Ranks, curricula, and pedagogy, Part II

This second article in our three post series will focus on ranking systems and student evaluation. You can find part I here.

Ranking Systems – good or bad?

There is some debate in the martial arts community about the relevance or usefulness of ranks. Some democratically organised clubs often find them elitist and have no place for them. Many professional schools use them and prefer ranking systems. The International Armizare Society is solidly in favour of ranking systems as a pedagogical and organisational tool, for reasons that will become clear below.

Ranks are common and widely used, despite not always being recognised as such. Beginning with the modern Asian belt system as an obvious example, students progress through a series of coloured belts known as “kyu“, each belt signifying they have achieved a certain level of technical skill or learned “x” number of new techniques before moving on to obtain their “dan” levels (a further classification for advanced students).kyu

Other Japanese systems use menkyo (teaching licenses). The English Maisters of Defence used the Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost and Maister system. Moving away from martial arts, trades and guilds historically (and today) used ranks: apprentice, journeyman and master. Universities employ a similar paradigm: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior, or if you prefer, Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctorate levels.

Even elementary and high school grades are meant to classify a student according to their level of achievement. All these disparate systems have one thing in common: they are levels of progression through curricula. While there are a variety of opinions surrounding the use of ranks, they are certainly a practical and widely used means for marking advancement – clearly, such systems have a usefulness beyond satisfying simple hubris.

Usefulness of Ranking Systems

Ranking systems, when properly used, provide the student with proper feedback as to his abilities, and when used in conjunction with properly defined and evaluated objectives, provides significant feedback to a student. Achieving a rank allows the student to objectively say “I have reached plateau ‘x’, and can perform to ‘y’ level.”

Further, when spaced at proper and significant intervals, they provide a motivating factor for a student. Students want feedback as to their progress, and being able to measure themselves to criteria, as assigned to rank, allows them to objectively view themselves vis-à-vis your curriculum. In this manner, rank signifies achievement, and is a powerful psychological motivator.

Finally, for the teacher, ranks provide criteria against which the student can be objectively evaluated, and allows the instructor to structure his class based on some assumptions regarding a student’s or group’s abilities.  Ranks provide an invaluable tool for student feedback and advancement. For this to work, any ranking system must be built hand in hand with the curriculum and its objectives (as seen in part I), such that it provides a tool for proper evaluation. An example, from Les Maitres d’Armes ranking and evaluation system follows.

Spada a due mani requirements for the rank of Apprentice
Poste dance I
Demonstrate the mechanics of a cover/parry I
Demonstrate leverage of blade divisions I
Demonstrate deflections I
Demonstrate beats I
Rebat falso I
Fendente deflection (1st RM) I
Frontale deflection I
Frontale collection I
Defence vs. leg cut I
Quadrant defence: Parry (in front of sword) I
Quadrant defence: Beat (expulsion in front of sword) I
Quadrant defence: Deflection (behind sword) I

“I” = “Intermediate. See the IAS Quality of Execution criteria.

As you can see, the table provides clear criteria for what the student should know/be able to perform, and to what level they should be able to perform the required techniques. Given this, the instructors and students both know what is required to attain rank, and once attained, what the student is capable of, providing feedback to both parties. Testing is based on this benchmark.

Drawbacks of ranking systems

The “carrot and stick” approach also has its drawbacks. Some less than reputable schools use rank testing as a revenue stream, and the ranks become goals in themselves. They should never, of course, be used as such, and this trap can be avoided through the culture of the school. Stress that gaining rank does not make you better than anyone else, but is rather a mark of ongoing and continuous progress. In short, don’t let it go to their heads. They may be justifiably proud of their achievements, but not at the expense of others.

Further, it can be easy for a naïve student to fall into the trap that he has obtained his “mojo” rank, and is now a veritable human weapon. Please don’t be a McDojo or Kobra Kai.

Finally, students may see rank achievement as an end, a goal, and be discouraged when they can’t achieve it. As a teacher, it is difficult to watch a student struggle, but to protect the integrity of the system you must remain objective. Not everyone has the same physical skills, nor advances at the same rate. Use your role as guide and mentor to help students overcome obstacles, and use the ranking system as a tool to help them progress, providing useful feedback as to why they aren’t succeeding. Rather than making it a failure, use it as a teaching opportunity.

Objectivity of Ranking and evaluation

The success and integrity of a ranking system lay in its objectivity. Again, no teacher wants to see his student struggle or become discouraged, but you must avoid the “halo effect” – the temptation to award rank for effort, or based on personality (“He’s worked so hard” or “He’s a good guy.”) This will immediately invalidate the hard work and legitimate ranking of your other students, and may lead to resentment on the part of your other students. Instead, use micro-rewards, award certificates of merit, or other means of motivating your student, but do not compromise the objectivity of the system. Can the student perform x,y,z techniques to Z level, yes or no? If the answer is no, they do not have the requisite skills. It is unfortunate, but not every athlete is an Olympian. Not all your students will achieve all the levels. Don’t see that as a limitation, but as a challenge to which the student must rise.

It should go without saying, but avoid any semblance of nepotism. Avoid awarding ranks to your best buddy, fellow instructor, or mother in law without merit. This is the fastest way to destroy your credibility.


Evaluation has two roles: assess progress to aid student advancement, and as a method for determining skill acquisition. Further, evaluation has two modes, and can be either informal or formal. Let’s look at the uses for each.

Evaluation’s first role is to aid student progress. This is something you do every day as a teacher – you watch your student perform, make adjustments, provide feedback and corrections, and let them continue. It is a form of evaluation, and its role is to help the student progress.

The second role of evaluation is testing. Rank advancement tests constitute this role, wherein rather than using evaluation as an aid, you are using it to make a judgement. Do they have the skill, or do they not? Of course, once the evaluation is ended, the results can be applied to help the student progress further, but its primary purpose is to make a judgement, and that judgement must be made on clear, observable and measurable criteria. That same criteria you built a curriculum on now comes into play (Remember that system you’re supposed to know intimately? see part I), and serves to provide a yardstick for progress. It is also imperative that the student know on what they will be evaluated. You must provide them with the criteria they will be measured against, in the interests of transparency. Don’t move the goalposts for each student, but provide consistent, transparent evaluations based on known criteria.

As for the two modes: formal and informal, the first role of evaluation (assisting progress) is most often informal. You give verbal feedback to a student based on observation. It is fleeting, and usually in a group atmosphere. “Be careful, your lead foot turns out on the lunge, avoid that” is a an informal evaluation in the first role (assistance).

Formal evaluation is the type that most often accompanies rank testing, for instance. There is a set of criteria, scores, and a written record of the results. This type of evaluation is often done in a more closed atmosphere, with individual students, rather than a group setting.

Formal evaluation should leave traces, bread crumbs, a record of what the student did, and on what he was evaluated. That means either paper copy or electronic means, but there should be a record. Chicken scratches on wax tablets count. There are all kinds of methods to do this, from simple written comments to grids and tables, scored criteria, etc., but the gist is to leave behind a record of progress that both you and the student can consult. Here are some types of records, with tips for each:

  1. Simple comments. Avoid negative comments, since your goal is to build the student, not criticise him.
  2. Evaluations for physical skill development are best done in a dichotomous fashion. In other words: yes/no, pass/fail, can/can’t, success/needs work, particularly in the second role (testing).
  3. Gradations are helpful in the first role (assisting). There are several methods for doing this, from descriptive charts, to numerical grades, to simple check lists.
  4. Check lists provide the least feedback. What does the check mean? How can it improve? If there is no check, what went wrong? Try to associate checklists with comments, if using them.
  5. If you use a numerical grading system, remember the dichotomous nature of evaluation. Don’t use odd numbers for the scale. A scale of 1-3, 1-5, etc., will tempt you, when undecided, to choose a 3. It’s a psychological fact. But when using even numbers, the scale is split evenly. I would suggest a scale of 1 to 4. Scores 1 & 2 are failing, while 3 and 4 are passing marks. This maintains the dichotomous nature of the evaluation, and avoids fence-sitting. Also, try to associate headings to each score: “1 – needs more practise, 2 – performs with help, 3 – performs to the expected level, 4 – surpasses expectations.” Avoid headings like “Fail, not bad, pass, excellent” since they mean very little, objectively. And of course, maintain your students’ self worth by avoiding headings of the “spectacular failure, incompetent, not entirely worthless, manages not to embarrass themselves” variety. I jest, of course, but even for grades that mean “utter failure” maintain a semblance of positivity – your students will thank you for it.
  6. The most useful evaluations have descriptive headings. For instance: “Passing steps: is unable to pass / doesn’t engage hips / passes some loss of balance / passes with speed and precision.” You’ll notice there are four headings (remember that scale we just spoke of? It applies here too), and when making these types of evaluations, you should put the most common errors students make on the “failing” side, with what you’re seeking on the “passing” side. These are the most time-consuming evaluations to produce, but are the most valuable to the student, providing the most feedback.

I would suggest, as a tip of sorts, that you occasionally make formal evaluations for the first role (assistance), since the goal is for the student to have a record of his progress. Knowing where in the progression he is situated is invaluable to helping keep a student motivated, and in helping them progress. Further, it aids student autonomy, whereby they can go home with their record sheet, binder, notebook, electronic record, whatever, and refer to it. It is a study aid, and an invaluable one at that. Students learn best when they are involved in their learning process, and are responsible for it. We’ll see more of this concept in part III, but for now, understand that a student who is included and invested in his education is more likely to succeed than one who passively receives information.

The first role of evaluation also helps the instructor adapt his pedagogy to the student. We’ve noted in part I that students all learn differently, and this is the teacher’s chance to figure out what, why and how they may aid the student. Once you know, having a record of evaluations, perhaps patterns emerge, and you can vary your pedagogy or suggest strategies for that student. This pedagogical differentiation and pedagogical strategies will form the crux of part III of this series.