A Conundrum: Grading for Improvement versus Grading Against a Standard

One peculiar difficulty of teaching applied music lessons at a college or university is that of assigning grades to students’ performances in those lessons. While evaluating a student’s playing and suggesting means of improvement is “challenging but doable,” assigning an actual letter or numerical grade to those efforts is harder. The biggest difficulty is in one decision: should I assign a grade based upon the individual student’s improvement from one lesson to the next, or should I grade the student’s work against some sort of objective standard? Before beginning I will confess that I don’t know a definitive answer to this question nor am I sure that there even is a “one size fits all” answer. Still, let us consider this little conundrum for a few moments.

Grading for Improvement

Grading in applied lessons is necessarily and notoriously subjective. One student plays for one teacher, and the grade for that lesson is ultimately based upon the teacher’s opinion regarding the student’s performance. There is also subjectivity found in the differences between students’ innate abilities, including general intelligence, pitch and rhythm perception, physical compatibility with the instrument, prior instruction, etc. The vast differences between students in these realms defy subjecting them all to a purely external standard. Some students that start out “woefully behind” can, with hard work, emerge as outstanding musicians, yet if they are judged against some arbitrary standard in their early careers they might wrongly infer (or even be told) that they don’t “measure up.” Conversely, students with lots of “natural talent” might be able to “breeze through” the earlier requirements of such a rubric and then flounder when they finally have to really practice. In short, while we hope that students will all make great strides and emerge from our studios as great players, the paths from “where they are now” to “where they need to be” are as unique as the students themselves. Even the end results will vary quite a bit, and we want it that way—who wants to listen to a bunch of musicians that all sound exactly the same?

All of these considerations can be cited in support of the “grading for improvement” approach, assigning a grade based upon the individual student’s improvement from week to week and semester to semester, rather than judging the student according to some external standard.

Grading Against a Standard

And yet, one can easily see the failings of such a system, as well. Regardless of how much a student improves, there is still a certain level of competency that a student must achieve in order to succeed as a musician. Even future school music teachers must develop a certain level of musicianship in their primary performance areas before they will be able to competently teach and lead ensembles. The music business is (and always has been) incredibly competitive, and students are done a disservice if they are assigned “A’s for effort” week after week while never being challenged—or even admonished—to reach for higher qualities of performance. Whether a formal rubric is used or students are simply exposed to examples of superior performances by great musicians, students must be made aware that there are standards (however informal) that those that will “make it” in this business must meet if they expect to be successful. Indeed, our students must be challenged to exceed the skill of even their “heroes,” because the definition of “good enough” is continually being revised upward. It is not an understatement to say that “good enough” can never be achieved, because it does not exist.

How Then Shall We Grade?

So, shall we grade for improvement or grade against a standard? The only answer I can give is “Yes.” In the absence of an objective standard of some kind, we risk contributing to the endemic problem in our society of building up students’ “self-esteem” while their performance remains subpar. At the same time, that objective standard must not be used as a bludgeon that so discourages “capable but a little behind” students that can, with hard work and quality instruction, do great things.

How do these considerations interact when determining each student’s grade? I don’t know. In practice, I suppose it is different for each student. As long as we somehow acknowledge and reward improvement while continually exhorting students to greater improvement, I like to think we’re on the right track.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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