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Feedback and Grading: Alternatives to Traditional Grading

Overview

Grades are not the best method of ensuring student success, providing equitable learning experiences, or motivating students. In fact, research from Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards, 1993) to Susan Blum (I Love Learning, I Hate School, 2016) and others suggest that grades actually get in the way of learning.

Grades are a requirement of education. They represent a powerful shorthand for sorting students and pointing to success or failure – on the part of the student, the instructor, the institution, the educational system. As a shorthand, though, they do not fully communicate the complicated, iterative process of teaching and learning that occurs in our classroom.

Below, in this excerpt from "Why I Don't Grade," Jesse Stommel outlines the problems and challenges that accompany traditional grading approaches.


Learning Outcomes: 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 pre-determine outcomes before students even arrive upon the scene. I have argued, instead, for emergent outcomes, ones that are co-created by teachers and students and revised on the fly. Setting trajectories rather than mapping in advance the possible shapes for learning.

Grade Inflation: The problem, I'd say, is grades not inflation. And when institutions try to “control” grade inflation, the results are disturbing, and perhaps also unsurprising. Require teachers to give more B and C grades and they give more B and C grades disproportionately to black students. In education, I think we should be creating opportunities, not limiting possibilities for success. 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'” Having high expectations and giving mostly good grades are not incompatible.

Grade-grubbing: If this phrase is still in your vocabulary, do a quick google 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.

Objectivity: In brief, I do not think 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.

Rubrics: Most rubrics I've seen are overly mechanistic and attempt to create objectivity and efficiency in evaluation by crashing upon the rocks of bureaucracy. Learning and human interaction is sufficiently high resolution that a 3x3 grid, or a 5x5 grid, will always be weirdly patronizing. And when they're given in advance to students, rubrics are likely to close down possibility by encouraging students to work toward an overly prescribed notion of “excellence.”

Participation Grades: Most grading scales offer way too many demarcations to communicate clearly and way too few demarcations to reflect reality. Try grading on a traditional scale the last conversation you had with your significant other or the progress your toddler's made toward talking: [78/100] [59%] [A-/B+] [✔️/✔️+] [middle first] [18/20]. All feel arbitrary, even absurd, and none communicate much of value. And how can teachers be on even footing with students if teachers grade student participation. Laura Gibbs writes in “(Un)Grading: It Can Be Done in College,” “Because I put myself outside of the grading loop, I can focus all my efforts on feedback and encouragement — on teaching, not grading.” Which leads me to wonder whether “graded participation” is actually an oxymoron. We can't participate authentically, can't 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 motivated by a grade.

Grading on a Curve: In brief, it pits students against each other, discourages collaboration, and privileges the students who our educational system has already privileged. Cathy N. Davidson writes, “There is an extreme mismatch between what we value and how we count.”

Mastery: 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 assessed?” My cheeky first answer is that I want the system to assure my doctor has read all the books of Jane Austen, 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 that 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.

Strategies

From Jesse Stommel, "Ungrading: An Introduction":

Ungrading starts with teachers just talking to students about grades. Demystifying grades (and the culture around them) gives students a sense of ownership over their own education.

Alternative Forms of Assessment:

  • Minimal Grading: Using scales with fewer gradations to make grading “simpler, fairer, clearer” (Elbow)
  • Contract Grading: Grading contracts convey expectations about what is required for each potential grade. Students work toward the grade they want to achieve, and goalposts don’t unexpectedly shift.
  • Authentic Assessment: Having students write for real-world audiences, focusing on intrinsic motivations, and drawing students into the design of assignments / assessments.
  • Process Letters: Asking students to reflect on their work and offer feedback on those reflections. Students help guide the grading of their own work.

Small things you can do tomorrow to start ungrading:

  • Change how you talk about assessment: Ungrading works best as part of a holistic pedagogical practice. Use words like "ask" or "invite," rather than "submit" or "required." Ask students about their expectations for their work, rather than centering yours.
  • Invite students to a conversation about grades: Ask students how being graded makes them feel, how it affects their motivation. As a group, read and discuss a piece like Alfie Kohn's "The Case Against Grades."
  • Grade less stuff, grade less often, grade more simply: Create space in your course for discovery and experimentation. Use a grading scale that feels less arbitrary and communicates more clearly to students. Ask students to do work that you don't "collect."
  • Ask students to reflect on their own learning: Even if you change nothing else about how you grade, ask students when and how they learn. Ask what barriers they face. Listen. Believe the answers.

Resources

Astin, Alexander W. 2016. Are You Smart Enough? : How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students. First. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing. https://cod.on.worldcat.org/oclc/922914381

Guskey, Thomas R. 2015. On Your Mark : Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. https://cod.on.worldcat.org/oclc/881469308

Guskey, Thomas R, and Susan M Brookhart, eds. 2019. What We Know About Grading : What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. https://cod.on.worldcat.org/oclc/1078955149

Houk, Dan. 2018, September 20. “Why Are We Still Grading?” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/09/20/phd-student-ponders-alternatives-current-grading-approaches-opinion

Louden, Kristy. 2017, June 4. “Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback.” Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/delayed-grade/

Nilson, Linda Burzotta, and Claudia J Stanny. 2015. Specifications Grading : Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing. https://cod.on.worldcat.org/oclc/940501604

Sackstein, Starr. 2015. Hacking Assessment : 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. Hack Learning Series. Cleveland, OH: Times 10 Publications. https://cod.on.worldcat.org/oclc/993625272

Supiano, Beckie. 2019, July 18. “Grades Can Hinder Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_ungrading

Weissman, Sara. 2019, September 27. “How Can Colleges Make Grading More Equitable?” Diverse Issues in Higher Education. https://diverseeducation.com/article/155866/

 

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  • Last Updated: Mar 15, 2022 9:50 AM
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