Not giving grades doesn’t always feel like a radical pedagogy for me, because I’ve been doing it to different degrees for over 20 years. I’ve taught 100 sections of courses at a half-dozen institutions in a half-dozen disciplines. I’ve taught traditional students, nontraditional students, for credit, not for credit, online, in classrooms, as a tenure-track professor, as an adjunct, at small liberal arts colleges (SLACs), at a community college, and at research universities (R1s). But I have not always felt I could be publicly open about my approach to grading at the institutions where I’ve worked.
My ideas about grades and assessment have evolved over the years, as I’ve become a more confident teacher. But I am even more certain of what I instinctively knew when I taught my first class in 2001 as instructor of record: grades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education. And they’re a thorn in the side of Critical Pedagogy. John Holt writes in Instead of Education, “Competitive schooling, grades, credentials seem to me the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions.” Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another. Grades are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction. They are an institutional instrument of compliance that works exactly because grades have been so effectively naturalized. Grading is a massive coordinated effort to take humans out of the educational process.
Grades are not good incentive. They incentivize the wrong stuff: the product over the process, what the teacher thinks over what the student thinks.
Grades are not good feedback. They are both too simplistic, making something complex into something numerical (8/10, 85%), and too complicated, offering so many gradations as to be inscrutable (A, A−, A/A−, 92.4%, 9.5/10).
Grades are not good markers of learning. They too often communicate only a student’s ability to follow instructions, not how much she has learned. A 4.0 or higher GPA might indicate excellence, but it might also indicate a student having to compromise their integrity for the sake of a grade.
Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration. Supposed kindnesses, like grading on a curve or norming, actually increase competitiveness by pitting students (and sometimes teachers) against one another.
Grades don’t reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of learning.
Finally, grades aren’t fair.
All of this demands exactly two pedagogical approaches:
- Start by trusting students.
- Realize “fairness” is not a good excuse for a lack of compassion.
My approach to assessment arises from these two principles. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment, asking students to do the work of reflecting critically on their own learning. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.
Amy Fast writes, “the saddest and most ironic practice in schools is how hard we try to measure how students are doing and how rarely we ever ask them.” We have created increasingly elaborate assessment mechanisms, all while failing to recognize that students themselves are often the best experts in their own learning. Certainly metacognition, and the ability to self-assess, must be developed, but I see it as one of the most important skills we can teach in any educational environment.
I include the following statement about assessment in my syllabi:
This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions.
It’s important to note that an ungraded class does not mean grades don’t influence the work that happens there. (My students are still graded in their other classes.) Grades are ubiquitous in our educational system to the point that new teachers don’t feel they can safely explore alternative approaches to assessment. In my experience, new teachers are rarely told they have to grade, but grading is internalized as imperative nonetheless. And student expectations and anxiety can still swirl around grades even when they’re taken mostly off the table.
Google Trends shows increased search volume around the term “grades” over the last 20 years. It also shows an increasingly furious pattern of search-behavior centered each year around the months of May and December, like a heartbeat beginning to race. Nervous attention turns to grades at specific times throughout the year, and that nervous attention is on the rise. This has been my anecdotal experience as well, as I’ve watched the increasing anxiety around grades become more and more palpable.
I find myself drowning in buzzwords.
More and more, we are required to map our assignments, assessments, and curricula to learning outcomes. But I find it strange that teachers and institutions would predetermine outcomes before actual students even enroll for a course. I argue, instead, for emergent outcomes, ones that are cocreated by teachers and students and revised on the fly. Setting trajectories rather than mapping in advance the possible shapes for learning.
The problem is grades not inflation. And when institutions try to control for grade inflation, the results are disturbing, and maybe also unsurprising. Require teachers to give more B and C grades and they give more B and C grades disproportionately to black students (Nelson). We should be creating opportunities, not limiting possibilities for success. If all our students earn As, that should be a good thing. Why wouldn’t it be our goal to have all students succeed or excel? Inflation presumes grades should function as currency and that the goal of education is to rank students against one another (rather than to help students learn). The best feedback I’ve ever gotten from a student, and something I’ve since tried to reflect more explicitly in my pedagogy: “Jesse’s class was one of the hardest I’ve taken in my life; it was an easy ‘A’.” Hard, because the student was challenged in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise been if I’d had harsh guidelines and an objective rubric; easy, because the assessment of their learning in the course never felt arbitrary or mysterious. Having and encouraging high expectations and giving mostly good grades are not incompatible.
If this phrase is still in your vocabulary, do a quick internet search for the words “grub” and “grubber,” and I suspect you’ll stop attributing these words to students. As educators we have helped build (or are complicit in) a system that creates a great deal of pressure around grades. We shouldn’t blame (or worse, degrade) students for the failures of that system.
I don’t think pure objectivity is a virtue if dialogue is what we’re after in education. Human interaction is incredibly complex. Authentic feedback (and evaluation) means honoring subjectivity and requires that we show up as our full selves, both teachers and learners, to the work of education. Grades can’t be normed if we recognize the complexity of learners and learning contexts. Bias can’t be accounted for unless we acknowledge it.
Most rubrics I’ve seen are overly mechanistic and attempt to create objectivity and efficiency in evaluation by crashing on the rocks of bureaucracy. Learning and human interaction is sufficiently high resolution that a 5 × 5 grid, or even a 3 × 3 grid, usually fails to capture the complexity of learning or student work. And when rubrics are given in advance to students, they are likely to close down possibility by encouraging students to work toward a prescribed notion of excellence.
Too many of our conventional practices work to reduce the complexity of learning to its detriment. Grading participation, for example, is an exercise in futility. Different humans engage in different ways at different times, and much of that engagement is effectively invisible to crude quantitative mechanisms. Most grading scales offer way too many demarcations to communicate clearly and way too few demarcations to reflect reality. They frustrate organic participation by foregrounding control. We can’t participate authentically, can’t engage in real dialogue, without first disrupting the power dynamics of grading.
Grades as Motivators
Alfie Kohn writes in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” “Research shows three reliable effects when students are graded: They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself.” Grades do motivate, but they don’t motivate the kinds of peak experiences that can happen in a learning environment. Something like have an epiphany, communicate an original thought, sit uncomfortably with your not knowing, or build something that’s never been built before can’t be effectively motivated by a grade.
Grading on a Curve
In brief, grading on a curve pits students against each other, discourages collaboration, and privileges the students who our educational system has already privileged. In “How Do We Measure What Really Counts In The Classroom?,” Cathy N. Davidson writes, “There is an extreme mismatch between what we value and how we count.”
I’ve long argued education should be about encouraging and rewarding not knowing more than knowing. When I give presentations on grading and assessment, I often get some variation of the question, How would you want your doctor to have been graded? My cheeky first answer is that I am most concerned with whether my doctor has read all the books of Virginia Woolf or Octavia Butler, because critical thinking is what will help them save my life when they encounter a situation they’ve never encountered before. I go on to say I would want a mixture of things assessed and a mixture of kinds of assessment, because the work of being a doctor (or engineer, sociologist, teacher, etc.) is sufficiently complex that any one system of measurement or indicator of supposed mastery will necessarily fail.
There are many alternatives to traditional assessment and ways to approach ungrading, which I’ll explore further in a later chapter. However, I think it’s important to withhold the mechanics of ungrading to a certain degree, because I agree with Alfie Kohn who writes, “When the how’s of assessment preoccupy us, they tend to chase the why’s back into the shadows” (“The Trouble With Rubrics”).
Grades are not something we should have ever allowed to be naturalized. Assessment should be, by its nature, an open question.