The Trouble with Grades

I’m not sure there’s a precise definition yet for ungrading, but it usually refers to some combination of questioning the role of grades and grading in education along with efforts by instructors to move away from traditional uses of grades and grading toward something more student-centered. I’ve been tracking the conversation about ungrading in higher education for a few years now without really diving into that conversation, other than a few tweets here and there and enthusiastically welcoming an interview with ungrading advocate Jesse Stommel to our Leading Lines podcast last year (Episode 91). I’ve also dipped my toe into the ungrading waters with my experiments in mastery quizzes last year, although I’m not sure Stommel would call that ungrading or not, given what I’ve been reading lately.

Cover of Ungrading, edited by Susan D. BlumSpecifically, I started reading Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) earlier this month. This is a 2020 book edited by Susan D. Blum from West Virginia University Press, part of the press’ Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series, of which my book Intentional Tech is also a part. Stommel mentioned the book during his Leading Lines interview and the book boasts some authors I respect greatly, so I thought it would be a useful deep dive into the ungrading movement, in both higher and K12 education. I haven’t made as much progress through the book as I had hoped, thanks to a busy February, but there’s a lot happening in the book’s first sections that I wanted to blog about.

First, there’s the forward by Alfie Kohn, an educator and longtime critic of grades, rewards, and competition in education. I was not surprised by the critique Kohn levels against grades in the forward, although his tone took me by surprise. As I said on Twitter, Kohn’s forward is like using an angry porcupine as your welcome mat. Wow. He pulls no punches arguing that a gradual change away from grades in education isn’t a sufficient response to the damage they do to student motivation and student learning. It’s not enough to avoid grading on a curve, Kohn writes, we need to avoid rating students at all, since doing so reduces their intrinsic motivation to learn. It’s also not enough to replace grades with narrative reports, since narrative reports “are still monologues” and students need more of a voice in the process. And is the so-called feedback we’re giving students, isn’t that really judgment that we’re offering?

Kohn’s comments about rubrics probably bothered me the most, but that’s par for the course for me. This isn’t the first time I’ve jumped into an argument in defense of rubrics. Kohn writes about rubrics, “Even if we have the good sense to strip them of numerical ratings, a critical first step to detoxifying them, rubrics are all about evaluation. They offer umpteen different axes along which to make students think about their performance–often at the cost of becoming less immersed in what they’re doing.” But if grades are reductionist, condensing the complex work of learning into a letter you might stamp on a pound of ground beef, might a multi-dimensional rubric help students explore that complex work of learning more effectively? Certainly the rubrics I’ve used have helped guide my students toward elements of their work where they can refine their ideas and skills.

Frankly, I’m not sure who will be won over by this forward by Kohn. It gives the impression that if you’re not marching into your dean’s office waving the ungrading flag, you’re doing a disservice to your students, regardless of how thoughtfully and carefully you’re approaching the mechanisms and roles of grades in your courses. From what I’ve read of Kohn, he’s probably fine with that takeaway, but it makes for an off-putting forward. The one piece of the forward that I want to explore more is Kohn’s statement that studies “show that undergraduate and graduate grade point averages are lousy predictors of just about any postgraduate outcomes.” That was the only argument against grades that I found both novel and compelling.

Fortunately, the introduction to Ungrading by Susan D. Blum was more nuanced and welcoming. Blum surveys the ungrading movement across education, noting, for instance, that at least nine colleges and universities have ditched grades in favor of narrative evaluations and that most elite medical schools “use only pass-fail grades for preclinical courses.” Blum also does a good job questioning some of the assumptions embedded in education’s evaluation systems. Is our principle task as educators ranking our students for some outside observer? Or, as the authors of the book argue, is our principle task educating our students, that is, helping them learn and grow? That’s a good question. Why do we spend so much time ranking students in higher education? Do those rankings actually have much meaning? Are they equitable, given the systematic disparities that affect our students’ experiences in education?

As a mathematician, I really appreciated this line by Blum in the introduction: “Grading promotes a deleterious focus on an appearance of objectivity (with its use of numbers) and an appearance of accuracy (with its fine distinctions), and contributes to a misplaced sense of concreteness.” I remember volunteering at a high school math competition years ago and hearing the math professor in charge of the scoring say something like, “Well, we have definitely assignment a number to every student” with the implication that those numbers might not have much meaning thanks to irregularities in the scoring process. Through the analytic rubrics and problem set scores and assignment weighting in my courses, I’ve definitely created a metric that maps student work to a numeric score between 0 and 100. I think that metric is pretty meaningful, valuing the things that I value in my students’ learning. The scoring systems used in competitive figure skating also map performance onto numbers, also in a way that seems to carry useful meaning to those involved. Every such metric has meaning and some of those meanings are useful, but, as Blum points out, let’s not pretend that metrics are inherently objective nor that there’s a meaningful difference between an 88.4 and a 88.9 on a 100-point scale.

I found Blum’s introduction motivating to continue reading and to explore ways that I, like the authors of the book, might “aim to create positive atmospheres devoid of fear and threat and focused on learning.” I was reminded of the book Cheating Lessons by James Lang, co-editor of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series that includes Ungrading. Lang argues that the way to reduce academic dishonesty is not more surveillance and punishment, but the design of courses that provide more intrinsic motivation for student learning. Indeed, Blum references Daniel Pink’s concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, a framework I’ve found useful for fostering intrinsic motivation among my students.

This brings me to “How to Ungrade” by Jesse Stommel, the first chapter in Ungrading. Stommel starts with a strong argument for student agency in education. “There is no room for student agency to breathe in a system of incessant grading, ranking, and scoring,” Stommel writes. He advocates for pushing against this system, as he has done in his teaching. “Over many years, this has meant carefully navigating, and even breaking, the sometimes absurd rules of a half-dozen institutions.” He details the problems with grades, with a line that again appeals to this mathematician: “They are both too simplistic, making something complex into something numerical (8/10, 85%), and too complicated, offering so many gradations as to be inscrutable (A, A-, A/A-, 85.4%, 8.5/10).” And he offers some critiques of grading practices that have new relevance, at least to me, after semesters of pandemic teaching. For instance, on participation grades, he writes, “Different humans engage in different ways at different times, and much of that engagement is effectively invisible to crude quantitative mechanisms.” I would say it’s not the mechanisms so much as what instructors count as participation–typically vocalized questions and comments during synchronous class sessions–that needs to be broadened. But we agree that notions of class participation should be expanded.

What frustrates me about Stommel’s chapter, however, is how he, like Kohn in the forward, writes off so many thoughtful, intentional ways to think about grading and assessment. I’ve known faculty whose teaching has improved greatly once they identify the learning outcomes they hope for their students, but this doesn’t go far enough for Stommel. He writes: “I argue, instead, for emergent outcomes, ones that are cocreated by teachers and students and revised on the fly.” I’m not sure how help that approach is for, say, science faculty who are just now shifting from knowledge to skills outcomes in their courses. Naturally, Stommel critiques rubrics, even arguing that giving rubrics to students in advance, instead of clarifying expectations and guiding student work, particularly for students new to a discipline or a mode of expression, that those rubrics “are likely to close down possibility.” And he has words about the notion of mastery assessment, the likes of which I experimented with as an effort toward more equitable teaching, because education should be about “not knowing more than knowing.”

I freely admit that I’m an incrementalist when it comes to changes in teaching and learning in higher education. I don’t think change happens in big steps (like the purveyors of certain online learning initiatives in the early 2010s wanted us to think); I think it happens through small steps over time. I’m also a firm believer in faculty development, that we can support instructors in articulating how they approach teaching and identifying small changes that would be useful for their particular teaching context.  Stommel is, too, I think, given his statement that his own approach to assessment has changed over time. “At every single [institution] there was sufficient wiggle room or experimentation,” he writes. But I don’t think Stommel’s critiques of valuable tools like learning outcomes, rubrics, and mastery assessment are likely to play well with faculty who aren’t ready yet to fight the good fight against grading and make the kinds of dramatic changes from traditional assessment that Stommel has made.

To be clear, Stommel has made changes in his approach to grading that are thoughtful and sensible and ones we can learn from. In the pages where he discusses grade-free zones, self-assessment, process letters, minimal grading, contract grading, student-made rubrics, and more, he offers plenty of models and strategies for more student-centered assessment. I would recommend these pages to any instructor interested in ungrading or just making a few changes in how they handle assessment. “Moving away from student work as a thing to be collected” is a threshold concept, which he mentions in relation to minimal grading. His use of process letters to prompt students to reflect on their own learning over time is a great idea, not unlike the “designer’s statements” that go well with final projects that students submit. And I’m on-record as a fan of involving students in the creation of the rubrics that will be used to assess their work, as Stommel praises in this chapter.

One detail I wish Stommel had included in the chapter was a list of the disciplines or topics of courses he teaches. He mentions teaching at a wide variety of institution types and in various disciplines, which leads me to believe many of his alternative assessment approaches would work for lots of different instructors. But it’s a little abstract not knowing if he’s teaching in English or digital studies or something else. I know that one’s discipline isn’t determinative of one’s teaching, but disciplinary differences do matter. Consider faculty teaching large-enrollment courses in high-consensus fields with relatively fixed curricula. How well would Stommel’s alternative approaches translate to that very challenging teaching context? I can imagine Stommel would have some answers (and I’ve known colleagues teaching in those contexts who have practiced some form of ungrading), but a little more of Stommel’s context would have been useful.

Speaking of teaching contexts, I now have 12 more chapters to read, along with a conclusion by Susan D. Blum, that I expect will address my questions about ungrading in different disciplines and in different kinds of courses. I’m excited to continue in Ungrading, in part because I keep running into colleagues at Vanderbilt and elsewhere that want to have conversations about ungrading. And I would love to hear what you, dear reader, think about the book and the concerns I’ve raised above.

One more item: For a welcome to the world of ungrading that’s more, well, welcoming than Alfie Kohn’s forward, I recommend Bonnie Stachowiak’s recent interview with Josh Eyler on her Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. Josh does a fantastic job of laying out the problem with grades in a way that invites consideration and action, at least to my somewhat skeptical ears.

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