Erasing the grade

Today I found this article in my Facebook newsfeed:

Wellesley Initiates New Grading Policy for First-Year Students.”

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.


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14 thoughts on “Erasing the grade

  1. For many years of my teaching career I longed to erase the concept of having to give grades and just teach for learning’s sake.  Maybe that is one reason I wanted to teach math as at least for the most part the answer was either right or wrong mathematically and I didn’t have to be subjective in grading but could  be more objective.  I always said when students would ask me about what kind of grade they needed (mostly the GT students) I commented it is for learning, not a grade.  I loved projects the most because often times it was assigned for the process and learning, not what grade was to be given, and students usually worked so much harder on the project when they put effort into it not just for a grade.  Best case in point I can say is when you prepared the Japanese presentation for my students and you worked so hard on that and learned a lot.  You worked so much harder than when you had to do something for a grade at school, which you were more than capable of getting an A on.  Just my thoughts.   Julie Snoek

    1. I was thinking about that project the other day. Actually, there were two reasons I put so much effort into that: it wasn’t tied to a grade, and I was actually interested in the subject! I put a lot of emphasis on student interest in my teaching, because I’m convinced that students learn best when they get to study the things they give a damn about. That’s not just me talking: centuries ago, the ancient Greeks were espousing the idea that you learn best when you are passionate about the learning. These are not new ideas.

      But getting the grade out of the way is also a major factor in fostering a student’s interest in the material. I still remember (and I know you do, too, Mom) the travel presentation on Greece I gave in my middle-school reading class. I poured loads of effort into that, even cooking a whole Greek meal (whole roasted chicken, au gratin potatoes, grape juice in place of wine) from scratch, myself, TWICE when I got sick and missed my first presentation slot, and I still got an F, not because of the quality of the work but because the presentation was “late” (on account of my illness). The work was damn good, and despite the grade, I remain proud of it to this day. And I remember it all vividly — I learned a ton — not because I’m still mad about getting an F, but because I still remember how much I enjoyed the project and how much I learned in doing that project. 🙂

  2. Really interesting.
    I always thought it made no real sense to assign a grade for “free and original thinking.” What about encouraging the type of thinking that questions current institutions? To grade that is to destroy it, in my opinion.
    It makes way more sense to grade science, math and perhaps basic history and grammar/spelling. For math it’s as simple as “did they solve the problem correctly or not?”
    How can you create a rubric or criteria to mark that which is inherently defined as “abstract,” “deeply emotional,” or “inexpressible”? Even when marking on things like “how well did this person argue for their position,” I always feel markers will say that’s all they care about, when really it’s not.

    1. Yes! And thanks for commenting!

      I hesitate to speak outside my area of expertise (writing), but I think you’re right to specify “basic history” — I’m a student of history (and was a credit or two shy of a minor in it as an undergrad), and I know just enough to understand that beyond basic dates and geography, history is every bit as subjective as language and literature.

      But at the college level (where I teach), I might argue that science, too, has a lot of room for creativity and debate, as students (and professors) wrestle with existing theories and develop new ones. I hear the same can be true of math, though I don’t begin to understand how.

      But this question of rubrics is the most interesting part of your comment! How, indeed. I know a lot of colleagues who use rubrics in their grading — some of them have developed highly complex and fairly impressive rubrics — and I understand why. It provides both teacher and student with a sense of security, a list of the “things that matter” and, in the best of rubrics, and explanation of why those things matter. But as soon as you make that list, you limit the possibilities in the work; as soon as you say “these are the things that matter,” you force yourself to ignore all the other things that might matter, too, if only you had thought of them. And one of my favorite parts of teaching is learning from my students new things that matter, of discovering in each new student a whole lifetime of other experiences and other ideas. Some of those ideas fail to work and the student and I have to talk about when that happens and why — the best education happens in those conversations — but with a rubric, I would feel too constrained by my own “rules” and expectations to engage in that conversation; and, more importantly, I would feel hard-pressed to explain to a student anything outside that rubric, because once the rubric is on paper, it becomes the student’s expectations as well. Or, as you say, the rubric becomes “all they care about, when really it’s not.”


      1. Yes, that’s exactly what I meant about basic history. There is the “what happened on which date” which is more certain for well recorded events, but the “what led up to this and why?” is a bit more obscure.

        I recommended your article to my friend who works as an English literature instructor (His site: and I’ve written to him before about how difficult it is to perfectly standardize something, but maintain the genuine essence of that thing at the same time.

        But hey, remember too that even physicists experience this. The double-slit experiment: the more you try to measure, the further and further away you get from the genuine thing. It’s an interesting phenomenon that pervades all it seems.

      2. Wow! Physics is just outside my capacity to understand science, but I get it enough to still feel awed by it, and that double-slit experiment is fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

        I actually just went over one basic essay structure with my basic-writing students, and I began by explaining the essay itself as a kind of scientific method on paper: the intro and thesis statement is tantamount to the hypothesis, the body of the essay is where you test the hypothesis, and the conclusion is the results — even if it means you prove your own thesis wrong and have to “repeat the experiment,” or, as we say in writing, revise! 🙂

    1. There’s certainly such a thing as taking it too far, at least in the classroom, but I encourage my students to dissent. (I go so far as to do all my grading in pencil, and I tell them if they don’t like what I write on their work, they can always erase it.) In a healthy (“healthy” being key) classroom, dissent is just the beginning of discussion, and discussion is where a lot of the learning happens. 🙂

  3. As a student, I thoroughly agree with what you’re saying…at a post-secondary level…on papers. In high school, however, I’d say that grades provide many useful functions, such as encouraging student work, and also provide a reasonable metric for college admission en masse. I understand your dilemma as a writing teacher, grading work which is not simply binary in correctness, but at the same time from what I know of public high school English students, they rarely ever fail papers, even if their writing looks as if they verbatim copied Google Translate’s version of Horace’s Odes (not a compliment). Also, if I get a C on a paper in English, I’m going to be seriously worried. But if I just “pass”, I don’t reallly care about improving my writing, I just care about the grade. Honestly, I don’t see this cutting down on the mercenary aspect of grades, it just makes the ultimate reward easier to obtain. And as for grades on tests not consisting of essays, those make perfect sense. Without them, students wouldn’t be spurred on to competition for excellence, given that there’s no difference between a 71% and a 99%.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment!

      I hear what you’re saying, and there’s a lot I agree with. But I don’t generally agree with competitive learning at any level of education, and I maintain — and the research seems to support — that grades at any level of education interfere with the broader goals of education. In this respect, I’m particularly interested in the article by Kohl (which I link to in my post) regarding grades in education.

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