Last week I offered a perspective on student evaluations of teaching. To summarize, I was advocating for a much more collaborative and developmental approach than the usual bubble forms support. This week, I would like to suggest that a similar re-thinking of our goals should take place around the topic of grading. Let me be transparent from the start: I would like to see us give up the letter grades that have been designed for ranking students and replace them with a much more developmental approach.
Years ago, my husband and I sent our children to a high school with no grades. After having attended a traditional (and small) public school from kindergarten through eighth grade, they moved to a small private high school full of progressive learning strategies. For my eldest, this was an easy switch. Alex moved from a student who earned As and Bs, to a student who asked lots of questions, argued perspectives, struggled to be a better writer, and thirsted for understanding. The small seminars were perfect for this kind of learner and Alex thrived.
For my second child, the adjustment was more complicated. Michael was not a student who thrived in the traditional structure and the same was true in the new structure. However, the narrative evaluations that took the place of the summaries of the A, B, C grading system, helped to identify some patterns of learning that were covered up with simple grades. For this, the switch was a benefit, even if Michael did not love the learning the way Alex did.
At the time that this was going on, I asked my students about the idea of abandoning grades in favor of narratives. Their response: “How will you know who is best?” Well, there it was, as clear as could be, grades are about ranking not learning. I assured them that it was very easy to determine who was best at working with the material we were discussing, but I was not sure what the value of that knowledge was to supporting learning. I’m still not.
So, as my faculty are reading papers, administering final exams, and trying to sum up their students’ work in simple letter grades that are effective for ranking but not necessarily for learning, I am suggesting we just stop it. Here is what I propose instead:
- This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at a more advanced level.
- This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at the same level.
- This student has not yet demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit.
Instead of ranking students, these categories will simply facilitate progress through the undergraduate experience. We will not lose any of the rigor we currently expect; indeed, it might encourage greater integrity in the evaluation. Instead of suggesting that a D represents learning of any kind, (I’m pretty sure it just means the student attended class), the focus is on the future. Faculty will determine a student’s capacity to participate fully and successfully in subsequent courses.
Arriving at these non-grades still involves lots of evaluation of students. Just like in the current system, it would be best if there were many assessments on which to base this decision. Regular feedback is an important part of nurturing learning, and that work never gets easier. However, with this system, students are incentivized to keep trying, even when they are struggling. With grades, a few early missteps and low scores can drive a student to withdraw, or worse, give up trying. They see the low scores as holes they cannot dig themselves out of, and they are right. Even if they do well later, those scores will be part of their final grades. Their ranks (GPAs) will reflect the struggle more than the learning.
In the system I have proposed, the process of learning does not penalize students for struggling. In other words, if students arrive at aha moments mid-semester and start to thrive, they will not be bogged down by earlier scores. Indeed, the changes in understanding may actually reflect the capacity to learn in ways that are more predictive of success than the “good” grades ever were. It is a truly developmental approach to assessment.
Of course, this opens the door to all sorts of next questions about time, progress to degree completion, the notion of credits, and so on. In addition, our culture is so devoted to ranking that this will probably never fly. Still, for just a minute, I would love for all of us to think about learning instead. Wouldn’t that be more fun? I’m pretty sure it would be more productive for students and faculty alike.