The success of leaders grading themselves

December 26, 2016 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership

Some teachers ask students to grade peers. Some ask for student input on grading.

I go further.

Radical self-grading

I have students in my leadership courses grade themselves—not just give some input. They choose their grades.

Moreover, I tell them that I will defend to the administration that they deserve them even if they all give themselves A’s.

I also add that this loyalty and defense requires backup from them. I don’t just ask them their opinion at the end of the course.

I have them write me at the beginning of the course what grade they target for themselves and what level of work they believe would earn that grade. Throughout the course, I have them grade their work on each exercise. I give them a form for them to summarize their grades along the way so that if an administrator questioned their grades, we’d have a semester’s worth of documentation.

Why self-grade?

Unlike many professional fields where you can take a test to determine and show your level of skill, leadership has no objective measure of your skills. Your ability to lead depends on your field, whom you’re leading, what they’re doing, and many subjective factors. It’s like how my acting teacher described acting:

Evaluating your ability to perform is like getting on a ship that goes out to sea, never docked or on dry ground, always rocking. You have to develop an internal compass and your sea legs to figure out your values for yourself. No one can judge you objectively for you.

Since I don’t think of students in the classroom as preparing for real-life later but living it now, I find this exercise helps them develop their internal compass and sea legs.


Do you think all my students would give themselves A’s?

On the contrary, the grade distributions students give themselves looks like any other class’s. I figure out grades for my students independently and my grade has never differed from one of theirs by more than a third of a GPA point (the difference between an A and an A-).

In a world of rampant grade inflation, my students have asked for B-‘s, a D, and even an F. The F was the first grade where I pushed back (we settled on a temporary incomplete).

I find the exercise develops students’ self-awareness, integrity, and responsibility, at least based on my observation.

You can try to fool others into seeing half-hearted work as full-hearted, but not so easily yourself. You know when you’re not committing yourself. Facing brutal honesty in yourself in a supportive environment helps prepare you to be honest with yourself when your job and income depend on it.

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