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Are Grades Ethical? The Ethics Sage Replies

Ethics IS a Critical Thinking Skill

I recently read an article in an online publication Cardinal Points, which is a weekly publication of Plattsburg State University. I was drawn to the piece because of its title: Are Grades Ethical? This is an important issue and one that deserves our attention, so I have decided to write a blog that gives my opinion on the topic.

Some background information first. The ethics of giving grades was explored in depth at the Ethics of Grading panel discussion hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence and Institute for Ethics in Public Life at SUNY Plattsburgh. The discussion centered around the nature of grades and whether they truly belong in the future of teaching. The following are the main points made in the piece that explores whether grades are ethical.

Why Grades are Not Ethical: The Views of Academics

“Our first obligation is to help students do better, improve skills, and increase their knowledge,” Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus said. “In what ways does the traditional system of grades help us meet these obligations? Or a more urgent question – in what ways does it actually interfere with our obligations?”

Dr. Neuhaus commented that in many ways, grades are counterproductive towards such goals. She argued that they often make students passive, since grades represent an external motivator instead of an internal, intrinsic one. This removes the emphasis from actual learning and places it on attaining desirable grades. “As educators, it is our special and ethical responsibility to confront these questions,” she said.

Dr. Young Yu concurred. She mentioned the book “Reading Smarter, Not Harder”, that provides intriguing insight into the issue of grading. Dr. Yu used the example of an assignment on which 20 percentage points is reduced for each day that a student turns work in late.

Dr. Yu believes that the system of grading “is standard in classrooms at every level of education. But here’s the issue — if grades are supposed to reflect how much a student learned, then how does reducing it for late submission actually demonstrate learning? It doesn’t accomplish that goal at all.”

Regan Levitte drew on her personal experiences as a student to illustrate her viewpoint on grades. When she was in graduate school and taking a course in critical theory in English, which wasn’t her area of expertise, she recalls receiving feedback from the chairperson of the department that was so harsh that it almost moved her to tears.

Levitte asks: “Should receiving feedback from teachers really be something distressing for students? Should they really be emotionally damaged or scarred like that? I don’t think so.”

Dr. Maureen Squires focused on the responsibility of educators to explore the best and most effective ways to help their students grow. She said: “The ethical imperative is to develop critical reflective practitioners and generate interest to move from external to internal motivation. Is that easy? No. But is it our responsibility? Absolutely.”

I could go on, but you get the point that these educators aren’t enamored with grading students and feel it may hold them back, stifle their initiative, and even damage them emotionally. I understand these points but feel the educators have gone too far in dismissing the importance of grades and the following paragraphs explain why. Grading

The Views of the Ethics Sage

The cartoon (used with permission) presents one point of view, which is that educators are more motivated to see good grades than students who believe they do not reflect real learning.

Having taught at universities for 40 years and being an ethicist, I can say the article makes great points about the ethics of giving grades. Students need subjective feedback on how they are doing and suggestions to improve performance. They also need to be taught to develop critical thinking skills and ethics is one area typically ignored in university curricula or only paid lip service.

Our society needs critical thinkers but also those who can make ethical decisions even when pressures exist to do otherwise. These skills are developed through subjective learning techniques such as case studies, group projects, role-play experiences and so on. My main point of disagreement with the article is I don't understand why grades shouldn't be given along with these other pedagogical teaching methodologies.

We live in a society where performance on the job is rated, and this conforms to the purpose of grading. We live in a competitive society and grades help students understand they will be rated on their performance at work and working hard to achieve good grades can mirror the work ethic and motivation to achieve good grades.

Let's face it, if a student wants to get into a masters or PhD program, grades will be an important factor in the decision to admit or not. In my field, business and accounting, students with low grades are much less likely to be called for an interview than those with higher grades.

To conclude, the purpose of grades is to help develop a work ethic that will help students to compete in the real world. We shouldn't ignore them, but they can be buttressed by subjective evaluations and assessments of critical reasoning skills. Grading helps the teacher grade objectively rather than subjectively, which could introduce biases in the grading system.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on November 24, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: