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Why I No Longer Grade My College Students
A reflection on alternative grading practices in the humanities
Today we have a guest post from Timothy Budde, professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Vanier College, Montreal, Québec and host of the forthcoming podcast Your School is F-ing You.
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I don’t grade my college students. I gave up the practice at the beginning of this academic year (22/23), and I have no regrets. I am more convinced now, at the end of the academic year, that I made the right choice than I have been at any other time in my process (dare I say, “progress”).
I became suspicious of the whole practice of grading after about 10 years at my current institution. I teach in the Departments of Humanities and Philosophy at a small college of about 7,000 students in Montreal, QC. A word of explanation: college (or CEGEP, as it is called in French) is a unique concept in the province of Quebec. High school ends at 11th grade rather than 12th (as it does in most of North America) and all students who wish to continue their education go to college for two years (if they are in a pre-university program) before completing three years of university. In other words, Quebec has shaved off the last year of high school and the first year of university and combined them into college, where students earn a DEC (Diplôme d'études collégiales).
The system has been around since the end of the 1960s, and has been wonderfully successful. It helps high school students transition to university. For those who choose not to continue in university, it provides them with a post secondary degree, increasing their employability and chances at a salaried job. In addition, colleges also support professional programs (what the P in CEGEP stands for), like engineering and nursing. Those who are interested in a certain profession but uninterested in four years of Shakespeare and Western Civilization are still provided an education and preparation for their future careers and lives1.
As at almost every educational institution--certainly most institutions of higher education--we are obliged to report grades at the end of the semester. In addition, college policy sets an upper limit on the weight of any given assignment, such that teachers are obliged to give students at least four separate assignments over the course of the semester. But most of us give far more than four because we are encouraged to vary our assignments (in kind and in weight) so that students have as many chances as possible to demonstrate their learning. Any given syllabus may have as many as ten assignments in 15 weeks.
Around 2015 I began to notice that the burden of assignments and grading was overwhelming to both my students and to myself. CEGEP students take anywhere from seven to nine courses per semester. If each of their teachers is administering five to ten assignments, the students are asked to complete almost 50 to 100 in 15 weeks. And many of our students are working part-time.
My teaching was suffering as well. Quantitatively, I was losing time that could be devoted to teaching--between distributing and explaining assignments (rubrics and criteria), reviewing for tests, answering questions, even if some assignments are meant to be completed at home, I would regularly lose five or six classes. And that time adds up. Qualitatively, all of this work was putting a strain on my relationship with my students. Building trust is essential to effective teaching at every level.
I started by trying to take back some of the time I was losing, principally by moving from summative to formative assessments. If I was going to give any assignments, they had to be used to teach rather than “test” in the sense of measure. I eliminated tests, quizzes, multiple choice--anything that looked like I was “putting them to the test”. Everything involved writing and answering questions that were already familiar from our in-class discussions. I gave questions in advance, and suggested possible answers in advance.
It was at the end of a particularly rough COVID semester (partially online, partially in person, with stressed and anxious students) that I was expressing my frustrations about grading with a close colleague. I said that I was starting to think that grading was a bit of a racket. Neither my students nor I seemed to be getting anything out of it. So whose interest was I serving by giving assignments? My colleague said to me, “you know, there’s a name for what you’re describing; it’s called ‘ungrading’”. And that was it. I was on the path to abandoning grading for teaching, which is now how I define “educating”.
I started with Jesse Stommel’s website, which provided me with all the resources to enter into the conversation. Stommel led me to Alfie Kohn, especially his Punished By Rewards2. The lesson seemed dead obvious, though it had to be revealed to me after years of failure. Grading, ranking and judging does more harm than good. There are a thousand different ways to skin this cat — grading demotivates, it discourages, it causes stress and anxiety (which have obvious known effects on memory and attention), it treats education like a zero-sum game, it treats education like a market commodity rather than a right, it introduces a toxic notion of merit into the classroom. But what struck me most was how much time and energy it was stealing from my classroom.
I implemented my own version of ungrading in six courses this year, but I’d like to discuss, briefly, only two: Philosophy of Education (an elective in Social Science) and The Making of the Western World (a General Education course in the Liberal Arts Program, which is like a major). In each course, I began the semester by introducing students to what I saw as the central problems with grading — motivation, trust, fairness, etc. And then I outlined how we would proceed over the course of the semester. I assigned a good deal of writing, to be done almost entirely in the classroom, based on prompts taken directly from our conversations — sometimes directly from their own questions about the material.
Three times over the course of the semester I asked them to write a process paper: a metacognitive statement as to what they wanted to accomplish in my class (and at school in general), how they thought they were doing (needs improvement, satisfactory, excellent) and what they thought needed to be changed. Finally, I had individual conferences with each student at the end of the semester. I scheduled around fifteen minutes for each — some need a bit more time, some need less. These conferences were a final opportunity for the students to practice metacognition and self-evaluation. We discussed their portfolios (the digital version of all the work they produced over the course of the semester); I asked what they thought about their work. Did it conform to the goals they set at the beginning of the semester? If not, where did it fall short? Were these shortcomings important, or did they represent inappropriate goals? The conferences also gave me an opportunity for evaluating my own progress. I asked them what they liked the most about the course and why; What helped you learn the most? And, finally, I asked them what was the worst thing about the course; what I should change in coming semesters.
The Philosophy of Education course was a particularly interesting case, because after introducing the problems associated with grading at the beginning of the semester, we were able to spend the rest of the semester examining the causes and considering alternatives and solutions. I have seldom had a group of students so engaged in class material with so little effort on my part to make it interesting.
On the final day of class, I asked the students to outline how they would reform the education system from the ground up. I wanted them to feel free to criticize the system, including myself, without censoring themselves, so I left the room. However, I told them I would be in the hall if they had any problems or questions. Their enthusiasm was evident from the moment I shut the door. Almost every student moved to the front of the room, where they proceeded to debate animatedly and fill the markerboard with their own ideas. In our exit interviews, when I asked what might be improved in the class, almost every student suggested that we do more work of this sort. I want to reiterate: my students were so engaged by the material that they wanted to do more work; they were asking to do more work.
The case of The Making of the Western World is different. The course is a second semester course in a rather demanding major. I also teach the first semester General Education course to these same students, so I treat the two courses more like a 30 week or year-long course. As a result, my second semester students had already practiced ungrading with me in the first semester. If they were skeptical in the first semester, by the second, they had got the hang of it.
The trust we built in weeks one through 15 paid dividends in weeks 16 through 30. The students were more open, engaged, they participated without fear of being judged. They too asked to do more writing at the end of the semester. But what makes this case different was how they evaluated themselves in the second semester in contrast to how they did so in the first. They were not necessarily stricter, harsher on themselves. They were just more exacting — they avoided round numbers (70, 75, 80…), and gave 87s and 93s, and 62s3. I am not sure this kind of precision is actually possible, but what I found encouraging was that they were taking the metacognitive challenge seriously. They wanted to look at themselves, ask how they were doing, where they could improve. If this isn’t the purpose of education, I don’t know what is.
In the course of a summer, I discovered a way of teaching that energized me in a way I hadn’t experienced in some time. There was a lot to absorb, no doubt. And certainly, I would have liked more time to prepare. Indeed, much of the advice one finds in print and videos suggests that teachers take one step at a time; don’t try to do it all at once. I considered this advice, but once the blinders had been removed, I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to grade in any traditional way — even as a step to ungrading. I jumped in with both feet, and although there is room to improve, I lost nothing by taking the plunge.
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All in all, I tend to wonder why the system has not been more widely adopted, at least in Canada, if not throughout North America.
Alfie Kohn. (1999). Punished by rewards : the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
We are obliged to report numerical grades, rather than letter grades, in CEGEP.