Noah Millman, "cranky-old-man" blogging about higher ed, makes this proposal re: grading papers:

Suppose, say, the top three papers won gold, silver and bronze medals, and everybody else was either pass or fail. Since there are only three slots at the top, any lawyering would be at the expense of another student, which would change the dynamic considerably. But not everybody would be caught up in “winner-take-all” dynamics. Students with a real shot at a medal would work really hard to win it, because winning a medal would say a lot more than “I had a 4.0 average.” Students who don’t have a shot will do enough work to get by (if they don’t care), or enough work to get what they want out of the class (if they do care). Which is probably where a lot of them are now.

I think this is exactly wrong. As it stands every student has at least incentive for marginal improvement – a B is better than a B-, an A- is way better than a B+, etc. If a student is certain they are locked out of the medal slots (which can easily be ascertained) then they have no incentive to invest marginal time or mental energy into the course when there are so many other demands on their time. Students take 3, 4, 5 classes at a time; they play sports, lead clubs, politically organize, work for pay, intern; they socialize, chase objects of affection, engage in personal acts of creation or enrichment. And that’s fine! But by grading on such a steep, zero-sum curve, not only will they invest less in the class, but they will learn legitimately wrong lessons about the world, ie, that success is a competitive, zero-sum game, when it is far from it.

Anyway, Millman ignores the fundamental reasons that undergird "lawyering." Firstly, the pressure to get good grades is extreme and the consequences of poor grades can be dire; but secondly, individual professors are individual humans and can often be arbitrary and capricious, and students have grown quite savvy to that. There is an objective quality to "what is a good paper?" but there is also a vast and perhaps vaster subjective quality and a student who blithely turns in work without considering the question of "what is being asked of me?" is one who is actually less likely to succeed in the future because producing what is desired by others, as opposed to what is desired by one’s self, is key to success in a social world.

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