Aikido-Style Grading

Jason Fertig

During my time as a doctoral student at Temple University, I spent part of my spare time studying the Japanese martial art Aikido.  Surprisingly, this Taoist-derived blend of defensive action and philosophical maneuver has helped me in the classroom. Not that I am often confronted with students eager to throw me to the mat. Rather, Aikido is about maintaining your balance while imbalancing others. That’s not a bad idea of what a teacher needs to do. This particular martial art has helped me conduct classes that maximize learning and minimize grade inflation.  Herein I reveal the secret of my Aikido-style grading!

Many teachers try to "teach to the middle." Because there is such variance in ability and motivation of studies, this shortchanges the best students. In my classes, I have a menu of assessments - tests, editorials, and papers. I tell my students up front that if all they want is a C in the class, they can just take the tests and get 70% or higher and they'll have a C (no need to write any papers). That way, I only read papers from students who really want to write the papers. 

The exams are not easy. I work hard to ensure they are reliable measures of the desired competency; I am determined only to pass students who deserve to move on to the next course in sequence.   More importantly, having fewer editorial and paper submissions allows me to focus on the more motivated students, and to coach them towards mastery. 

It is nonetheless surprising how many students prefer the path of aiming no higher than a C, just to avoid writing papers. My grade distribution looks average at the end, largely because of the cohort who set such a low expectation for themselves. 

So where does the Aikido fit in to this pedagogy? The physical practice of Aikido (see video) involves redirecting the force of an attacker to subdue an “opponent.” Aikido practitioners are trained to harmonize with any given attack. The art is primarily defensive; Aikido students do not initiate the attack – they respond in a way that is powerful, while treating the attacker with respect.

Many people who study Aikido will declare that true benefits of studying the art lie not in the ability to put people in wristlocks and launch them around a room, but in how the approach to “self-defense” manifests itself in daily life.

On the mat, the person facing the attack responds with the same amount of speed and energy as that attack:

  • A weak slap is met with a simple turn out of the way, not a forceful kick to the gut. 
  • A powerful punch is met with a faster reaction and a possible defensive response. 

Off the mat, Aikido can influence actions as well:

  • A husband learns to respond to his wife’s complaint about leaving the toilet seat up with a more controlled response rather than anger that escalates into a larger fight.
  • When faced with a pushy salesperson, a person learns to remain focused on situational goals instead of letting emotions take over.  

This philosophy of harmony has helped doctors, lawyers, executives, and others handle adversity and conflict. The idea of harmonizing with sent energy is what has inspired my practice of allowing students to “opt out” of portions of my class.

Ideally, we want to graduate students who are 100% knowledgeable and skilled in each academic subject, yet we still have to battle the daily reality of the “education as credential” mindset and the below average basic skills of many who presently choose college. Using Aikido terminology, the “energy” sent from students range from seeking a piece of paper (a diploma) to seeking intellectual enrichment. Therefore, my pedagogy allows the mere credential seekers to obtain a truly-earned certificate of competency in a body of knowledge while granting the more motivated students the opportunity to forge ahead on their writing and critical thinking. In addition to its connection to my Aikido practice, this notion of directing energy to top performers is advocated in Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book – First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers do Differently.

But just like criticisms of Aikido itself, what do I say to those who think my approach is too soft? Naturally, some teachers prefer to set the bar high in the initial weeks of a course (e.g. assigning a lot of reading for the second class or getting students to drop/reconsider a course by administering a rigorous exam early in the semester). These educators would likely say that in my class I should have the C students write the paper anyway to learn discipline and practice their writing. They might argue I have a particular responsibility to rescue the under-motivated from their trough of complacency.

My response to those individuals is that I agree completely with the idea that they “should write the paper.” Yet I am a realist – the current system is not set up for all students to learn that discipline and practice their writing, therefore I choose to maximize the time spent on students that truly seek improvement rather than simply a passing grade. While we work towards increasing overall standards throughout the system, I can only immediately control what happens in my classroom. My goals there are to realistically evaluate each student’s performance – and that includes failing students who do not achieve the desired level of competency.

The alternative to what I advocate is wasting energy fighting an uphill battle against situations that are out of many educators’ controls or unchangeable in the short-term.

First, students see very little integration from course to course, even within their majors. If I make writing a premium in my classes, I may stand alone in my requirements in some students' eyes. Some professors turn the other cheek on poor writing, just focusing on "ideas." Many of us have heard a version of the statement, “if I graded students the way that I really wanted to, I’d fail all of them.” Thus, large portions of students are never faced with a "write well or fail" ultimatum. It's similar to wanting the population to drive better, yet only posting and enforcing speed limits on certain roads. The conscientious drivers will drive safely, but no one can stop the populace from "speeding," especially when they can avoid the enforced roads altogether and still arrive at their destination. I cannot change the system overnight, but I can ensure that I do not inflate the grades of students who choose not to demonstrate college level writing skills. 

Secondly, educators (especially ones without tenure) are faced with the undesirable choice of either holding high standards in the classroom and potentially facing administrative and political pressure to lower them—or lowering standards from the start and leaving top students unchallenged and inflating the grades of weaker students. Why choose between these two when there is a third option?

In the end, just as there are many different styles of martial arts, there are many ways to accomplish educational goals in a classroom. While I cannot get everyone to buy into this approach, I encourage anyone who is discouraged by what he faces in the classroom to design the classroom around the “energy that students send.” I am not implying that responding to energy means giving in to a lack of motivation. Rather, it means focusing on top students since students’ levels of academic motivation vary so widely. Some professors prefer to convince unmotivated students that a given subject is valuable. In that case, the lack of motivation is still the starting point; the response is different, but still appropriate.

My Aikido-style grading suggests a double-standard of sorts, but that is precisely the point. We ought to distinguish between the students who have an ethic of minimum effort and those who aspire to a higher goal.

Hope to see you on the mat!

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