I'm no fan of grades and I begrudge having to apply them to the work of students because the attention they command is completely disproportionate to the detail (or rather the lack of it) that they provide. I wonder if anyone really believes that grades serve anything but the most rudimentary purpose. If, instead of viewing assessment and feedback as two distinct things, we thought of them both as part of a single continuum then I think we'd have a much clearer picture of how they function. If detailed feedback is the most fine-grained and valuable form of evaluation which we can offer a student then grades are probably one of the most impoverished ways of feeding back about their achievements. The only thing which provides less information than a grade is simply to attribute a pass or fail to submitted work. Indeed, we could create a bandwidth hierarchy which demonstrates this relationship:
Of course, most universities, and the courses which comprise them, almost always provide some form of feedback in addition to grades. However, at the pinnacle of every single student's achievement at university, the final point of recognition and the culmination of years of application, engagement and endeavour are summed up in a single grade with no further feedback whatsoever. What does this actually say about what universities really believe in or what they think their students should aspire towards? No wonder students seem overly fixated on grades.
How much better would it be if we radically changed our angle on assessment. Instead of spending days discussing, debating and occasionally arguing over the minutiae and comparative strengths and weaknesses of students' final submission portfolios/exhibitions in order to come up with such blunt instruments as grades, perhaps our time would be better spent in writing detailed analytical feedback which the students could take away with them and from which future employers could derive a far more detailed and useful picture of the students' applicability for employment (it might even save us writing so many references in future). I don't doubt that universities would see this as being an unacceptably “high risk” approach in that it would leave them accountable in a way that marks simply don't. But should we be denying students quality feedback simply because universities haven't got the bottle to really stand by their professed principles? What we really need in universities is a revolution in the understanding and application of assessment.