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Liberation from grades

May 29, 2020

This semester, like many other universities, Harvard switched to a pass/fail grade model. (In typical Harvard style, we give them different names – “Emergency Satisfactory” and “Emergency Unsatisfactory” – but that doesn’t matter much).

One unexpected but happy consequence of this policy is that even though I already submitted the grades for my crypto course, I can now take the time and send students detailed feedback on their final projects. Typically, both students and faculty tend to be focused on the “bottom line” of exams or papers – what is the final grade. The comments are viewed as of marginal importance and only serve to justify why points have been deducted.

Now that there is no grade, I am actually giving many more comments on the write ups, trying to focus on giving students feedback on writing and presentation that will be useful for them later on. I benefited immensely from the extensive comments on my writing that I received from my advisor Oded Goldreich. While I will never match Oded’s thoroughness and dedication, I try to at least provide some of this to my students (though unlike Oded, I use blue and not red ink, and also do not intersperse the comments with Hebrew curses for emphasis 🙂 )

One Comment
  1. May 30, 2020 3:21 am

    Personally, I do not consider school grades into my accounts as an accurate measure of my success. Rather, I try to measure my learning progress based on my long-term vision of what I am aspiring to achieve.

    Our school system at best cases measures whether I do have some knowledge of studied topics. For me, I would measure my success with how novel my approach is. How far did I spotted a remark or got some insight which is not usually obtained. Even, If I did not solve problems like exams, I would be more satisfied that I had a novel thought and would consider that a success.

    I wish if schools allowed a student to write down his motivation of the subject. Why he is studying it? What he wishes to achieve from it? Then, a student’s own goals becomes considered in his grading. Of course, I do not know about prestigious HARVARD, but up to my knowledge in our Arabian region, That does not happen.

    The problem I find is that many of my colleagues get interested in grading systems up to the point they forget about what they wish to achieve in their lives.

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