certification vs. personal growth as teaching goals

What should the goal of teaching be? From the teacher’s perspective, I see two major goals:

  • Certification: The goal is to assess what the student knows and signal it to an external audience (e.g., pass or “A”).
  • Personal growth: To help an individual improve in terms of acquiring knowledge or a skill.

The problem is that these goals are often in conflict. Let’s take a simple example. Let’s assume that I want to take a French class in college. Let’s assume that I am learning a fair amount of French. I can ask for the bathroom. I can say hello, I can even follow real world conversations. But then I don’t do so well on tests. My spelling is off and I can’t quite conjugate my verbs right. I have real problems memorizing vocabulary.

What grade should I get? There’s a real argument that I deserve an F. I haven’t met the standards of the class. But on the other hand, I’ve actually become sort of functional in French and I’ve genuinely improved myself. So maybe I should really get a B or C. There is no intrinsic right answer because it’s ultimately about values. Are college classes about self improvement or signalling expertise?

In my own teaching, I decided to vary the standard by class. If a class is needed to send strong signals, I tend to assign stricter grades. My introduction to sociology course is like this. Grades need to be tough because a lot of students don’t do the work and even among those that work, not everybody is getting the material. If a class is an elective or terminal (e.g., the end of a student’s educational career), I am really more focused on just helping the student become better in some skill set, like writing and public speaking, and the actual letter grade is more mellow, even if my assignments and tests are tough.

Share your teaching philosophy in the comments.


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Written by fabiorojas

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I am curious as to why you embrace the notion that teaching is about certification. I don’t find it particularly noble to align myself with a societal role as an initial screening device employed by for-profit entities (some of then with very deep pockets) as they go about looking for talent. Personal growth is enough of a goal for me, particularly when expanded to include civic responsibility, critical thinking and all those other lame yet virtuous ideals.


    Dror Etzion

    October 13, 2018 at 2:11 pm

  2. @Dror: It really varies from situation to situation. If I were a driving instructor, my only goal is certification. If I were a yoga instructor, it would likely be personal fitness. Most academic teaching lies between these extreme cases. That is why this is a good discussion to have.



    October 15, 2018 at 5:56 pm

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