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A Grading Paradox

There are few (if any) absolutes in design—everything is an opinion, an interpretation, a translation. It may be arguable that design history is full of absolutes in terms of dates and authorship, but any good historian will tell you that history is all about the perspective of the person telling it, so even that comes up for debate. Since design lives in this ambiguous, amorphous place, quantifying it with a grade has always been the most difficult thing an educator has to do. I am of the opinion it is impossible—maybe even foolish—to try and dilute a student’s performance over a semester to a single letter. The students know that a grade is the simplest, narrowest and maybe least accurate way to reflect what they did in a class. Students and faculty all agree that the real evaluation happens in the class, in front of their instructor and their peers as we look at what everyone has done and talk about it. This is also why I do my best to avoid giving critique electronically—you need the critical mass of people in a room throwing ideas around to really learn something.

If we all agreed to ignore grades, then this would all work out just fine—but it is far more complex than that. Student’s financial aid is frequently tied to their GPA. Scholarships and grants can have a direct correlation to their marks in school. Students are taught that A = good and C = bad, and simply saying “this is good” is not enough for them. There is also parental pressure to see their sons and daughters doing well instead of just doing. Letter grading is part of a complex framework that tries to find a modular, agreed-upon middle ground everyone can relate to: students, teachers, administration, financial institutions and parents. This presents a paradox—letter grading is the least useful thing to actually achieving the outcome of school: education. However, letter grading can be the most useful thing in allowing the mechanics of the education system to keep working.

The big catch with this is that even though most people at an art and design school agree that letter grades don’t matter, a lot of the student and faculty time is spent on chasing them. This is a problem—school happens in a very limited amount of time, with a limited amount of resources. Should time and resources be spent on getting this letter instead of that letter? Or, should we all spend our time on chasing the education itself, the knowledge and skill. Sometimes, “bad” work can be the most valuable in learning a lesson. Should that valuable bad work, that moved the student forward, that taught them something important, but ultimately failed as a project be given an A or a D? Evaluation is a critical, key element of design education—students need to be given feedback on what they are doing in order to do it better. My question is simply: can we find a better way to do it?

© Mitch Goldstein /