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Unmaking the grade
Professor Martin Covington wants students to get more out of their classes than just an ‘A’

| 05 March 2003

Few faculty members have touched the lives of as many Berkeley undergraduates as psychology professor Martin Covington. He’s been teaching undergraduates since 1957, when he joined the department as a graduate student. That was also “around the last year Cal went to the Rose Bowl,” he says with a rueful smile.

With 450 to 500 enrollees in his Psychology 1 lecture class every year, he has taught quite a few children of his alums and possibly even a few grandchildren. At this point, he’s a minor celebrity. “Wherever I go, I run into former students, so I always keep a smile on my face just in case,” says the energetic Covington, often seen around campus in blue jeans and hiking boots. A recipient of Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1976, he was named College Teacher of the Year by California’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1998 and received the Berkeley faculty award for outstanding mentorship of graduate student instructors (GSIs) in 2002.

For the love of learning
But where many faculty with Covington’s experience might have settled into a comfortable rut, Covington has chosen to tackle perhaps the most difficult pedagogical challenge of all: getting students to learn for learning’s sake. In 2001, he was appointed to a six-year term as holder of the Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education, an award designed to encourage innovation in the classroom. Drawing on research he has conducted for the past 15 years, Covington is using his Psych 1 course as a laboratory, to educate other instructors about how to shift students’ priorities toward caring about what they are learning.

Given the university’s high standards for entrance, every Berkeley student is extremely aware of grades. “It’s hard to shift that allegiance, and grades are the coin of the realm for access to prestigious occupations,” Covington explains. “However, if you achieve high grades alone without the right reasons for that achievement, then life tends to feel diminished. One of the greatest things about our students is their enormous idealism. We need to preserve and stimulate that idealism even though other priorities in society are often at odds with it.”

High achievement’s negative side, Covington argues, comes when it is motivated by fear of failure or by an obsession with competition — beating out others, as opposed to doing one’s best. Students who are motivated to learn for knowledge’s sake will see an A- or a B as an indicator of where performance could im-prove, but those merely trying to avoid failure or prove their superiority will feel crushed and inadequate. The negative pressure of competition, he continues, thrives under grading policies like relative or curve-based systems because there are too few rewards (A’s) to go around, even though students may be doing excellent work. Students have a clear motivation to “beat” their classmates.

‘A’ for anxiety
So what’s wrong with this familiar picture? “The results of achieving for the wrong reasons contradict the highest values Berkeley holds for its students: personal satisfaction, life productivity, and caring about learning,” Covington says. “Students would like to learn about the things that interest them, but they often feel they must narrow their focus to what will be on the test.”

With the help of his army of GSIs, Covington has sought to correct this situation for his Psych 1 students. “The teaching staff tries to reach consensus on the standards to which we want to hold students: Are the standards equitable, challenging, enticing?” he says. The result is an absolute, or merit-based, grading system with well-defined criteria about how and why points are assigned to each class component and task. This system replaces cutthroat competition among students for a few A’s with a more positive struggle to achieve competency. “If they meet our standards, they can all have A’s,” says Covington. “But if they all slack off, they all could fail.”

Covington also encourages students to make class personally meaningful. He and his GSIs “pay” students with points for following up on things that interest them, or by reporting how they made otherwise uninteresting tasks more stimulating. And all the while, Covington collects data to advance his research. Over the years, his students have reported on how they stay focused on assignments from week to week, or what kinds of rewards (like snacks or breaks) helped sustain their work.

Measuring up
Covington’s goal is not to eliminate grades, but to change their meaning and remove the stress associated with them so that students can actually enjoy learning the material. “Everybody likes to have an index to take stock of themselves,” he says. “CEOs measure their performance based on their average yearly income. Professors look at how often their research is cited. And students use their GPAs.”

Studies, however, show that college grade-point averages do not accurately predict future income. “When I tell students that, they always look stunned and sit up in their seats,” Covington says with a smile. “They’re also shocked to learn that personal competitiveness is either unrelated to these success indices or negatively correlated — that is, the more competitive you are, the worse you may do. What matters more for achieving occupational success is a willingness to learn, improve, and cooperate.”

As holder of the Presidential Chair, Covington is attempting to share the fruits of his research with Berkeley’s more than 3,000 GSIs and fellow faculty through seminars, conferences, and, eventually, a website. “Some instructors will profit just from knowing about the principles of motivation so they can better understand students’ fears, frustrations, and hopes,” says Covington. “Others might want to introduce techniques like the absolute grading system, which is a lot of work but can pay real dividends.”

Teaching is a risky, challenging activity, he continues, comparing it with a wink to “bungee jumping or deep-sea diving. Seriously, though, it takes great courage not just to teach, but to improve one’s teaching.”