Today I found this article in my Facebook newsfeed:
And it’s about damn time.
The idea is to institute “shadow grades,” which means professors will provide traditional letter grades for those students who want to know, but it removes those grades from the institution itself, recording only pass/fail grades on transcripts:
This policy provides first-year students with the opportunity to learn about the standards for academic achievement at Wellesley and to assess the quality of their work in relation to these standards. It further enables them to use their first semester to focus on intellectual engagement and inspiration and to learn how to grow as a learner in college. “When grades become the object of learning rather than learning itself, students are engaged in a form of goal displacement,” Professor of Sociology Lee Cuba told Wellesley magazine in a feature for the 2014 Winter issue.
This is almost exactly my own grading policy in my writing classes: while, at the colleges where I teach, I still have to record grades for institutional purposes, I refuse to write grades on essays themselves. My policy is based on research I did — and a paper I wrote and presented at the Conference of College Teachers of English back in 2001 — in which I argued that grades interfere with student learning.
These are not new ideas. Back in the 1960s Max S. Marshall, in Teaching Without Grades, compared grades to the “inadmissible evidence” of the American judicial system. Inadmissible evidence, he explained, is anything which at any point could be called prejudicial or which would unfairly bias the jury toward one decision. He wrote that grades functioned in the same way — that by giving a student an A and reporting it, other teachers would be inclined to give that student As as well. Likewise for a D student, who would continue getting Ds regardless of his or her efforts. For these reasons, Marshall proposed that grades, too, be “inadmissible” — that is, removed from education. And later, in 1990, Charles Hargis wrote about alternative grading methods in his book Grades and Grading Practices: Obstacles to Improving Education and to Helping At-Risk Students, saying that any alternative should involve the student as well as the teacher and focus the evaluation not on a grade but on learning.
Yet, even when we attempt to hide the grade with descriptive commentary and lengthy, explanatory conferencing, the student cannot ignore that little red letter he or she knows will ultimately determine the worth of the paper. As Dr. Richard Miller is quoted as saying in “The Day the Consultant Looked at Our Grading System” (from Degrading the Grading Myths: A Primer of Alternatives to Grades and Marks): “Grades have made our students believe that ‘wadjaget’ is the most important word to be used when summarizing their own education.”
And in a more recent article from 2011, “The Case Against Grades,” Alfie Kohn reiterates a lot of these old arguments, including a wonderful breakdown of the pedagogical problems inherent in grades:
Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning. A “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” have been shown to be inversely related and, as far as I can tell, every study that has ever investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative effect.
Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks. They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly — not because they’re “unmotivated” but because they’re rational. They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?” In one experiment, students told they’d be graded on how well they learned a social studies lesson had more trouble understanding the main point of the text than did students who were told that no grades would be involved. Even on a measure of rote recall, the graded group remembered fewer facts a week later (Grolnick and Ryan, 1987).
When I first learned all this back in grad school, I knew I couldn’t actually just eliminate grades. I was responsible to the institution where I taught, and as a teaching assistant, I didn’t have the power to challenge that system. But, in my research and in that paper I presented at conference, I argued that I could at least get the grade off the paper, which would force my students to read my comments and then have a conversation with me about their work. It seemed the best of both worlds: I was still “grading” to satisfy the institution, but my grades weren’t interfering with my students’ learning. At the time, I was still teaching under the tutelage of my professor, Dr. Sherle Furnish, but Dr. Furnish was good about allowing us new teachers a lot of latitude and autonomy in our classrooms, and when I asked his permission to try my “gradeless paper” approach, he gave me his blessing. And it’s been my policy ever since — going on 15 years now.
And it’s worked. Every semester, students hear not only my policy but the rationale behind my policy, and while it still takes some of them a few papers to get used to the policy, I always get positive feedback by the end of the class. And by positive, I mean they both understand the theory and appreciate the practice. Many students actually thank me for getting grades out of the way and making them think about their work as their work, for reinforcing process and self-evaluation over product and outside judgment. And I’m often pleasantly surprised by how many students with C grades, who ordinarily would have complained about their grades, decide based solely on the comments and their own judgment that they’re satisfied with their paper and wind up also satisfied with their C — and how many A students keep plugging away at a paper even after they know they have an A, because I might love their paper but they’re still not quite finished with it.
But all of this just a baby step in one classroom; for this practice to have any lasting effect on students’ attitudes toward their work and their learning, it needs to become institutional. As Kohn writes:
If we begin with a desire to assess more often, or to produce more data, or to improve the consistency of our grading, then certain prescriptions will follow. If, however, our point of departure isn’t mostly about the grading, but about our desire for students to understand ideas from the inside out, or to get a kick out of playing with words and numbers, or to be in charge of their own learning, then we will likely end up elsewhere. We may come to see grading as a huge, noisy, fuel-guzzling, smoke-belching machine that constantly requires repairs and new parts, when what we should be doing is pulling the plug. [. . .] Still, it takes courage to do right by kids in an era when the quantitative matters more than the qualitative, when meeting (someone else’s) standards counts for more than exploring ideas, and when anything “rigorous” is automatically assumed to be valuable. We have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all. (emphasis mine)
And that’s why this announcement from Wellesley is so exciting. It’s a small step in a movement that’s been scraping along, millimeter by millimeter, for decades now, but it’s a step in the right direction.