations. I'm thinking about trying with next semester's Portfolio Preparation class, where goals and dreams are critical to motivate the intense effort needed.

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