What does it take to differentiate the ‘A’ players from the middle of the pack? (Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash. Cropped to fit).

Academic Grading is all Backasswards.

Here’s how it’s hurting your business, and how to fix it.

One of the reasons that I became a teacher is that my Father was a Professor of Education. As a child I visited him in several of his graduate classes, and I would sometimes participate in the exercises. Many of his former graduate students became teachers, principals, or administrators in our city public schools, so it was very natural for him to talk with me about education and teaching as I was progressing the school system that employed the teachers he helped train.

My Father was not a big proponent of grades. He thought that learning happened best when it was intrinsically motivated, rather than motivated by the pursuit of an extrinsic reward like a class rank. He believed the intrinsic motivation to achieve mastery would be sufficient to motivate students to do their best work.

What I discovered in my own teaching is that I can’t rely on my Father’s idealistic views of motivation to create an effective learning experience for most of my students. I had to read Maslow on Management to realize that so many of my students were coming from authoritative, bureaucratic educational cultures that they were incapable of functioning without feedback from grading systems like those they’d been trained in.

I asked my Father how he reconciled his views on intrinsic motivation with the necessity of providing grades, and he explained to me what was important about grading and how to do it better.

You might be able to apply his insights in your own classroom, or your business organization.

1. My job is to differentiate between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ performers.

While it’s true that the consequences of failing my required Engineering Business Practices class are serious or expensive, my Father’s advice was that I expend little energy in differentiating between those who are failing and those earning ‘D’ grades. Both performances are unacceptable, and both students would benefit from retaking the class, so it’s a distinction without a difference. Similarly, those students earning ‘C’ grades are performing at such a low level they will not benefit from my additional feedback, so I need not waste effort counseling them on how to improve. They won’t put my advice to use, anyway.

My Father said,

“Tom, your primary concern is the group of students earning high ‘B’ grades. They might earn ‘A’ grades if they had a little more encouragement, feedback, or advice. Therefore, your task is to differentiate between those students earning ‘A’ grades and those earning ‘B’s.”
In business, there’s no point doing a performance review for anyone who isn’t performing at the ‘B’ level or better. They’re fired.

2. ‘A’ performers can do the most difficult tasks. ‘B’ performers cannot.

My Father argued that the way to identify ‘A’ performers was to identify the most difficult tasks and find the people who could accomplish those, because only ‘A’ performers can do the most difficult work. For me, this logic is irrefutable, but still leaves the question of which are the most difficult tasks?

In many organizational cultures, performance is judged with respect to how well employees conform to instructions, and how often they deviate. For example, typical performance assessments might ask “How many defects are evident in the employee’s assembly?” Or, “How often does the employee fail to conform to organizational policies?”

I think most of us have had experiences with being evaluated in this way, in which our performance is judged by how many things we’ve done wrong in comparison to a standard, rather than by the number of things we get right. This is certainly the case in engineering education, where points are subtracted for every missing, incorrect, or incomplete answer, and a grade assigned according to the degree of perfection of the student response. In this sort of culture, the top performers are those that are capable of conforming to the most complicated instruction sets, with the fewest defects.

There are many reasons that this approach to performance assessment is perverse and counter productive, but the foremost among them is that our economy holds scant rewards for those people who can reliably execute other’s instructions. Increasingly in the United States, the conformance jobs pay minimum wage — until they are eliminated altogether. What the current economy is seeking are workers that are creative, innovative, and capable of taking initiative.

Therefore, in my class, conforming to instructions will earn a ‘B’ grade. The ‘A’ students must exceed the specified standard of performance by going beyond the instructions. Working beyond the instructions is the most difficult task.

At least 80% of your business value is generated by the top 20% of employees who create new knowledge. The remainder of your employees are learning from the top 20% who invented your business.

3. The most difficult tasks count for 10% of the grade.

The most counter-intuitive insight my Father was able to pass on to me is that the most difficult exam problems, the most time-consuming assignments, the most demanding challenges, need not count for more than 10% of the student grade. He said,

“Tom, on a 100 point grading scale, the difference between an ‘A’ grade and a ‘B’ grade is never more than 10%. So why should the problems or tasks that that only the ‘A’ students can perform be worth any more than 10% of the overall grade?”

There is no reason, except to say that our education system is predicated on an industrial-era model of the factory. And in the factory, we reward the workers on the basis of hourly wages. To the extent that grades are thought of as “pay” for the work that students perform well, then the factory model of education demands that we assign more grade points to the most difficult, time-consuming tasks.

But by my Father’s logic, the most difficult tasks should be assigned fewer grade points, not more, because my task is merely to differentiate the top performers from second-tier, not to fabricate some artificial extrinsic reward structure to “pay” my students in ways that prepare them for factory work.

It’s a helluvalot more difficult to create something entirely new than it is to learn something that another person has already proven will work. The act of creation requires people who can operate in ambiguous environments, where there are no right or wrong answers, and the outcome is uncertain. Sometimes we call these people entrepreneurs, and it is already clear that our current education system is not designed for them.

Find your top performers by looking at things ONLY they can do. Don’t worry about whether they accomplish tasks everyone else can perform.

4. My students and colleagues will not understand this advice.

It must be explained to them.

The traditional model of grading and performance assessment has been part of the student (and faculty) experience since they were about 10 years old, and first began to receive report cards. It is now part of the water in which students and teachers swim, and You Don’t Know Water Until You’ve Left Your Fishbowl.

This is how I explain it to my students, using the example of a midterm exam, and why I don’t “curve” my exam grades like many engineering faculty do. My “curve” is built right into my grading scale.

The exam grading “curve” is built into the way points are distributed to the easy, challenging, and most difficult problems on the exam.

One of the things about grades is that they are confidential. The federal law called FERPA prohibits sharing grade information with anyone other than the student (including parents). The intent of the act is to protect privacy, but you might notice that it bears a striking resemblance to the archaic, Baby Boomer ethic of discouraging employees to share salary information. Through some perverse logic, this practice of salary secrecy is supposed to avoid the distraction of salary disputes and allow people to focus exclusively on doing their best work. The real result is that it allows discrimination, encourages politicking, and breeds employee discontent.

Explain your compensation system. Make it transparent to your entire organization, so that employees know what tasks are most valued.

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