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GETTING RID OF GRADES
by Laura Gibbs
University of Oklahoma
Since you're reading this book, I'm going to assume you might have some kind of dissatisfaction with your current grading practices, something that has you looking for alternatives. I'm excited to share my ungrading practice here; it works great for me, but will it work for you? One way to answer that question might be to think about the dissatisfaction that brought you to this book.
Starting with Dissatisfaction
My own ungrading practice evolved from a long history of dissatisfaction with grading, both as a student and as a teacher — and so I'd like to suggest you do a quick study of your own dissatisfaction. Try jotting down ten memories that come to mind when you think about "grading," any memories at all. A few memories will come quickly, experiences that have crystallized and probably already guide your grading practices. If you delve more deeply, though, you might find some memories that are more raw, less routinized, and thus offering new insights into your grading dissatisfaction. So, take a minute to do that before you continue reading; I've shared my list in an appendix at the end of this chapter.
Just as there are many different ways to assign grades, there are also many different ways to un-grade. I call my approach "all-feedback-no-grades," which is to say that I put no grades on student work ever; instead, I give my students feedback, lots of feedback. In describing my approach below, I will try to generalize so that the approach could apply to all kinds of classes, but every teaching context has its own possibilities and its own constraints. For the record, here's my teaching context (deep breath to say it all in one go): I'm a full-time adjunct instructor of fully online upper-division General Education writing-intensive Western and Non-Western Humanities courses at a large public university. I teach in the open, so for more information, you can visit my website, MythFolklore.net.
Now, in very general terms, this is how I implement an all-feedback-no-grades approach in my classes:
Individual Feedback. I put no grades on student work. Instead, I provide individual feedback to help students improve their work from week to week. And their work does improve, sometimes dramatically. That is, for me, the most important measure of success. You can check out my students' projects at this website: Storybooks.MythFolklore.net.
Culture of Feedback. I explicitly teach students about giving and receiving feedback so that they can give each other helpful feedback and also make good use of the feedback they receive. As part of that process, I teach students about growth mindset and the positive value of learning from mistakes. You can check out our class feedback resources at this website: Mindset.MythFolklore.net.
Gradebook Declarations. When they complete an assignment, students record their work in the LMS using a "Declaration" quiz, which is just a quiz with a true-false question containing a checklist of the requirements for that assignment. When students click "true" as the answer, the assignment points go into the Gradebook. Each assignment is worth just a few points; there are no high-stakes assignments or tests. (I've used this system in three different LMSes over many years: first Blackboard, then D2L, and now Canvas.)
A-B-C Letter Grades. I am required to turn in an A-B-C letter grade for each student at the end of the semester, and that grade is based on the total points in the Gradebook. All points in the Gradebook come from students' Declaration quizzes; it has nothing to do with any action on my part. Students can use the Gradebook to chart their progress from week to week to make sure they are track for the grade that they want.
Pass / Not-Pass. While the students pay attention to their letter grades, I do not. My only goal is that every student pass the class. Each week I sort the total points in the Gradebook from low to high, looking only at the very lowest totals. If there is anyone at risk of not passing the class based on their progress so far, I send them an encouraging reminder.
As you can see, it's not a complicated system, and I think that's important. Anything having to do with grades is emotionally charged for students, and I don't want to overwhelm them with something complex or confusing. Students choose what work they do, they record the work as they complete it, and they move on to the next assignment. It's a simple system, and I am pleased to say that students embrace the system enthusiastically.
What Students Say
My university collects end-of-semester course evaluations from students, and that process went digital in Fall 2010, so we now receive those student comments in a searchable PDF document. That makes it easy to keep track of comments that mention grades or grading. I've collected all student comments related to grading since Fall 2010 here: Evals.MythFolklore.net. I would encourage you to take a look to see what the students say. If I were to receive negative feedback from students about the grading system, I would change my approach, but the only feedback I get is positive. In fact, it is extremely positive. Here are some typical comments:
There was an emphasis on learning the course material rather than worrying about grades.
The grading system encourages students to write for the sake of writing and not for the sake of a grade.
This is one of the best classes I have taken at the University of Oklahoma. I learned so much and never had to stress about my grade. I always knew where I stood in the course, the organization made me feel comfortable by the first week.
It was very fun and I learned a lot! I really liked that I had the freedom to write just to write rather than for a grade.
The self-grading was definitely a nice feature. This class afforded me freedoms that I was not granted in any other class. I felt like I was being treated like an adult for once.
I really liked it. It was fun and was all about learning not just a grade.
I really liked how there were a lot of assignments and grades were given based on participation. I felt that I learned much more this way because the emphasis was on learning and creativity rather than a test.
You put a lot of time into the course but you get out what you put in. I also liked that you basically decided what grade you got based on how much work you wanted to do. You knew that as long as you did the work, you would get a 100. This doesn't mean it was easy though!!
This unique format gave me the ability to learn and express my understanding in a way that didn't come along with anxiety about grades. This is the first time I have ever taken a course and was not stressed about grades so I purely learned the material. It was amazing and I think I learned more in this course than I have in any other in a long time.
I loved being able to write what I wanted and not be graded subjectively. It made it easy for me to be creative!I could go on, but suffice to say that all the comments about grading — ALL the comments — are positive, with one exception: "The self grading bit was really strange." I'm not sure that is even a negative comment exactly, but it's the closest thing to a negative comment about grading in the hundreds of course evaluations I've received in the past ten years.
So, now that I've described some practical features of my approach along with student reactions, I want to move on to some philosophical aspects of ungrading and the benefits of ungrading for both teachers and students.
Ungrading and My Philosophy of Teaching
Before I describe my own philosophical assumptions about teaching, I'd like to suggest a little experiment like the one I suggested above: pause and take a minute to jot down a few of your most important assumptions about teaching and learning. Then, you'll be able to see just how much our assumptions overlap. If there is some overlap, that might be a good sign that some of my approaches could work for you too.
My own philosophy of teaching comes down to just one word really: freedom. Freedom is the idea that guides all my course design choices, and there are two key aspects of learning freedom that are especially relevant to ungrading: the freedom to grow, and the freedom to make mistakes.
Learners need freedom to grow and learn in their own ways, and they need feedback to support them in that learning.
While grades pretend to be a form of feedback (but not very good feedback; more on that later), the main function of grading is coercion, and that's the opposite of freedom. Schooling uses grades to make students do the things that we want them to do. We may have good intentions with our students' best interests at heart, but that does not change the fact that we are using grades as a form of control. Schools coerce students in other ways too, like the fact that most students enroll in my classes because those classes are required for graduation. I cannot change the fact that students are forced to take specific classes in order to graduate, but I can choose not to compound that coercion with the further coercion of grading.
When you stop grading, that gives students the space they need to explore and discover what is meaningful and valuable to them. Instead of defining learning objectives in advance, with the same objectives and the same measuring stick for all students, I can give each student the freedom to choose their own learning goals, and it then becomes my job to help them get there. As I shift the balance from grading to supportive feedback, I am showing the students that I really care about their learning and that I want to help them learn about things that are important to them.
When teachers give feedback together with a grade, students see that feedback as justification for the grade, but if there is feedback without a grade, then students can see the feedback for its own sake, and act on it. So, if you've ever asked why students don't read or use your feedback, try not giving grades and see what happens. Grading tells students that grades are what matter. When you get rid of grades, you can show students that it is their work that matters, and by giving them feedback to improve their work, you are showing them that their work matters to you too.
Students also feel more free to give each other honest feedback in the absence of grades. Grades are about judging, but feedback is instead about helping people to learn and grow, and in my experience, students are very eager to help one another. They see the value of helping others in an altruistic sense, and they also find the process valuable for their own learning. When they examine each other's work, they get ideas that can expand their own awareness and understanding, and by coaching others in this way, they develop skills that are useful beyond the classroom.
Yes, it takes time and effort on the teacher's part to help students learn how to give each other useful feedback, but I find that to be time well spent. If you can help your students to develop their own feedback skills, that allows you to then focus on the kinds of feedback that only you can provide. Just how that division of labor works in any class depends on the subject matter and the students' backgrounds, but in any classroom, you can enlist your students' help in maximizing both the quantity and quality of feedback, and everyone wins when students are helping each other to grow and learn.
Learners need freedom to make mistakes so they can learn from those mistakes, and they should not be punished for making mistakes.
When I tell people that I am against grading, what I really mean is that I am against "punitive grading," any process that punishes students for making mistakes. Punitive grading systems teach students to avoid mistakes at all costs, rather than encouraging them to use mistakes as feedback for further learning.
Sure, we might tell students that they need to learn from their mistakes, and we might even give them feedback that is intended to help them learn from their mistakes, but grades tell a different story: grades punish students for any mistake they make, large or small. As such, those grades are always an occasion for regret and remorse, looking backward instead of forward. With letter grades, an A grade is often the only grade that comes with no remorse — or, worse, maybe only an A+ will do. Percentages are even more unforgiving: anything less than 100 means you failed somehow. You made mistakes. You left things out. Somehow or other, you did something wrong. And no matter how well you do next time, the less-than-perfect grade is going to remind you that you did something wrong. This spectre of perfectionism, I would argue, is the most dangerous side effect of punitive grading, something that causes harm to every learner, both those at risk of failing and those at risk of getting a 100.
Learning, after all, is not about being perfect and never making mistakes; instead, learning is about being able to understand your mistakes and act on them. Are your mistakes the result of a lack of skills? You need to practice those skills. Are your mistakes the result of a lack of sleep? Then you need to get more sleep. The variety of mistakes and their causes is enormous, which is why so much effort is required from both students and their teachers. Grades on a report card or a transcript do not allow anyone — not students, not teachers, and not parents or potential employers — to tell the difference between a student who is short on skills and a student who is short on sleep.
Feedback is what helps students learn from their mistakes in a process of revision; that's where the real learning happens. Revision is crucial, but traditional grading undermines the value of revision work. At best, students see revision as a way to raise their grade. At worst, revision becomes a form of punishment inflicted on students for a poor grade: you did a bad job, so you have to revise. Students thus learn to avoid revision, seeing it as a negative feedback signal. Revision means your grade was not good, or not good enough.
But when you get rid of grades, revision is no longer part of a rewards-and-punishments process; it's simply what you do so you can improve and learn more. There is always more to learn, so there is always more revising to do. In my classes, all students revise their writing, repeatedly. That includes students who are already highly skilled writers, along with students who are novices. Everybody needs to revise their work (teachers too!) because there are always new experiments we can try and new skills we can practice.
Benefits of Ungrading
I have seen nothing but benefits to ungrading, both for myself and for the students. If I had some doubts about this or or if I had observed any drawbacks, I would include those observations here, but there have been no downsides, at least not in my experience. In addition to the benefits I've already mentioned above, such as combating perfectionism, here are some more benefits I've seen:
Ungrading reduces stress. Are your students stressed about grades? Ask them, and they will tell you. My students feel a lot of stress about grades, and I am glad about any effort I can make to reduce that level of stress. In the course evaluations, students often mention the benefit of learning without the stress of grades. Stress about grades is harmful for learning, and it is harmful for students' well-being overall. That goes for teachers too: if you feel stressed out because you have to grade student work, then you might also experience less stress if you just stop grading.
Ungrading helps form new learning habits. Students learn a lot of bad habits as a result of grading, and those habits are hard to change. Probably the most universal habit taught by grading is "do what it takes to gets an A." Don't ask questions, don't look for meaning; just do what you are told to do and focus on the grade. An even more harmful form of that habit is "do the minimum that it takes to get an A." The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is helping students to free themselves from that habit of doing the minimum. And here is the worst-case scenario: the habit of "doing whatever it takes to get an A," which is how students can justify cheating on an assignment. Yes, students all know it's wrong to cheat, but if a student believes that getting a bad grade is the worst possible thing that can happen, then it makes sense to cheat; it's the lesser of the two evils. When you get rid of grades, though, that rationale no longer applies.
Ungrading makes room for creative work. Students do creative writing for my classes, which is often something completely new for them and, like anything new, it can be frightening. Not putting grades on student work encourages the students to take a risk and try something new. If you want your students to do creative, open-ended assignments, or any kind of project-based learning, try doing that without grades and see what happens.
Ungrading promotes better communication. Insofar as grades are a form of communication, they are very Tarzanesque: the vocabulary of ABC does not say much. With the addition of pluses and minuses, you end up with a vocabulary of eleven words. Clearly, we need better ways to communicate. When you shift from giving grades to giving feedback, you can communicate more fully and more honestly with your students, and that then encourages them to do the same with you.
Ungrading opens up new course design possibilities. Do you have graded assignments in your classes simply to generate grades? When you eliminate grading, that gives you a chance to consider the real purpose of the assignment, and you might find that you are able to create more meaningful assignments as a result. I prefer assignments that have a long-lasting purpose, assignments that the students themselves can use later in the semester, and assignments that might have an even more lasting value. For example, the archive of past student projects is the most valuable content in my classes, and the students know it. So, instead of inspiring students to get an A, I would like to inspire them to create a project that they will be proud of, a project to put in the archive when the semester is over. That way their work can inspire students in future semesters just as they were inspired by the work of past students. (And hey, you can take a look too if you want; the archive is at Storybooks.MythFolklore.net.)
Conclusion: An Ungrading Wish List
By offering a wish list here as my conclusion, I don't want to create the impression that I am unhappy with my current practice: it works great, allowing me to do my job with joy and enthusiasm. At the same time, you never know when you might meet a kindly magical fairy who offers to grant you three wishes. So, if the ungrading fairy were to grant me three wishes, I'm ready with my list. What would you ask for? These would be my three wishes:
No more letter grades. If there were only a Pass/Not-Pass record at the end of the course, I think I could do an even better job of helping my students in their learning. So, I would like to get rid of the meaningless ABC for an even simpler P/NP system, where the only courses that appeared on each student's transcript would be courses that they passed.
No more GPA. If the fairy says that my first wish is going to take a long time to implement, then I would ask that in the meantime we stop averaging those meaningless letter grades into the even more meaningless GPA. That way, the consequences of students choosing to take a less-than-perfect grade in a given class would not persist in the GPA and its faux decimal-point precision.
Support for ungrading. Even by magical standards, those first two wishes are big ones, but my third wish is easy: administrators should give teachers the support they need in their ungrading experiments. When I first began ungrading, I had to fly under the radar, especially as an adjunct instructor with no tenure protection. That climate of fear benefits no one; every teacher, tenured or not, needs to have the freedom to experiment, with grades and with everything else, so they can find what works best for them and for their students. Experiment, and then share what you learn!
That's the real magic.
There are many people who have inspired me in my teaching adventures over the years, and I am not going to try to name them all, but instead I will just say: thank you. Most of all I am grateful to my students; they inspire me every day.
There is, however, one person in particular whom I would like to single out because there is a singular story that I would like to tell about him, and that is Professor John Hurst of the Education School at UC Berkeley. John joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1961, and he went on to establish the Peace and Conflict Studies program (PACS) there and also Democratic Education at Cal (DECal). The DECal program, based on the work of Dewey and Freire, was a way for Berkeley students to organize independent study groups for credit, creating courses that were otherwise not available. I was a student course facilitator for DECal during the 1980s, and it completely changed my understanding of what education can and should be. The only type of grading for DECal courses was P/NP, and this is a story that DECal course facilitators used to tell about John Hurst and P/NP grades:
John was teaching in the Ed School back in the day, but he loathed grades and grading, so his solution was just to give every student a grade of A. No matter what. This system was working just fine until one term when one of his students passed away in a tragic accident shortly after the term had started. When John filled out the final grade report at the end of the term, he gave that student an A. The department chair noticed this anomaly and asked John about it. John explained that he gave every student a grade of A, no matter what. The chair said he wasn't sure whether that was an acceptable grading policy, so he would have to check with the dean. The dean said he wasn't sure either, so he would have to check with the Faculty Senate. The Faculty Senate said that was not okay at all, and they stripped John of the right to give traditional letter grades. Henceforth, he would only be allowed to give P/NP grades, no matter what kind of class he was teaching. Thus John Hurst became the only faculty member at Berkeley forbidden to use letter grades. And nothing could have suited him better.This story was told to me in different ways by different people, and I have often repeated the story too, but I don't know if it's true or not. It was such a good story that I didn't want to ask John to confirm or deny it. As the reporter says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." John Hurst died in 2016 at the age of 86; he was a professor both of peace and of courage, and I know he would have enjoyed reading this book; I hope he would approve of the anecdote.
Here are a few of the books that have been helpful to me in thinking about grades and ungrading; perhaps you will find them helpful too:
Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.
Dweck, Carol. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. New York: Random House, 2006.
Eodice, Michele, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner. The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching and Writing in Higher Education. Norman: Utah State University Press, 2017.
Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlish. How To Talk So Kids Can Learn. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1996.
Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (25th Anniversary Edition). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Lang, James. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York City: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Sackstein, Starr. Hacking Assessment: Ten Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. Cleveland: Times 10 Publications, 2015.
Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. London: Granta Books, 2011.
Socol, Ira, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff. Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2018.
Warner, John. Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Appendix. My ten grading memories in chronological order:
- My earliest grading memory is my mother comparing report cards with another mother in first grade. The other mother's child had Es for excellent, but I had just Ss for satisfactory and some Us too. Unsatisfactory. I can still hear the embarrassment in my mother's voice.
- I went to an experimental school in fourth grade where we picked what we did every day and didn't get grades. I loved it. When we had to do state assessment tests at year's end, I colored in the multiple-choice bubbles to make pictures. My mother was worried about my poor scores, but my teacher laughed when I told him what I had done.
- In seventh grade, my science teacher gave me an F on a quiz because supposedly I had let my friend copy my answers. He told me I had to hunch down more and wrap my arms around the answer sheet... "or else." I decided he was the problem, not me or my friend.
- My eighth grade science teacher had us study memory. We memorized a list of scientific animal names until we got 100% on the quiz. Then one month later, we took the quiz again. In general people didn't remember much at all. So much for getting 100% on a quiz.
- My high school history teacher used Scantrons for quizzes and ran the Scantron machine right there in class, saying each person's name as he ran the sheet. The machine beeped for every mistake, which was embarrassing, and it was also embarrassing when it didn't beep because it meant you were making other people look bad.
- I got an A+ in one of my classes during my first semester of college. It made me obsess about getting at least one A+ every semester after that.
- In all my college classes, I would put at least one howling error in each paper I turned in to see if someone was actually paying attention to what I wrote.
- I worked as a grader one semester when I was an undergraduate, and I could not decipher a lot of the handwriting in the hastily scribbled Blue Books. The professor just told me to do my best and not worry about it.
- When I was teaching a course in graduate school, a student came to me and asked me to give her a B. Her parents were paying her $500 to get a B in her first semester of college so she would not get stuck in the trap of maintaining a 4.0 GPA. She wanted to do the work to get an A, but she needed me to please record it as a B at the end of the semester.
- In my first semester of college teaching, I had fifty students in a mythology class. I did not think I could put detailed comments on that many papers, so I asked the students who would like detailed comments to revise their paper. The revision would not change the grade; it would just be a chance to get help on improving their work. I expected maybe half them would want comments, but only one student did. (That was the semester I decided to quit grading and find a better approach.)