9 No More Grading Assessments. Let’s Go Grade-Free!

Sarah Xulin Zhu

Different from most peers who are enrolled in TLHE 720 the course, I am a 100% student and write this essay from 100% student perspectives looking at ungrading assessments.

For the past week, I have had a fly buzzing in my head. It buzzed when I was eating, sleeping and watching my favorite Korean show. It was so disturbing. I could not truly enjoy one thing last week. I think the fly is my research assignment in another course due the following week. I had a dream about collecting research data. In my dream, I was shopping happily and readily after a whole winter hibernation at home due to covid-19. Suddenly I remembered I still have research data to collect. Instead of shopping, I rushed to the stores and started to talk to the owners about the number of their sales. I was like a fly buzzing around without purposes. I woke up from the panic and wondered if I was the fly or the research assignment. By the way, my research assignment was not even about the clothing sales.

The reasons why I was so stressed about the assignment are because it counts 20% in the final and I have got a C in the last assignment. If I don’t get a good grade this time, it may drag down the final grade in the course. I ask myself why I can’t focus on learning itself and care less about the grade. Even though I got a C in my assignment, I did put in a lot of efforts and learn. Isn’t it enough? The honest answer is no. That made me feel worse. I feel devalued and judged. You tried and you got a C. That C is like an indicator of your intelligence, efforts and level of commitment. It defined me to some extent. Instead of stimulating interest in learning, grades seem to play on the fear of failure (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). I wonder if there were not grades in assignments, would I enjoy and learn more? Would I achieve the genuine learning? I think so.

The psychological effects of being grade motivated and demotivated

Grades are psychologically harmful (Kohn, 1999). Anything having to do with grades is emotionally charged for students. In my opinion, grades to students are like horse whip to horses. Horse whipping reminds horses of the punishment, if they don’t finish at first three. Functioning in a similar way, grades remind students of the shame and fear of low or no achievement.

As a student, I am motivated by grades. When I get an A, I am willing to keep working hard to get more or even all As in my assignments. When I get a low grade due to the absence of efforts, it could be a wake-up call. I am motivated to work harder to catch up and turn the ship around. According to Blum (2017), fear and avoidance of failures and shame are big motivators to avoid negative consequences, and this has certainly been the case in my past experience as a student. The motivation of my efforts to get A is mainly because of the fear and shame of getting lower grades.

As a student, I am also demotivated by grades. For example, I am struggling in the research course. Most of my peers come to the course prepared with knowledge, experience and a research idea already in mind. I am a newbie here to explore how to conduct a research. I am slower in digesting the reading materials and catching up with the rest of the class. We don’t start out the same. We don’t have the same life experiences — or even academic experiences — during our semester together (Blum, 2017). We have different goals (Blum, 2017). A bad grade can be devastating, when a fair amount of efforts was invested. Grades punish students for the mistake they make. According to Gibbs (2019), they are always an occasion for regret and remorse and an act of looking backward instead of forward. I agree with this, as grades is a summary of the past work and shed little light on future work. Students move on to the next chapter with regrets and remorse, because that letter grade have defined who they are. They may also move forward with same confusion what could have been done differently. The interest and motivation to learn is gradually diminished and replaced by the urge to get over and move on.  “Perhaps at best, grading motivates high-achieving students to continue getting high grades—regardless of whether that to goal also happens to overlap with learning. At worst, grading lowers interest in learning and enhances anxiety and extrinsic motivation, especially among those students who are struggling (Schinske & Tanner, 2014, p. 162).

Grades are primary. Feedback is secondary.

Feedback is generally divided into two categories:  evaluative feedback and descriptive feedback (Brookhart, 2008). According to Brookhart (2008), evaluative feedback, such as grades and written praise or criticism, judges student work, while descriptive feedback provides students information how the they can improve the work and become competent. Thus, grades do not seem to give effective feedback that constructively informs students’ future work (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

When you both have a grade and descriptive feedback in the assignment, grades are primary and descriptive feedback secondary. When you get an A, you feel you have done an excellent job. Little improvement is needed. Student are likely to skim through the feedback. When you get a C, feedback is looked as reasons justifying the bad grade. Brookhart (2008) concludes feedback and comments have the best chance of being read as descriptive if they are not accompanied by a grade. In this sense, feedback can serve to inform the future work and enhance learning.


Feedback over grades

Feedback is forward facing, which provides information to inform and improve the future work; grades are backward facing that evaluate students’ past performance (Orlando, 2014). Let’s replace grades with effective and descriptive feedback that are goal-referenced, tangible and transparent, actionable, user-friendly, timely, ongoing and consistent (Wiggins, 2012).  In a gradeless learning environment, students may be more likely to take risks and make mistakes so they can learn from the mistakes (Gibbs, 2019).

Decenter grading by incorporating student individual learning plan and self-evaluation

If ungrading is currently a big leap to make in the class, let’s try decenter grading by creating student individual learning plan and incorporating self-evaluation. Creating a student individual learning plan in the early semester provides chances for students to connect the class to their lives, interests and course of study (Blum, 2017). This process, I think, drives student attention to their learning goals and stimulates the intrinsic motivation in the course learning. Self-evaluation can be incorporated after the assessment. It will not only keep students on the track of the individual learning plans, but also let them see how much progress they make and feel proud about it (Blum, 2017). If we are not able to completely remove grades, the combination of student individual and self-evaluation will at least involve students in the assessment and evaluation. It will increase the sense of autonomy and decrease the sense of judgment.

I am not totally against grading. What I am against is meaningless and stressful grading. As discussed earlier, grades do not provide meaningful feedback. As a student, I keep thinking how we can make the grading more meaningful, fun and memorable. Instead of being given a grade, why not throw a “TLHE 720 Emmy Award Night”? Awards can be categorized into reformative, progressive, reflective, informative, comprehensive and so on. Students can share their final reflection or any other projects in the way they prefer, as long as it meets all the learning goals. Students and instructors vote which categories they should be in, provide feedback and reasons of the vote as well as suggestions for improvement. All students will be receiving an award or awards with meaningful feedback from the instructor and the peers. The award is to acknowledge their efforts and provide feedback to inform their future work. I bet students would still remember the feedback, details and fun memory in the TLHE 720 Emmy Award Night years after.


As someone who grew out of the grading education system, this has programmed me to be somewhat results-oriented. Throughout my whole student career, process was not seen as important as results, because results were graded. There were times that I was too obsessed with grades to think why I studied what I was studying and if I truly liked it. I enjoyed neither the learning process or the learning results, because they were the products of the fear and shame of the failures.  If we can un-grade assessments and provide feedback instead, we will be able to create more carefree learning environment, where authentic creation, critical thinking and continuous reflection become more possible and feasible.



Blum, S. D. (2017). Ungrading. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/11/14/significant-learning-benefits-getting-rid-grades-essay.

Brookhart, S. M., & ProQuest (Firm). (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gibbs, L (2019, March 15). Getting Rid of Grades. http://oudigitools.blogspot.com/2019/03/getting-rid-of-grades-book-chapter.html.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Orlando, J. (2014). To Improve Student Performance, Start Thinking Like a Coach. Faculty Focus.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership. Vol 70, No 1.


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No More Grading Assessments. Let’s Go Grade-Free! Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Xulin Zhu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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