A Special Kind of Hell

Un-Grading is Another Kind of Grading

I’ve been teaching for more than 27 years, but it is just in the last five that I stopped grading traditionally, and so I am what some may call an “un-grader”.  But the thing is, if you work in an institution where your job is to assign final grades at the end of the semester like I do, then you are still a grader.

You Will Never Stop Being Graded

I remember back a long time ago, a friend of mine who was finishing her doctoral program at the same time as me, said to a group of us after completing her dissertation defense: “I will never have to take another test again”.  One of the graduate faculty members said- “Oh don’t be so sure, what do you think a job interview is? Or evaluation reports by bosses, or applications for promotion and tenure? Or manuscript reviews for publication? Or grant applications? You will never stop being graded.”  We were all stunned into the silence of that reality. She was right.

We are all judged and “graded” all of the time, maybe not with letter grades, but with words and decisions. Even people not in academia are “rated” all of the time with things like customer feedback surveys, and employer reviews. Some folks have to take regular exams, like for driving jobs, and other ongoing skills assessments. The customer service employees at my car repair shop constantly remind me to fill out those “satisfaction” surveys, but also to make sure that I give 10’s (the highest rating), and that if I feel I must give anything less to please discuss it with them first.

We live in a grade-obsessed society. Is it our job as educators to perpetuate this? Or can higher education be the ground zero for something else?

Kinder, Gentler Grading

For the last 5 years, I haven’t been grading in the way that I did for the previous 20+ years before that.  I stopped giving and grading exams, and I stopped giving marks or grades or assigning point values for assignments. I still have plenty of assignments, labs and projects; I just stopped grading them. I give my students feedback but no evaluative mark. Most of us in the un-grading movement emphasize helpful, constructive feedback over evaluation. We strive to provide a variety of ways to help students improve and progress.

The trick, however, is not just giving good feedback, but finding ways for students to actually take in that feedback, not react defensively to it, and to genuinely perceive it as constructive and want to make improvements. This is much harder. Even if you don’t give a grade.

Poor Me, Kids These Days (or confession of an ex-curmudgeon)

In the “before” days, I felt that I would give my students a great deal of feedback on their papers and exams, and like other colleagues, complain that the students didn’t really appreciate all of my effort. They only cared about their grade, not anything else that I wrote, what is wrong with them? Poor me.

The essence of becoming an ungrader is having that flash of insight about the ridiculous nature of the system, realizing that students (human beings) are reacting normally to oppression, and then to work to make changes.  As Jesse Stommel says – stop blaming students.

Of course a student would skim over all of those comments and just flip to the back or the bottom of a paper and look for the grade! The reason they might see the grade as the only mark on their paper that held any useful information is that WE have pretty much drilled that idea into their heads since they began going to school as children. As John Warner put it, the system has taught them that grades are the only “currency” of value in the educational system. Bad grades cause emotional pain.  Even slightly less than perfect grades can be upsetting in a world of intense competition; one of my students wrote about this in her heartbreaking piece, “I am not good enough”.

“Grading is a Special Kind of Hell”

A colleague said this to me recently and I think it is true for both the grader and the graded.  Nearly everyone in the system hates grading and being graded. So why do we do it? It seems like we are all forced into these hunger games that we have no choice but to play. But is this true? Why is it that we cannot be more imaginative about how to change this system?

Image by micapapillon95 from Pixabay 

The Meaning of a Grade

What is grading about? Is it about comparing one student to the next?  Are all ‘A’ students supposed to be roughly equivalent in their accomplishments and abilities?  Do we grade students for what they can already do before you met them? Some of my first year students in my writing class clearly had already developed some good writing skills before setting foot in my classroom. Am I rewarding them for the past? Do I advantage the advantaged? Should I judge my other students against what the “best” students are capable of? Is the whole grading system just a way of sorting people into castes?

One way that I have tried to crawl my way out is to talk to students about what grades can mean if we choose to use them differently.  We consider this question- what does an A mean in this class? Or a B or a C or a D or an F?  Perhaps we can co-opt this system if we can’t take it down? Can we change the meaning of grades?

In my un-grading practice, I use self-assessment forms where students describe their activities and how successful they think they’ve been for various questions that I ask them. They also assign themselves a grade for each question/category. (For example- ‘How would you describe the development of your research proposal?’). They fill out these forms 3 or 4 times a semester with mostly the same questions each time. When I first began doing this, I found that students would write things like “I didn’t do anything yet” then assign themselves a “C”.  That was eye opening. It taught me that students saw C’s as complete failure.

Over time, I have worked to convince students to think of grades as a barometer of what they have learned and accomplished so far, instead of a verdict, and not to fear giving themselves a “low grade”.  Grades like C’s, D’s and F’s could just mean that they might need to get started, or to work more on that particular thing. Or it might indicate to me, that they don’t see the assignment as valuable, and maybe we can negotiate an alternative. I try to make the self-assignment of grades, and my responses to those, a conversation about what the grades mean to us, and how that relates to what they are learning now, and what goals they have for themselves for the future. If an F can be changed easily into an A by doing something differently, then they don’t fear writing it down (or C’s or D’s), and it can be motivating for them. They can embrace failure if it doesn’t feel like a judgement about who they are as a person.

What is Learning Anyway?

All roads point back to-  what did they learn? This is the hardest question of all really. And what kind of learning is more valuable to you as the professor?  Are you only assessing that kind of learning?  Short term memory? Vocabulary? Problem solving? Application? Writing proficiency? Ability to find resources to answer a question in the future? Connecting ideas between adjacent areas of study? Motivation to learn more? Progress from point A to point B? Fill in your own blanks. Moreover, who should get to decide what is more valuable?

The Real Gold is the Meta-Cognition

The process of self-assessment is no panacea and not for the faint of heart. Instructor feedback on student self-assessments must be tailored to individuals and iterative. More so, students need to learn how to assess themselves which means they need to learn how to think about their own processes of learning. Early on when a student first said: “I realized what kind of learner I am” I felt like I had accidently struck gold by randomly sticking a pitchfork into the ground. I have since tried hard to create environments so that more and more of my students come to this realization and I am happy that I’ve been somewhat (but certainly not always) successful. As students think more about how and why they learn, what motivates them to learn, and less about WHAT they have learned, I know they are on a pathway to real lifelong learning. Isn’t this our holy grail?

Doing What We Ask Our Students to Do

When my colleague Mark Long brought up the point that if we ask our students to be self-reflective, then we need to do that ourselves, it was another one of those ah ha moments for me. I have been working on intentionally reflecting on my processes as a teacher and writing my own self-assessment forms. The next experiment that I want to do is to share these with my students, but I haven’t done that yet!

What if…

Students graduated without grades, or alternative phrases/essays, or gpa’s or summa cum laude’s or anything evaluative? Would education really cease to exist? Would employers not know who to hire? Would graduate schools go down in a fiery crash? Would fools become doctors and kill people?

What would happen if we didn’t put students into various categories of achievement or value? If we didn’t help create the caste system in society? What nefarious fate would befall our students if everyone was treated the same? Would we become a society of lazy inept slugs that do nothing because the only motivation (being better than someone else) was taken away from us?

What if a student wanted to do the best they could because they were motivated by actual learning? What if they were driven solely by the desire to accomplish something meaningful, or to make a real difference in the world?

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4 Comments on “A Special Kind of Hell”

  1. For anyone new to ungrading, this is a great blog post! Something you alluded to: Most teachers, I suspect, think they are grading learning, when, in fact, they are grading knowledge. That realization alone could change the system.

  2. Thanks Steve! Sorry I missed seeing your comment until now. Yes- it is so critical to make the distinction between learning and knowledge. And both are very particular to the individual. Because grading is largely about ‘sizing up’ each student relative to others in the class, it completely negates the focus on learning and to take each student where they are.

  3. Have you ever seen any successful ungrading in secondary school? I think it is in secondary school that it could be the greatest catalyst because not all students go on to college. Instead, they leave school with the trauma of the special hierarchical hell imposed upon them that tells them there is such thing as “not good enough.”

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