Pedagogy, teaching

At the Intersection of Grades, Game Theory, and Ethics

Grade Distribution - Image courtesy of

I might be over-extending myself here, as I’m really only deeply familiar with one of the elements I reference in my title (I’ll leave it to you to try and figure that one out!), but I’ll go ahead and venture some ideas about all three things and the interrelationship between them.

As I was thinking about grades at a time when I don’t actually have to grade anything, I began contemplating ways to tackle a common challenge that I find with grades: how can a teacher help students see grades as an opportunity for self-reflection and honest self-analysis rather than as a irremediable judgement on the quality and value of an individual’s soul? I’ve explored this challenge before, discussing how the presence of a grade (an institutional requirement at virtually every school in the US with which I’m familiar) leads students to overlook the feedback and comments offered to them. Of course, from the perspective of the individual writing this feedback, this is a disappointing turn of events, as the purpose of the comments is to help the student improve on his or her next assignment and beyond. By contrast, students are often seem primarily interested in the bottom line — a rational perspective given the high cultural priority placed on grades and their role in college admissions and American cultural perceptions of “success” and “smartness.”

So, given the reality of grades and traditionally-graded assignments (e.g. tests administered within one class period), I was thinking of ways to make these assessments better tools for encouraging the type of honest self-analysis about an individual’s level of preparation and learning than they are presently.

The Problem:

Particularly given the structure of a 45-minute test, there’s a tendency for students to complete a test, turn it in, emotionally distance themselves from it (both the content and the learning objective skills it sought to assess) after submission, move on with other material immediately afterwards, and then reinvest emotionally (but rarely in terms of content and skills) once the test is returned with a grade.

I think this pattern also holds true for other types of major project assessments (e.g. essays, research assignments, presentations, and the like). If the student performed below where he or she ideally wants to be grade-wise, this dynamic often leads to feelings of disappointment in or anger about the result. Unfortunately, that energy is rarely converted into something positive, meaning that the feedback of the grade itself and/or the accompanying comments don’t very effectively encourage self-reflection or honest self-analysis.

The (potentially controversial) Proposal:

I have no idea whether this will actually be controversial, but I’m trying to anticipate a range of responses and reactions (perhaps something that the comments can help me suss out!), so I thought I’d frame it in the most sensationalistic way possible, which, in all honesty isn’t very sensational. Anyways, onto the proposal…

So, here’s what I’m thinking: At the end of any major project, like a test or paper, have a section where students predict their grade on the assessment and offer a ~2 sentence explanation for why they think they will earn that particular grade. In order to create the proper incentives for the students to be honest with themselves and with the teacher, predicting one’s score within, say, +/- 2 points will earn the student X points of extra credit (again, let’s not be too high stakes, and say 3 points of extra credit).

In effect, I’m applying the Carnival Game of “Guess Your Weight” or “Guess Your Age” to the context of a major school assignment, let’s call it, for the sake of total originality, “Guess Your Grade.” Rather than being rewarded with an overstuffed animal or other meaningless tchotchke, the student garners a few additional points for the ability to accurately predict and write about his or her performance.

Guess-Your-Weight, Oxford County Fair, ca. 1947, Image Courtesy of Maine Memory Network

From my perspective, however, the most important part of this addition would be the ~2 sentence explanation of why the student earned the predicted grade. This brief response would, when the teacher returns the assignment with a grade, provide fodder for follow-up conversations with the student, advisor, or parents about the student’s level of preparation, grasp of the concepts, time management, and the like. I imagine in many cases, a student’s explanations would discuss amount of preparation time, or lack thereof, which in and of itself would be a useful point on which the student could build.

My other hope is that this type of section at the end of the assignment would, especially for a paper, get the students to more thoroughly consult the instructions, expectations, and requirements before submitting their work. In this case, in order to complete the brief prediction of grade, they’d have to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the expectations and criteria for evaluation in order to do a predictive evaluation on their own work before turning it in. Of course, this requires that the assignment be clear in its expectations and criteria for evaluation, but I think this should be a given, and if it will encourage greater self-assessment on the part of the teacher and get him or her to consider the purpose and value of a particular assignment, then this would be a mutually beneficial development. Moreover, this change would hopefully eliminate (or greatly reduce) conversations that might begin, “But I didn’t know you wanted us to do X,” or “You never said in class that our paper had to have Y.” Were these objections to crop up, the response and the ensuing discussion about things to do differently in the future is very easy: read (and understand) the instructions more thoroughly.

An Ethical Dilemma?:

I guess this last section is really about seeking feedback and responses to the challenges of this approach. Most importantly, is it ethical to create incentives in this way for students where the rewards come in the form of additional points? I suppose this approach to extra credit differs from the regular one in that students usually earn extra credit by doing something clearly distinct and optional. I suppose this section on an assignment could also be optional, but the costs of responding versus not responding are so minimal that it seems like 100% of students would engage in this brief predictive follow-up exercise.

Secondly, would this type of question actually get students to be more honest about self-reflection, or would it just encourage them to write what they thought the teacher would want to hear? I often have this concern about self-reflection responses in general, as students are pretty savvy about knowing their audiences and can change the tone of their writing accordingly if they sense it will benefit them in some particular way. (Students inherently understand this when you talk with them about writing text messages to one another versus writing analytical essays, but they have a much harder time perceiving and analyzing these changing tones and purposes in historical documents; however, that’s a topic for another post). However, given the structure of this type of incentive system (which on its surface seems more objective because it’s about guessing a quantified result), might students be more inclined to be honest about their performance?

Finally, would seeing this prediction before assigning the final grade predispose the teacher to anticipate that specific grade and thereby influence his or her assessment? This problem seems easy enough to get around: have the students write their predictions on a separate sheet of paper that the teacher won’t consult until they’re done grading all the tests or essays, at which point they can then cross-reference the predictions with the results and reward extra credit accordingly.

I’d be interested to hear if others have used a similar system or just have reactions in general to this idea. In the meantime, however, I’ll continue pipe-dreaming in these non-grading months.


2 thoughts on “At the Intersection of Grades, Game Theory, and Ethics

  1. I think this is a wonderful idea. I think the students’ responses would, if not lead to conversations, at least allow you to respond to their expectations in written form. I also think modeling good comments and showing good examples would be beneficial. I would think giving a small number of extra points for the guess and then a small number of extra points for the written response would make sure kids also took that part seriously. Thanks for the great idea!

  2. Alicia Henry says:

    Well, as a former student of yours Nate, and as a current engineering college student, I can attest to the mutual emotion from the “what you expected” versus the “what you actually got” feeling happens a lot. I like your idea, I’m just not sure saying that the students’ accurate predictions means that they should get points. For certain students, if their grade will obviously stay in that same grade range (ex: 81 vs. 84, or 94 vs.97) it seems logical to give the points, but what about exceptions? For example, there may be a situation where a student gets an 88 yet thought they were going to get a higher grade, and adequately backs it up with their 2 sentences versus a student correctly predicting an 88 and getting an A. They get an A for accurately predicting their lack of knowledge (when both obviously got an 88 to begin with). It’s just confusing, and as a current student still, I would have an inclination to write whatever would make it obvious that I studied adequately 🙂

    Anywho, great read.. What motivational techniques teachers come up with is always of great interest to me 🙂

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