“I can’t think of a more meaningless, superficial, cynical way to evaluate learning.” ~ Cathy N. Davidson
The work of teaching shouldn’t be reduced to the mechanical act of grading or marking. Our talk of grading shouldn’t be reduced to our complaining about the continuing necessity of it.
If you’re a teacher and you hate grading, stop doing so much of it.
Across education, we’ve normalized absurd levels of grading, test-taking, and standardized assessment. As I was preparing to write this piece, I looked through Web pages offering advice on grading at a dozen higher education institutions (most from teaching and learning centers). What I noticed is how so much of the language around grading emphasizes efficiency over the needs of individual learners. Nods to fairness are too often made for the sake of defensibility rather than equity. One site, for example, encourages “discussing grades with students” as a way toward making those grades “less likely to be contested.” The work of grading is too often framed less in terms of encouraging learning and more as a way of ranking students against one another. Another site argues that “grades should be monotonic: within any pair of students, the student with better performance should not be given a lower grade.” Others have headings like “grading as a fair teaching tool,” “limit grading time,” “responding to grade challenges,” “maintaining your sanity,” “easing the pain,” and “making grading more efficient.” What disturbs me is how effortlessly and casually this language rolls off Education’s collective tongue. And I’m even more disturbed by how many otherwise productive pedagogical conversations get sidetracked by the bureaucratic dimensions of grades.
The page from the Berkeley Graduate Division offering “Tips on Grading Efficiently,” for example, is pretty standard fare. The very first bit of advice on grading for new graduate student instructors raises more anxiety around grades than it alleviates. And at the same time, as is all too common, grading is something new teachers are encouraged to spend as little time on as possible: “Too often, time spent grading takes away from time spent doing your own coursework or research.”
Without much critical examination, teachers accept that they have to grade, students accept that they have to be graded, students are made to feel like they should care a great deal about grades, and teachers are told they shouldn’t spend much time thinking about the why, when, and whether of grades. Obedience to a system of crude ranking is made to feel altruistic, because it is supposedly fair, saves time, and helps prepare students for the horrors of the “real world.” Conscientious objection seems increasingly impossible.
When I talk about why I don’t grade, I often hear back some version of, but I have to grade … because I’m an adjunct … because my institution requires it … because grading is necessary in my discipline … because wouldn’t you want your heart surgeon to have been graded? The need to navigate institutional (and disciplinary) pressures is real, but I would argue teachers grade in many more situations than grading is useful or is required by institutions. When I was a “road warrior adjunct,” teaching up to nine courses at four institutions, how I taught and how I talked about my pedagogy were different from one institution to the next. I had to balance my own approach with the specific requirements at each institution. But I can also say that none of the institutions where I’ve worked has entirely dictated how I had to approach assessment — at every single one there was sufficient wiggle room for some amount of experimentation.
Peter Elbow writes in “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement,” “Let’s do as little ranking and grading as we can. They are never fair and they undermine learning and teaching.” I start almost every talk I give by saying that “I don’t proselytize about pedagogy.” I believe pedagogy is personal and idiosyncratic. My approach won’t necessarily work in each classroom, at every institution, for all teachers, with every group of students. My hope in this chapter and in this book is to challenge stock assumptions, describe what has worked for me, and explore alternatives that just might work for others.
How I Don’t Grade
My specific approach has evolved over the years. Currently, I have students write several self-reflections throughout the term. I have moved away from calling these “self-evaluations,” because I want to de-emphasize the quantitative component of this work. Students do give themselves grades, but the primary goal is to help students develop their ability to do this kind of metacognitive work. Self-evaluation and metacognition are not easy, even for me, so I give students space to figure out how to do this work as they go.
I am often asked if (and how) I deal with student pushback in an ungraded class. Of course, being asked to do this work is a challenge. For as much anxiety as grades can create, being graded is something most of us find comfortable. Students are increasingly conditioned to work within a system that emphasizes objective measures of performance and quantitative assessment. It’s important to acknowledge that these systems have been (in some cases intentionally) crafted to privilege certain kinds of students. It’s also important to acknowledge that, in lieu of these systems, there are tacit expectations that still favor already privileged students. Students who are female, Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled, neurodivergent, queer, etc. face overt and systemic oppression whether expectations are explicit or implicit. Soraya Chemaly writes, “Training teachers to understand bias will not eliminate it, but it could create an institutional environment in which it is clear that understanding bias and its effects is critically important.”
Whether we’re grading or not grading, we need to think critically (and talk openly with students) about our approach, assumptions, tacit expectations, actual expectations, etc. But we don’t need to grade just because students will be graded elsewhere, because we shouldn’t prepare students for a world of potential oppression by oppressing them.
Over many years, I’ve found that not grading begins a set of necessary conversations among my colleagues, between me and students, and among students in my classes. What students have written to me in self-reflections and self-evaluations is profoundly different from the kinds of interactions we would have in a purely transactional system. Their reflections, and my responses to them, become a space of dialogue, not just about the course, but about their learning and about how learning happens. Not every interaction rises to that level but many do. What happens with every single student is that any assumption I might make about them is squashed by what they write about themselves and their work. My view of students as complex and deeply committed to their education is fueled by the tens of thousands of self-reflection letters I’ve read over my career.
At the end of the term, every institution where I’ve worked has required me to submit a final grade for students. So, I ask the students to grade themselves. I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish the conversation I had with students could focus purely on authentic assessment, process, and formative feedback. But I have found that asking students to give themselves a grade also makes the why and how of grades a valuable subject of the conversations we have — valuable because they will go on to be graded in other courses and thinking critically about how and why grading happens helps that become more productive for them.
I’m frequently asked what I do when I disagree with a grade a student gives themselves. I don’t intend my answer to be flip, but I say some version of, “it isn’t really my place to worry at length about that.” If I’m going to give the responsibility of grading over to students, I have to let go of my attachment to what I might perceive as the “accuracy” of that process. Instead, I give feedback, and the need for objectivity or accuracy gives way to a conversation — one that is necessarily emergent and subjective. Students give themselves the full range of grades in my classes. I rarely change the grades students give themselves, and almost always to raise grades, with addressing internalized bias as the primary reason I intervene. The most common change I’ve made is from an A- to an A for students who offer no good reason other than modesty for giving themselves the A- grade. I have observed a distinct gender imbalance in this, with women students much more likely to give themselves an A-.
Alternative Approaches to Assessment
Grading and assessment are two distinct things, and spending less time on grading does not necessarily mean spending less time on assessment. Assessment is inevitable, constantly happening whether we’re intentional about it or not. Ungrading asks us to question our assumptions about what assessment looks like, how we do it, and who it is for. Ungrading works best when teachers feel they can fully own their pedagogical approaches (which requires that administrators and institutions defend the academic freedom of teachers, especially adjuncts). There are lots of different possible paths toward ungrading, and smaller experiments can be just as fruitful as larger ones.
Grade Free Zones
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine diving right into the deep end of removing grades, so you might consider having the first third of the term be ungraded, a sandbox for students to experiment inside before moving on to the more formal activities of a course. Or decide to grade only a few major assignments.
I’ve already talked at length about how I use self-assessment. What I’ll add is that this work is both part of my approach to the problem of grades and also a pedagogical end in and of itself. Ann Berthoff writes in “Dialectical Notebooks and the Audit of Meaning,” “Learning to look carefully, to see what you’re looking at, is perennially acclaimed as the essential skill for both artist and scientist.” Metacognition is a practical skill that cuts across disciplines. In addition to reflecting on our own individual work, I would add that we — teachers and students — should evaluate our collective work together, the class itself.
If you’re only grading a few assignments, you may not feel like you have enough information to determine a final grade at the end of a course. I have students write process letters, describing their learning and how their work evolves over the term. These work particularly well for creative and digital work that might otherwise seem inscrutable within traditional grading and feedback systems. A process letter can be text, including (or pointing to) representative examples of work students don’t otherwise turn in. You might also ask students to take pictures of their work as it evolves, add voice-over to a screencast, or document their learning via film (a sort of behind-the-scenes reel for the class).
In “Grading Student Writing: Making It Simpler, Fairer, Clearer,” Peter Elbow describes what he calls “minimal grading,” using a simple grading scale instead of giving students bizarre grades like 97%, 18/20, or A−/B+. Scales with too many gradations make it difficult for teachers to determine grades and even more difficult for students to interpret them. The only legible difference between 94% and 97% is that 97% is higher than 94%, so a percentile scale is effective at ranking students against one another but not very effective at conveying clear information about performance. Elbow recommends scales with fewer gradations: turned in (one gradation), pass/fail (two gradations), strong/satisfactory/weak (three gradations). He also describes a “zero scale,” in which some work is assigned but not collected at all. This frees teachers from feeling they have to respond to, evaluate, or even read every bit of work students do. And this last, moving away from student work as a thing to be collected, can help build intrinsic motivation to do the work of a course.
In my film production courses, I often ask students to organize a film festival or premiere in order to share their work for the class. These usually include talk-backs with the audience. Increasingly, I don’t ask students to turn any assignments into me (aside from their self-reflections). The community of the class (including me but not just me) becomes their audience. I allow myself space to be one member of that community, a genuine reader of student work. In a service learning course, this community expands even further beyond the boundaries of the class. In short, how can we create reasons more meaningful than points for students to do the work of a course?
Grading contracts convey expectations about what is required for each potential grade. In “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing,” Asao B. Inoue argues for “calculating course grades by labor completed and dispensing almost completely with judgments of quality.” Contract grading pushes against the relegating of people into categories (“A student,” “B student,”) by keeping the focus on the work. Contract grading can be humane in a way that standardized teacher-centered rubrics usually are not. Contracts do run the risk of centering grades even more than traditional grading, but at their best, the negotiating around the contract becomes a way for students to collectively worry the edges of grading as a system.
Increasingly, many corporate e-portfolio platforms are walled gardens, giving students a regimented way of gathering together their work for the purposes of assessment. I prefer more authentic portfolios that have use value beyond the needs of individual, course, programmatic, or institutional assessment. Having students build personal or professional sites on the Web, for example, can help them craft a digital identity that exists outside (but also in conversation with) their coursework. The key is to use a portfolio not as a mere receptacle for assignments but as a metacognitive space, one with immediate practical value (as a way for students to share their work with potential collaborators, employers, graduate schools, etc.).
Peer-assessment can be formal (having students evaluate each other’s work) or informal (having students actively engage each other’s work). It can be particularly useful when students work in large groups. I frequently ask students to work on projects that have an entire class (of twenty-five or more) collaborating. When I do this, I ask every student to write a process letter that addresses their own contributions as well as the functionality and dynamic of the team they’re working with. I do not ask students to grade each other. With large-group projects, it is hard for me to see what and how each student contributes, but peer-assessment helps me get a view into a process I might not otherwise be able to see. If it is a project students work on across the entire term, asking students to write process letters multiple times also allows me to get the information I need to step in and help when and where I’m needed.
I’ll be honest. I don’t love rubrics. Alfie Kohn, in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” describes them as an “attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment.” Rubrics are often recommended as a way to make standards for evaluation transparent, but rubrics have never helped me make sense of grading or being graded. Learning is just too complex to fit into neat and tidy little boxes. Peter Elbow encourages making rubrics plainer and more direct, a 3 × 3 or smaller grid. The rubrics I find most exciting are ones crafted with students — so that the making of the rubric becomes an act of learning itself rather than a device (or set of assumptions) created in advance of students arriving to a course.
Each of these alternative approaches can work on their own or in combination. With classes of twenty-five or three hundred. (You aren’t going to write an individual letter responding to every student self-evaluation in a class of three hundred, but you can write a letter to the whole class, talking about the trends you notice and suggestions for moving forward.) Ultimately any assessment strategy demands us to adapt, in the moment, as we encounter each new group of students. This attention to context, our own and our students’, is what critical pedagogy calls for.
Grades are a morass education has fallen into that frustrates our ability to focus on student learning. But, as long as grades remain ubiquitous in education, can we be more creative in how we approach them? At the very least, our talk of grading shouldn’t be reduced to our complaining about its continuing necessity.