In the last several chapters, I proposed some possible first steps toward ungrading, specifically that the best way to begin is through open conversation with students about grades. Perhaps, just as important, is that teachers start by having these conversations more often with each other. There has always been a reflective layer to my teaching, a community of colleagues and co-teachers I turn to for intense discussions about the nature of teaching, both in philosophy and practice. In higher education, this kind of pedagogical community is unfortunately rare. With so many teachers working contingently and most receiving little formal preparation for the work of the teaching, where and when can we safely ask the question, “What if we didn’t grade?”
When I talk to other faculty (and students) about grades, I start with questions about the what, why, and how of grading. Our answers influence all the other work we do:
- Why do we grade? How does it feel to be graded? What do we want grading to do (or not do) in our classes (for students or teachers)?
- What do letter grades mean? Do they have intrinsic meaning, or is their value purely extrinsic? Does assessment mean something different when it is formative rather than summative?
- How does feedback function in relation to grades? Does grading create a power structure that frustrates authentic relationships? To what extent should teachers be readers of student work (as opposed to evaluators)?
- What would happen if we didn’t grade? What would be the benefits? What issues would this raise for students and/or teachers? What kind of structural obstacles would we face?
- What would it look like to design adaptively, to listen more intently, to reimagine teaching as a creative act we take up together with students?
These questions are what hum beneath the writing that is foundational to my thinking about grades. Some of the works I find myself returning to again and again do get to the nuts and bolts of radical assessment, but the focus is more squarely on rethinking the structures in education that short-circuit the work of teaching and learning.
Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”
Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
I struggled to pick just two books or articles to recommend from Alfie Kohn. I’ve recently finished another excellent book by him, Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason, which is also well worth reading. Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” is one of the pieces I return to most often, and it captures much of what I appreciate about his work. His writing is clear and straightforward, while also turning our most common presumptions about education on their head. Kohn’s central tenets are: “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning”; “Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task”; and “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” His survey of almost 100 years of research is compelling, but his statements of what should be obvious (but isn’t) are what make his work so necessary and vital: “We have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all.”
Peter Elbow, “Grading Student Writing: Making It Simpler, Fairer, Clearer”
Peter Elbow, “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment”
Peter Elbow is one of the very first pedagogical theorists that I read, and much of what I learned from him remains central to my approach. Much of his work is about the teaching of writing but is nonetheless extremely relevant to every discipline. Two things I find particularly valuable from Elbow: (1) the concept of minimal grading, about which he writes, “I would rather put my effort into trying to figure out which activities will lead to learning than into trying to measure the exact quality of the final product students turn in”; and (2) the notion that “liking” our students’ work could be both pleasurable and also an effective pedagogical strategy. Elbow writes, “Good teachers see what is only potentially good, they get a kick out of mere possibility — and they encourage it.”
Asao Inoue, “A Social Justice Framework for Anti-Racist Writing Assessment: Labor-Based Grading Contracts”
Cathy Davidson, “Contract Grading and Peer Review”
Asao Inoue’s and Cathy Davidson’s experiments with contract grading are different in many ways but both of them have helped drive much of my thinking about this approach. My concern about contract grading at its surface is that it runs the risk of centering grades more than decentering them. However, Inoue and Davidson show how the approach can be used to raise critical conversations about what grades are, how they make meaning, and how they can be interrogated in the service of marginalized students.
Asao Inoue writes that labor-based grading contracts specifically “avoid many of the harmful and racist consequences of conventional grading ecologies by not using the dominant white discourse as the standard for grades.” The piece from him above is a brief handout that introduces the work he describes at length in his book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future.
Soraya Chemaly, “All Teachers Should Be Trained To Overcome Their Hidden Biases”
This relatively short piece is filled with links to research into the problem(s) of bias in education, and also standardized grades. For example, she shares studies that show “teachers spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students; they also are more likely to interrupt girls but allow boys to talk over them. … When teachers ask questions, they direct their gaze towards boys more often, especially when the questions are open-ended.” For anyone thinking about ungrading or inclusive pedagogies, I’d recommend opening and reading every single one of Chemaly’s links. But I will also warn that some of the studies are more gut-wrenching than others. Grades are not a coincidence. Our systems for assessment reduce students to rows in a spreadsheet, to data points, and strip them of their humanity.
Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)”
I often turn to this piece for its account of the history of grades in higher education. Every one of their sentences is packed with detail. They couple incisive commentary with refreshing (well-documented) statements like this one, “It would not be surprising to most faculty members that, rather than stimulating an interest in learning, grades primarily enhance students’ motivation to avoid receiving bad grades.” In spite of a rather bleak account of what grades have been and are becoming, the piece ends on an optimistic note, “One wonders how much more student learning might occur if instructors’ time spent grading was used in different ways.”
Other Points of Entry
Asking students to be directly involved in the grading process and in helping dismantle grades as a system is an extension of my core teaching philosophy, which is grounded in the work of critical pedagogy. My approach to ungrading has arisen as much from that core philosophy as it has from stuff I’ve read about grades and assessment. So, I’ll end by pointing to two incredible books, one of the first pedagogy books I read, and one of the books I read most recently. Neither of these books is about grades specifically (nor really has grading as a focus at all), but they are exactly about core philosophies, and thus a wonderful place to begin.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”
Kevin Gannon, Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto
“Pedagogy cannot be neutral. … Neutrality is a luxury of the comfortable; in these uncomfortable times, our students and our academic communities need more from us.”
Ungrading is not as simple as just removing grades. The word “ungrading” suggests that we need to do intentional, critical work to dismantle traditional and standardized approaches to assessment. There’s a lot to read, certainly, but no neat and tidy point of entry. Rather, each teacher (and each student) must find their own ways into the work. The works cited at the end of this book offers more potential beginnings.