For the last decade and a half, I’ve engaged in anthropological research on higher education, identifying several challenges and mismatches between what we know about learning “in real life” and learning in college. In my most recent book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College, I identified a number of ways that formal education has led to a lack of learning. Colleges promote credentials, obedience and the sorting of haves and have-nots, but not necessarily learning.
People kept asking me what I would do to improve things. And I said that if I could make one change, I would get rid of grades.
I’d been making some efforts in that direction, but still I fretted over how to make my pedagogy align with my theoretical understanding of how people learn. “Fretted” may be too light a term; I wondered if I could actually keep teaching if I didn’t believe in the enterprise.
Last summer, as I prepared my classes, deeply immersed in the thinking that had led to the book, I decided I would go all the way and get rid of grades. Or at least, get rid of them as much as I could -- all the way to the end of the semester.
I had read many accounts of individual faculty members and whole colleges that were grade-free, but in mid-August, I discovered Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, which gave me some cover in case students or administrators challenged this.
My reasons for wanting to get rid of grades were numerous: I felt as if students are fixated on grades above all else. Most faculty conversations with students include some discussions of grades: What do you want? What do I have to do to get an A? How can I improve my grade? What are the criteria for grades? And the professor takes on the role of a judge.
It felt like there was no space for adventure, zest, risk -- or even for genuine learning. Everything focused on pleasing the professor.
And in my research on learning and education, I had learned a lot about grades, such as:
- Grading requires uniformity. It assumes uniform input, uniform process and uniform output. I stopped believing that was a useful way to approach student learning. Students don’t start out the same. They don’t have the same life experiences -- or even academic experiences -- during our semester together. They don’t go to the same places afterward. They have different goals.
- Grades don’t provide adequate information. If the purpose of grades is to convey a student’s accomplishment, adequacy, excellence, compliance, effort and/or gain in learning, then they fail. Is a student who enters already knowing a lot and continues to demonstrate knowledge at a high level, but then misses an assignment because of a roommate’s attempted suicide and ends up with a B-plus, the same as someone who begins knowing nothing, works really hard, follows all the rules, does quite well and ends up with a B-plus? What information is conveyed? What about someone who loves biology and excels in those classes, but who loathes history, bombs in history classes and ends up with a 3.0 GPA? Compared to someone who muddles through every class and a similar GPA, yet with no passion, excellence or highs or lows? What do we learn from the GPA? What does a course grade mean?
- Grades don’t truly motivate students. Experts distinguish different types of motivation: 1) intrinsic, or doing things for their own sake and 2) extrinsic, or doing things for external benefits not inherently part of the activities themselves. I would also add fear and avoidance as big motivators, or doing something to avoid negative consequences.
Grades are the quintessential form of extrinsic motivation: they reward for accomplishment. But they are also threats: if you don’t comply in every way, no matter how you feel about anything, you will be dethroned. Yet the fact is, most people are motivated by interest or need, not by arbitrary mandates.
Extrinsic motivation leads to the minimax principle. If the only thing you care about is something beyond the activity itself -- an extrinsic reward such as the grade -- it is sensible to do as little as possible to procure the highest possible reward (grade), which Arie Kruglanski, Chana Stein and Aviah Riter dubbed in 1977 the “minimax strategy” in instrumental behavior. Cheating, shortcuts, cramming … all those make sense if the only goal is points or winning.
Students treat college as a game. Games are fun, but if the goal is amassing points and winning at any price, then game is the wrong model for college -- at least if learning, not just winning, is the goal. Of course, games can also be absorbing and done for their own sake -- playing Words With Friends or Grand Theft Auto -- so those types of games are fine. Maybe the problem is when it is seen only as a survival course.
Students see the rules as arbitrary and inconsistent. Different professors have different scoring -- participation, homework, teamwork or no teams, tests, showing your work, partial credit -- all of which appear to be plucked out of thin air and make no sense, as I found in my research on plagiarism. Citation? Sharing? Page length? Number of quotes? Consult notes or closed book? Students just have to figure out in each case what the professor wants. It all seems arbitrary, and therefore unconnected with anything meaningful or real.
Students are taught to focus on schooling rather than learning. Is the goal of school, including college, primarily achievement, success, accomplishment? Is the focus on learning the actual skills people will need or want outside college? Whoever asks them, “What are you learning?” instead of “How are you doing?” Or “What’d you get?”
In fact, people are consumed with curiosity and joy when they learn new things. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s needed (as for a workplace that changes), but learning happens all around us all the time -- TED talks, podcasts, Nova, adult ed, learning from WikiHow, lectures at libraries, church study groups, knitting circles, work challenges.
Grades encourage a fear of risk taking. Grades seem so consequential that students believe they can’t take a chance on anything unproven. In most college classes, a mistake is punished by a lower grade, which is then averaged into the other grades, even if the student completely gets it forever after that initial try. Yet mistakes are information and contribute to learning. In tasks like riding a bicycle or submitting an article for publication, feedback about shortcomings is information. This helps with improving.
I have tried to address these problems with solutions. Some of the tactics I have used in my own classes include the following:
- Decenter grading. We don’t talk about the point breakdown because I don’t have one in my classes anymore. We talk about what the goals are for everything we do: for reading, writing, discussion, research and projects.
- Emphasize the entire portfolio. A semester is a nice, long, luxurious time for a lot of activities, reflection, conversation, writing and wondering. At the end, we can assess the entire experience, rather than students worrying about how an early misstep is going to mean lack of success.
- Have students develop an individual plan. I developed this myself on the model of an individualized education program (usually used in special education). I have since discovered two similar models: Universal Design for Learning and Individual Development Plan. The idea is to have students figure out how a class fits with their own lives, course of study and interests. Even if it is required, I want them to articulate some value for themselves. I try to meet with every student early in the semester and again midway through to talk about how prepared they are, what they are eager to learn or do, and what causes apprehension or even dread.
- Encourage self-evaluation. If the genuine goal of college is to prepare students for life, then it’s vital that they develop their own standards. So rather than ask students to submit work with the hope that I’ll think it’s excellent, I encourage them to develop honest standards and self-scrutiny. Every assignment is accompanied by students’ written self-assessment of their work. What were they trying to get out of the assignment? What did they learn? What was successful? What was less successful? Why? What might they do differently? What would they like help with? That should serve them better in life than hoping that mediocrity will be seen as fabulous. Sometimes things aren’t perfect -- and that’s OK. But it is useful for them to understand and even articulate the reasons. (I didn’t give myself enough time. I started too late. I didn’t understand this. I couldn’t really get into this subject.) Throughout our lives beyond college, we won’t excel at and plunge enthusiastically into every single thing we do all day.
- Conduct portfolio conferences. I begin the semester with a discussion with each student about their own individual plan. I try to meet with everyone at the middle of the semester and the end of it in a portfolio conference. I give them a document to complete prior to our meeting and instruct them to look back through all their work. The goal is to show them their learning, by comparing their early and later understanding, and to help them feel pride at their body of work. It also forces them to review the material, which research shows fosters retention. Students suggest their grade, which I can accept or not. No, not every student suggests an A.
I enjoyed my relationship with my students; I loved the atmosphere of the classroom; I believe that the encouragement of learning and even risk taking in the service of growth have been successful.
Students reflected that it allowed them to relax and focus on learning, perhaps for the first time. One student wrote in a reflection on one of my classes that used ungrading, “I honestly enjoyed writing for me, instead of necessarily for a professor or an outside source. I felt I had more freedom to express what I wanted to say, and I feel like I wasn’t focused too much on making claims that could get me points.”
I am confident that at least some of the students were sincere in generating their own adventure in learning.
Comments to Skeptics
I know this seems idealistic and, for many classes and many professors, impossible. Here are my thoughts on that:
- Going gradeless can be done in a class of any size and of any type, though students may find it alarming and unfamiliar. Some faculty use something called “contract grading,” which still uses a traditional scale but puts some of the control in students’ hands.
- You can provide opportunities for students to make choices, which allows them to find at least a tiny bit of intrinsic motivation even in the most conventional of courses.
- Some assignments -- maybe small ones -- can still be risk-free and contribute to intrinsic motivation, by being utterly fascinating, completely useful or fun.
- You can always offer low-stakes exercises that are perceived as enjoyable and not trivial, in any course.
And even if your supervisors are skeptical, as long as the process serves the central goal of contributing to student learning, they shouldn’t object.
Here is one piece of evidence from a student who really trusted the process and responded honestly to the question “What assignment(s) pushed you to learn the most?” “While it ended up being one of my weaker pieces, I felt that my [project] was my most personally informative piece. I read so many different sources on the [topic] and really took a deep dive to explore the reasons why the [people do what] they do.”
Isn’t that a beautiful, honest analysis of learning? I wanted students to believe that this education is for them, not for me.
I can never go back!