by Heather Stafford, DLINQ Instructional Designer, and Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, DLINQ Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media

As we wrote about in the second installation of this year’s Digital Detox, students have unequal access to their learning, which has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. As faculty and school administrators realized the scale of the disruption to students’ learning during Spring 2020, some called for rethinking grading policies and practices, as Pamela Chui Kadakia and Allan A. Bradshaw noted in their Inside Higher Ed article. Indeed, much as the pandemic has raised a broader awareness of equity issues in education, it has also shone a light on the decades-long debate over grading, another example of the ways in which the pandemic’s impact on education has amplified inequities that have always existed.

Critiques of grading, one of the most taken-for-granted practices in institutionalized teaching and learning, are not new. For example, Alfie Kohn’s research from the late 1990s argues that grading has had a negative impact of grading on K-16 students, with 3 impacts: “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning…Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task…Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” Along the same line, Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that while many consider grades to be a motivating factor for students,

“For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation—the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing—is essential for high levels of creativity.”

The key to having a positive impact on student motivation, Pink suggests, is instilling autonomy, mastery and purpose into learning activities. The function of grades as a representation of student learning has also been called into question. In the Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning, Dee Fink draws this distinction by outlining the difference between “audit-ive” and “educative” assessment. Fink explains that “Audit-ive assessment is designed solely to give the teacher a basis for awarding a grade” (p. 13). In contrast, educative assessment is forward-looking, and incorporates self-assessment and frequent and timely feedback. The goal of educative assessment is to support students’ learning journey and to give them feedback on their process.

Finally, grading can present an equity issue, particularly when tied to the discourse of rigor; as the authors of A Guide to Coded Language in Education write, “Rigor itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing ― but when combined with grading it becomes a tool to create classroom meritocracy. In this way rigor is wielded as an extension of the carceral state, to punish struggling students by creating failure where growth might otherwise exist.” This critique of the discourse of rigor, and the way that rigor is used in classrooms, ties directly to the previous point about the purposes of assessment in our classrooms, where grades are used to sort (audit-ive assessment) rather than support (educative assessment).

While conversations about the purpose and practice of grading are not new, we suggest that the calls for rethinking grading in Spring 2020 have the potential to spur an ongoing rethinking and reorientation. There have always been some students in our classes who have faced the challenges that all of our students faced in the spring of 2020. There have always been students in our classes with health or travel issues that have prevented them from attending in person classes. The difference was that in the spring of 2020, all of our students faced these challenges, so institutions were forced to make a change.  Moving forward, we are in a position to ask the question, what practices should we reorient? How should we adjust our teaching, learning and work to recognize and include those facing circumstances that are not the “default” situation? How can we ensure that no one feels alone in asking for what they need?  How might we simplify and streamline the process of assessment to incorporate a focus on learning coupled with flexibility?

In recent years, promising alternatives to traditional grading have emerged in the form of ungrading, contract grading, and specifications grading, to name a few approaches. These approaches have in common a view of the role of assessment as supporting student growth (i.e., educative assessment), and a participatory approach to assessment, where students are invited into the process of determining how their growth in learning should be represented. Asking students to reflect on their learning and apply metacognitive strategies improves learning outcomes in addition to giving students more ownership and autonomy over their learning process.

Susan Blum notes in her book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead, “Though grading seems natural, inevitable, a part of the very fabric of school, it isn’t. It was created at a certain moment, for certain reasons not entirely thought out, and then became embedded in the structures of school for most students” (p. 2). As with any system created by humans, there are inherited problems in grading systems that are important to consider as we re-envision what our grading practices could look like. Some students and parents will seek to maintain the grading status quo from an internalized belief that grades are the end goal of education; how will we equitably manage those inquiries? Also, we note that when students are asked to self-evaluate, we need to consider how confidence, a sense of self, and past experience plays a role in a students’ view of their own work. In their article in Hybrid Pedagogy, Laura Tanenbaum and Kristin Gallagher point out, “Many low-income, first-generation, and students of color are vulnerable to doubting their ability. These students question their place at the university and show a tendency to take any negative feedback as a sign that they shouldn’t be there.” Finally, we need to consider our own implicit biases when evaluating students. Although we’d like to pretend they don’t exist, we know they are there. For example, do you tend to view written assignments as being more rigorous than others? What impact does this have on your evaluations of student work?

Although shifting the way we grade can be challenging, particularly within an institutional setting and structure that continues to orient itself toward traditional approaches to grading, we believe that there is enough evidence to prove that traditional grading systems amplify inequities in a way that requires us to seriously interrogate our grading practices and assess how well they align with institutional vision and mission. If we truly want students to lead “…engaged, consequential and creative lives…” should we evaluate their work through a system that limits engagement and creativity? Obviously these aren’t easy questions to answer, but that does not mean we should avoid them. As teachers we must continually ask more of ourselves for our students to ensure that we are in alignment with the change we wish to see.

Take Action

  • Investigate some of the practices shared in the article Equitable Exams During COVID-19, and consider implementing these practices in future courses once we are past the pandemic
  • Consider building more tasks into fewer assessments. You could use a revise and resubmit model to enable students to refine a piece over the course of a semester as they add new components.
  • Provide a means for students to provide feedback throughout the semester so you can monitor and adjust if you need to. A periodic quick check in can provide valuable information for your planning purposes
  • Integrate self assessments and metacognitive exercises in your class so that students are actively tracking their own progress and identifying areas that are not clear or confusing to them
  • To learn more about creating “clear is kind” assignments, check out the resources from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project
  • Join the Ungrading virtual book club to learn more about ungrading and connect with others interested in implementing this method in their classes

Keep Reading

Grading During – and Beyond – COVID by Laura Tanenbaum and Kristen Gallagher

What is specifications grading? by Macie Hall

What if we didn’t grade? by Jesse Stommel

Ungrading: an FAQ  by Jesse Stommel

Getting Started: Contract Grading and Peer Review  by Cathy Davidson

Ungrading by Susan Blum