Grades have been used for decades and are considered to be a crucial and inseparable component of learning and assessment. How could something so deep-rooted into our education system pose such an enormous threat to student learning?
Reflection Questions (Mentimeter Poll: TLHE703-course on teaching and learning)
- As a student, how do assessment and receiving marks make you feel?
- As a teacher, how do you feel about assessing your students and giving marks?
Take a moment to think about these questions. It may come as a surprise to learn that teachers and students experience similar emotions when it comes to assessments and grades—frustration and anxiety.
Grade (verb): “to judge and give a mark to a student” (Cambridge University Press, n.d.).
Grade (noun): “a measure of the quality of a student’s performance, usually represented by the letters A (the best) through F (the worst)” (Cambridge University Press, n.d.).
The Harmful Effects of Grading
Up until this point in my career, I never questioned the purpose of grades and whether they contribute to student learning. It was not until taking a course on teaching and learning (TLHE 720) that I began to imagine a world without them.
Like many others, I assumed grades were a necessary part of learning and growth. I believed that grades provided students with important information: where they are and where they need to be. Also, there is no denying that there are some advantages to the tradition grading system. Grades are easy to understand and widely used. Each letter grade translates to a specific performance level: A-excellent/outstanding, B- good, C- adequate/satisfactory, etc. With that said, what if, in our innocent attempt to rank and measure students’ performances, we are inadvertently harming them?
As I began to reflect on my experiences as a student, I took the opportunity to converse with current students and listen to their opinions on graded assessments. From what I gather, they feel that graded assessments, especially high-stakes ones, discourage them from taking risks and exploring non-traditional routes. They also emphasized the potential long-term impacts low grades can have on their future. For example, a low grade can result in not getting accepted into their program or school of choice, or not getting hired by their dream company. Many university programs in Ontario require students to meet a specific GPA to be considered for acceptance. This in itself, is another reason why students focus more on achieving high grades than learning. Students also strive to do well for external benefits, such as awards or recognition. Others, may be motivated to do something in order to avoid undesirable consequences (Blum, 2017). When I thought about this more, it made me realize that grades can be used as a tool to gatekeep students from various positions and opportunities. Can you imagine your high school or undergraduate transcripts haunting you for the rest of your academic and professional career? Rejection after rejection, all because of a ‘mistake’ you made in the past; I can empathize with students and understand why some of them chose to prioritize grades over learning. I only know of a few universities that consider students who do not meet their standard requirements, and Ontario Tech University is one of them. Ontario Tech University has a different set of submission requirements for non-standard applicants. They recognize that past mistakes should not dictate your future. They chose to give students the chance to show their academic potential in different ways.
Given these consequences, students feel tremendous pressure to do well. In turn, they invest more time focusing on grades and pleasing their instructor(s) (Blum, 2017). The unintentional result is that they study to pass and, in most cases, forget what they learn. If students can not remember and apply what they learn after taking a graded assessment, it is disingenuous to claim grades effectively measure student learning and performance. Jesse Stommel (2017), author and advocate for ungrading, asserts that grades encourage competition and are not motivating nor indicative of learning.
According to MacKay (2021), “Ungrading is the practice of minimizing or eliminating grades in order to focus on meaningful feedback and student learning (para.1). In “Getting Rid of Grades” Gibbs (2019) eloquently lists the benefits of ungrading:
- “Ungrading reduces stress”
- “Ungradings helps form new learning habits”
- “Ungrading makes room for creative work”
- “Ungrading promotes better communication”
- “Ungrading opens up new course design possibilities”
Can it be done?
Is ungrading possible without jeopardizing academic standards? Some of you may find comfort in knowing that ungrading can be done and has been done. Up until grade 7, students in Norway do not receive grades. Instead, twice a year, teachers meet with parents and students to discuss feedback. They keep in contact with parents and update them on what students are learning on a daily basis. This encourages students to focus on and value learning and improving. For this to be done in higher education, we need to change the type of conversations we are having about grades and work to minimize their importance. Ungrading is not about removing grades, but about allowing students to make mistakes, take risks and learn without being penalized. Stommel (2020) is not against grades; he simply wants to promote a culture where students can openly and comfortably ask questions about their grades, their learning, and the education system. Stommel (2021) states, “My goal in questioning grades has been to more honestly engage student work rather than simply evaluate it.”
Approach to Ungrading
Gibbs (2019) uses an approach called “all-feedback-no grades.” She provides each student with extensive feedback on a week-to-week basis. After each assignment, students complete a true-false checklist (point system) to communicate whether they have fulfilled the requirements. At the end of the term, she adds all the points to give students their grades (Gibbs, 2019). This gives students autonomy over their learning and teaches them to reflect on their work with integrity.
In “Ungrading: an Introduction”, Stommel (2021) briefly discusses four alternative assessments: minimal grading, contract grading, authentic assessment, and process letters. In his classes, he mainly uses self-assessments(Stommel, 2021). Students receive oral or written feedback that can be as simple as a few words or as long as a paragraph (Stommel, 2020). At the end of the semester, students assign their own final grade. He tells students that grades can be changed if deemed necessary; however, that rarely occurs (Stommel, 2020).
Ungrading means to decenter grading and emphasize feedback. I would like to share some feedback tips that I learned through my years of teaching and enrollment in the TLHE program.
- Coach your students: students learn through feedback, not lecturing.
- “Feedback is forward-facing—it is information aimed at improving performance in the future” (Orlando, 2014, para.6).
- The way students understand and accept your feedback is influenced by your tone. Be constructive and encouraging with your remarks.
- Select one to two areas for improvement (Orlando, 2014). These need to relate to the learning goals of the assignment. Do not pinpoint all errors, as it can overwhelm students.
- Encourage students to reflect and assess their work and provide feedback to their peers.
- Encourage students to think about their learning. Give them questions that will help to activate metacognition.
- Feedback should be timely and frequent.
It often seems that students today are more concerned with grades than learning. This should not be a surprise considering (a) at the start of every semester, instructors spend time discussing the grading system (Orlando, 2014); and (b) the grading system is designed to preserve errors (Orlando, 2014). Higher education institutions have played a big role in shaping grade-obsessed students (Orlando, 2014); therefore, they should do their part to help solve this problem. We cannot expect higher education institutions to transition to a gradeless system overnight. With ungrading, the goal is not to do away with grades, but instead to focus our efforts on providing students with meaningful feedback. This process requires us to rethink the way we approach grades. Our role as instructors is to shape and prepare the leaders of tomorrow; leaders that are not afraid of reflecting, making mistakes, taking risks, and learning. This can only happen if students are open, receptive and understand how feedback can contribute to their learning. Students may feel worried, scared, or even oppose the idea at first, so you need to be there to support them. Give ungrading a try. Follow my feedback tips, experiment and see what works for you and your students.
Blum, S. D. (2017, November 14). Ungrading. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/11/14/significant-learning-benefits-getting-rid-grades-essay
Cambridge University Press. (n.d.). Grade. Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/grade
Gibbs, L. (2019, March 15). Getting Rid of Grades (book chapter). OU Digital Teaching, http://oudigitools.blogspot.com/2019/03/getting-rid-of-grades-book-chapter.html
MacKay, L. (2021, February 2). Ungrading. Capilano University. https://cte.capilanou.ca/2021/02/02/ungrading/
Orlando, J. (2014, July 7). To improve student performance, start thinking like a coach. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/educational-assessment/improve-student-performance-start-thinking-like-coach/
Stommel, J. (2017, Oct 26). Why I don’t grade. Jesse Stommel. https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/
Stommel, J. (2020, February 6). Ungrading: an FAQ. Jesse Stommel. Ungrading: an FAQ (jessestommel.com)
Stommel, J. (2021, June 11). Ungrading: an Introduction. Jesse Stommel. Ungrading: an Introduction (jessestommel.com)