A Pedagogical Problem

by Ralph Alan Cohen | 5/15/02 5:00am

To the Editor:

When I was a graduate student teaching freshman English at Duke, I let students give themselves their final grades, but I gave them a grade on their papers in a weekly conference. The one great pedagogical result was that the adversarial relationship inherent in a grade system -- the teacher as the source of a good grade, the student as the seeker after it -- vanished. When a student obsessed about my evaluation of the paper instead of my advice for making it better, I could always say, "Don't worry about that now, remember you'll give yourself the final grade." With that in mind the students could listen to what I had to say about their writing as they might listen to someone on their side. Then, in our last conference, we discussed their work, I handed them my grade book with their paper grades for the semester, and told them to fill in the final grade. One student, the daughter of the vice president for academic affairs, had done D work and gave herself an A. But the reason I never repeated the experiment is that five of my students (out of 18) gave themselves grades lower than they deserved.