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Brian Silvey on Grade Points and Evaluation

My name is Brian Silvey, and I am an Assistant Professor of Music Education and the Director of the Symphonic Band at the University of Missouri.

I constantly struggle with how to best assess my students. One thing I do know is that using a point system does not seem to work for me. What feedback really comes from, “Hey, you got an 89” versus “Hey, you got a 90?”  In most cases, the only significant difference is the grade (Don’t get me wrong. I realize that the difference between these numeric values is very big when it comes to final grades, GPA, and even scholarships). We never hear stories of the ultimate success of the 3.9 student over the one who graduated with a mere 3.8. “Oh, my life would have been so much more fulfilling if I had just gotten a 92 on my final exam!”  I doubt an extra tenth of a point ever enabled someone to cure a disease or better society.

My point is to encourage many of you to think about gauging student success in terms of measurable student outcomes that are interesting and embody meaningful aspects of the discipline.  In music, no one cares much if you can play all of the notes if they don’t sound beautiful.  For some students, we have to limit the amount of music that they play in an effort to get just a few notes to sound beautiful.

Hot Tip: Don’t be afraid to do the same with your students.  To think that everyone should know the same exact information at the same exact time while using the same exact testing procedures is not very helpful towards gauging students’ mastery or competency of overarching principles.

Hot Tip:  When designing your next assessment, allow students to select from a variety of questions.  What we are really interested in when assessing students’ knowledge is the depth of their understanding of key principles.  Not everyone will understand all of the principles equally well (or should).  Allowing students to expand upon what they do know, in a profound and meaningful way, will give you the opportunity to see how well they understand the important aspects of the subject matter.

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  • Pauline Brooks · April 27, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you, Brian Silvey. Your topic, approach, and suggestions were refreshing. You have provided a grounded-in-reality perspective that I and perhaps others are likely to not consider. For me, your comments ask us to look more closely at the meaning of the behavior/event, etc., that we are assessing. Your few lines give evaluators and others a lot to think about.

    Thank you!


  • Sara · April 26, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Thank you for this article, I appreciate your perspective on the point system!

    I’ve often thought about this issue since experiencing an extreme case of point system insanity as an undergrad student. My professor gave weekly short written assignments, each worth 5 points. My issue was that he actually broke each point down into tenths, so it was possible to get a 3.6 or a 3.7, or a 4.3 as opposed to a 4.4.

    I found this scale useless as a student. (How could I possibly figure out how to make a two-page assignment worth a 4.8 instead of a 4.6?) I also find it hard to believe that any professor, no matter how good, can evaluate such a short assignment on such a sensitive scale!

    The marks ended up seeming completely random to all of the students in the course, and no good insight was gleaned from them.

    Thank you for clarifying that the purpose of assessment is to give the student useful information!


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