Duke learning is transactional; how we can do better

I’m about to graduate from Duke, the place I have had the incredible pleasure to call home for the past almost four years. I love Duke with my whole heart, and love means seeing the vices right next to the virtues. The biggest vice I see is what I call our culture of “toxic pre-professionalism” that works against the very mission of the education that Duke seeks to create.

Toxic pre-professionalism is the dangerous culture of defining ourselves only by our grades, traditional achievements, and the steps we have made on the stereotypical rainbow road of success. It contributes to our terrifyingly high rate of suicide and to our high prevalence of cheating--when we place grades in our value systems at place number one, how could we not do everything we need to do to get them? Of course pre-professionalism on its own is not a vice, but the monolithic focus in everything we do on filling our resumes and getting on track for professional careers, is. Our traditional letter-based grading system cultivates this culture of toxic pre-professionalism by reducing learning to a competitive and transactional exercise; changing this system to de-emphasize grades could have a profoundly positive effect on Duke’s culture and student experience.

I have spent the past year working as a project manager for a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) focused on inclusive assessment practices in quantitative disciplines. In this position, I’ve spent about an hour every three weeks talking with STEM professors about our grading and assessment practices, discussing how we can make grades more objective, help students learn better, and give all students a chance to succeed. In our meetings, we often expressed frustration with how students often care so much more about their grades than their learning and how prevalent cheating is. Many of our conversations focused on how we can create a system that fosters the development of engaged problem-solvers and critical-thinkers rather than students skilled at memorizing and jumping through hoops to get good grades. 

Throughout the year, the professors on the FLC implemented various creative grading and assessment interventions in their courses, some with great results and some with poor ones, but it became clear that we were trying to fight against a culture so ingrained in our community that individual changes, though they can be very impactful, would not be enough. Nearing the end, we are left with an understanding that the culture surrounding grades themselves is deeply flawed. While we certainly don’t want to get rid of all grades, de-emphasizing them structurally could have a great impact on this culture. We do not need to debate the merits of a specific alternative to understand that something must change, but a solution could be to implement a mandatory Pass/ No-Record grading system in the first-year, similar to what MIT uses. A first-year intervention specifically could disrupt the transactional views of grades that most of us developed in high school and allow first-years to learn to be college students without penalizing their future. 

Duke states that their mission is “to provide a superior liberal education … attending not only to [students’] intellectual growth but also to their development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.” By reducing learning to a transaction of letters, the traditional grading system cultivates a culture of toxic pre-professionalism that works directly against this mission. In the book Grading for Equity, which guided much of our learning in the FLC, the author Joe Feldman explains that the A-F system can create an environment where grades are viewed as a commodity. 

When we see grades as a commodity, we cram for tests and prioritize short term memorization above real learning, which is long term, much harder to measure, and should change the way we think about the world. The A-F grading system often creates transactional student-teacher relationships, enforces competition, and fuels cheating. The reliance on a “hidden curriculum” of how to get good grades disadvantages students that went to lower-resource high schools, those who learn in different ways, and those who follow the rules. Especially in our first year, many students lack preparation for advanced classes and receive failing grades, which can immensely hurt future educational and career opportunities. This effect is even larger for BIPOC students and students of diverse identity who already face greater obstacles to their success at Duke. Our system of letter-grades perpetuates inequities in education and fosters a culture that trains students to jump through hoops rather than think critically about the world around us. 

While our A-F grading system cultivates a harmful learning environment, grades are still useful and sometimes necessary to incentivize work and quantify proficiency. De-emphasizing them would require students to rely more on intrinsic motivation to learn. While this may not produce the same kind of learning that we currently see, we should consider that the kind of learning we enforce extrinsically is often not the kind we should prioritize. Further, if we are not motivated intrinsically, perhaps we should ask why we are here and what kind of culture is making us not want to be. Any plan for changing the grading system would bring many complications, but I urge us to consider with equal weight the complications of our current system. Our culture of toxic pre-professionalism is complex, and no one change can fix it, but de-emphasizing grades especially in the first year would make a huge difference. 

Our community is already beginning to make change because we feel the effects of this culture, especially throughout the last two years of a global pandemic. Among movements like the Duke Anti-Resume project and the expansion of S/U grading options, we are already questioning our value systems and working against toxic pre-professionalism. Professors too have great power in changing this culture through their own grading and assessment practices, which the Office of Learning Innovation provides excellent recommendations for. We want to value ourselves as multidimensional humans and take care of ourselves, but the schooling systems that we have been swimming through our whole lives make this difficult. Cultural changes led by students and faculty are necessary to work against toxic pre professionalism, and they must be accompanied by structural changes to de-emphasize grades. 

One of my favorite professors, Dr. Malone, once asked me, “Are you a stat, or a story?” When we leave Duke, have we been given the full chance to critically examine and understand the systems around us, or have we just crammed information into our brains and resumes and left more ready than ever to perpetuate the systems that got most of us here, with a false sense of freedom? I want to be a story.


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