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Recently I was working on the master’s level course descriptions I teach. This year, we can decide whether our course ends with an exam (it can be whatever student work that can be graded from A to F) or a pass-fail assessment without any grades. I was very eager to choose the opportunity to change the assessment method of all my courses from a graded exam to a pass-fail assessment. But later, I was strongly recommended to consider a grading exam if there is a slightest chance to give grades in my courses. First of all I find it extremely difficult to give grades on master level students, secondly I strongly believe that grades should not be a motivator anymore for a student in an university.

I was told that the main reasons to favor a grading exam are the following:
1. if there is no grade, a student would not want to put any extra effort on your course, because he or she can get a positive result with only putting minimum effort on this.
2. in order to get a stipend (in our case as a reward for being a good student), an average grade of the courses will be calculated. So, the courses, which end with a pass-fail assessment will not be counted.
3. in order to graduate from the university with cum laude the courses will be counted which have ended with a graded exam.

This is a good example of showing what Geis (1976) has mentioned. One responsibility of an university is “to act as a certifying agent: selecting, classifying, and accrediting on the basis of achievement”; and other responsibility is “to provide a rich environment for personal growth, self-actualization, or individual fulfillment” (Geis, 1976). Geis rightfully claims that these responsibilities are contradictory to each other and difficult to achieve at the same time. As universities continue to offer the same old, tired, and narrow group of reinforces, most importantly: grades (Geis, 1976), it is quite obvious what universities consider to be a more important responsibility to take. Giving grades at the end of the course falls to some extent into the same category – serving the certification function on the one hand and a motivator on the other hand.

My attempt is to provide students with challenging experiences, which allow self-direction, individual fulfillment and personal reflection. My main contradiction here lies between students who get more control over instructional dimensions and the need to measure student’s performance according to the objectives and standards set by someone else.

Master’s level students are adults, adults, who in most of the cases can reflect on what they have learned and how they have changed. Me as a teacher has my own values with respect to a certain learning experience and based on that I draw inferences. A student has his own values. “Given different values and different perspectives learning becomes a relativistic concept. Learning is appreciated differently, depending upon the psychological position of the observer” (Harri-Augstein & Thomas, 1979). We have a clear dilemma here. To give a student more control (including setting one’s objectives, finding right strategies, building his own personal learning environment and assessing his achievements), but leaving him aside from evaluating his progress is controversal to the concept of learner control. This would represent only an illusion of increased learner control. Furthermore, if one has taken control over something, then one should also take responsibility for it. And isn’t it what we want our students to be able to do?

Therefore, for me it either makes sense to let students themselves evaluate and give grades to their learning outcomes, which at least partially forms the final grade or we both agree on a basis of reflective conversations whether the student has met certain requirements in order to pass the course. Although in the first case, the practice has showed to me that grades which can change everything are not very objective anymore if given by a student himself (I don’t claim that teachers grades are more objective). Who would like to give himself a bad grade if he knows that this might reduce his chances to get a stipend…Thus, I find it more accurate and fair to let a student and a teacher to evaluate whether the student has passed or failed, instead of figuring out whether he/she is worth B or C.

It shows very clearly that the only motivational factor in higher education is still a highest positive grade. This is one of the aspects, which shows that we treat adult learners as primary and secondary school children. I find this attitude already wrong – assuming that students only work hard if there is a chance to get a grade and hardly work at all as there is only a pass-fail option…If we already start with this assumption there is not much to hope for…

References:
Geis, G. L. (1976). Student participation in instruction: student choice. The Journal of Higher Education, 47(3), 249-273.

Harri-Augstein, S. E., & Thomas, L. F. (1979). Learning conversations: a person-centered approach to self-organised learning. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 7(1), 80-91.

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