Keep Calm and Dismantle the Grading System?




Last semester a student came up to me after class upset over receiving an 85 on an assignment. She was a senior and didn’t want to end up with an A- or B for the course after three years of a stellar GPA. She was nearly distraught. I wanted to tell her 100 things about how one (still good) grade for one course in undergrad means very little in the grand trajectory of her life. But it wasn’t the time to belittle or minimize her emotions. I told her to rewrite the essay, an offer I extended to the entire class, and she pulled her grade up to an A. But her rewrite wasn’t at all like I’d hoped. I could tell she went through the motions of adding in my suggestions with little growth or depth of thought.

In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn offers an example of how to give feedback and determine a final grade (as require by the institution) without actually assessing and offering letter/number grades on individual assignments. During the semester one professor offers students feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on, making notes in his grade book. At the end of the term, Kohn said this professor meets with each students and asks them what they learned and how they learned. He then asks them what grade they believe reflects their work, and they arrive at that value collectively.

I love this idea, in part because I love working on larger projects with students — longer papers with several peer reviews and revisions or projects with video editing — but students hate having their grade rest on one single assignment, even if I grade multiple drafts or aspects of the assignment throughout the semester. This kind of arrangement would (hopefully) allow students to feel less pressure about meeting the marks and focus on their project by focusing on what they learned/gained through their work on the project.

I want to find out more about this system, like how open the professor was in explaining how the grades would be assigned at the beginning of the course and if any students bucked at the system.

This is absolutely the kind of system I would love to try, BUT what are the implications for a doctoral student or a new professor? How might my department feel about this, especially if a student (after the fact) challenges their final grade? Would I be left defending (instead of the grades I’ve assigned on concrete assignments) an entire teaching philosophy? Is this the kind of grading system that only tenured professors secure in their positions feel comfortable trying? Has this grading system ever been implemented at Virginia Tech?

I’m interested. I want to do it. But there takes a certain nerve to pull off something like this, and I’m not sure I have it yet.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

12 Responses to Keep Calm and Dismantle the Grading System?

  1. Shaun Respess

    Thanks for the post and I agree with you that this is certainly a creative idea. I think that an option for us untenured people would not necessarily be the all-in-one project with several steps, but rather a collection of assignments that exist separately but build on each other towards some deeper level of understanding.

    Obviously I do not have the perfect methodology for this – each discipline has different demands – but the potential is certainly there. I am somewhat worried that a student who does not do well in the beginning may feel discouraged and “left behind” to some degree, but hopefully those moments could serve as warning signs for us to jump in and course-correct so that they see more potential in their later projects.

    I guess my approach would be more about getting student to see how what they did and learned in their last assignment is needed for the next one, building a pedagogical trajectory in the process. This may encourage them to either be more self-critical of their mistakes or receive them more openly and with a vigor to rectify them – this is potentially dangerous.

    The advantage, as you mentioned, is being in a position where one can even attempt new patterns of teaching comfortably. The demands of academia are often accompanied with scowls from those at the top.

  2. carteran

    Thank you for your post! The example that Kohn uses in his article is one that a professor used with me while I was taking his class at community college. We had a series of assignments throughout the course, each one building on the assignment before. The class was a communications class focusing on interpersonal relationships. At the end of the course, we had to schedule an individual 1:1 (one-on-one) meeting with our professor in which we evaluated our coursework and determined my final grade together. As an 18 year old, that was terrifying but also super exciting. I knew that as long as I participated in class and completed my assignments following the guidelines, I knew I was going to do well. Having the option to control my own outcome of the class (e.g. my grade) was very empowering and an experience that I’ll never forget. I wish more professors took this approach in the classroom with their students. Giving students that ownership creates buy-in, buy-on creates an atmosphere/dynamic in which students want to do well and want to engage in the classroom. Sounds like a win/win situation to me!

  3. Jyotsana Sharma

    Thank you for your post and great questions Sarah. One thing that is clear is that if you like any ideas we are discussing in this class then you are the one who will be bringing it to people who may be in your department, hire you as a new professor etc. That means that people like us will lead by example and that will not be easy. And I know from personal experience. When I took this class and tried to incorporate some of things we were learning to my teaching internships, I met with a lot of resistance. I even sent my entire peer reviewed syllabus to professor for feedback….and NEVER heard back. I don’t mean to sound discouraging, I only mean to say that we have to find ways to convince people that this works. The easiest way to do it is to show how to by carrying it out yourself.

  4. psalmonsblog

    I agree it makes it difficult to teach anything when the student is so focused on the grade. I say no, worry about learning the material, everything else will be fine. I abide by an idea that if a student puts the work, and discusses the material with me they will be fine. Just put the effort in is my mantra, if they don’t work why should I? I really like what your saying in regards to how we become so preoccupied with grades that we lose our creativity in the process. Unfortunately, the college is so disorganized that we have several P.h.D students teaching the same class in different ways. There is no consistency, and while that can be good, it can also spell confusion for many students going further in their education. Great Post!!!

  5. Kristin

    I have similar feelings: I really want to try something different, but do I have the confidence to try it out as a new faculty member? And there are still a lot of questions I have about how this method actually works. Like you, I wonder how many students fought against the method of collectively agreeing on a grade? Thanks for the thoughts.

  6. Tami Amos

    Thanks for your post. In today’s educational world our students have become nothing but numbers or letters. Students are praised when they take test and pass with high scores, but what about those students who didn’t pass but made progress. They should be celebrated as well. I feel that letter grades and test scores will either build up ones confidence or lower the confidence level. A students identity should not be based on a grade or test score. As educators, our priority should be whether students receive, retain and able to apply information given. They should not be penalized for not being able to catch on as fast as their peers. We all have different learning styles.

  7. Stephen

    My comment here isn’t necessarily on the system of grading but more so on the case you presented at the beginning. I think honestly a lot of our students have not been met with “failure” in their life, and by getting a “bad grade” they are left feeling as though they actually failed. I think personally if that’s the grade they earned, then that’s it. We can talk about ways you can improve for the next time, but for that specific assignment that’s what you got.

    Sorry if I detracted from the primary intention of the post, but I also think that this is part of the issue as well.

  8. Brittany Hoover

    Yesterday a student in my class challenged his grade on a speech presentation. I co-teach with another a TA and when the students present, we both have our own rubrics that we fill out. Then we come together and deliberate. Because we know what to look for, usually we end up with the same scores for each student or our numbers are very close. This one student did not like his grade and challenged it even after all of the feedback and comments that we gave on canvas. We try to give very thorough and helpful feedback. But even with all of that, it seems that letter grades or scores still prevail in some cases. I’m trying to find balance in this whole grading thing.

  9. Selva M

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I really like the example you reference from the reading by Alfie Kohn, and the conversation about earned grades. It sort of makes me think that maybe professors should just write honest letters of recommendation for each student as their final assessment of their performance in the class as well as comprehension of the material. This is likely way too time intensive and not realistic, but just an entertaining thought.

  10. Yousef Jalali

    I believe I have been facing the very issue you mentioned. On one hand, I would need to follow some departmental policies and be strict at least in some aspects. On the other hand, I can see that paying too much attention to details and creating, I would call it, a magic formula for rubric and assigning numerical representation for every single detail can potentially destroy students’ creativity and put them in a sort of isolation in which they cannot imagine beyond standard norms and they cannot bring their insights, which I think, is at least valuable to be explored. In a way we deal with students as a machine need to perform in a certain way and function in a certain manner. And of course the extent of what I discussed may vary depending on subject matter. The analogy of climbing mountain that Dr. Michael Wesch is very resonate with me. How we can work on institutional culture and develop strategies to actually apply that in the educational settings is definitely worthy to explore.

  11. I found your story about the student interesting, Sarah. How do you find students respond to grades when they are completing group work, if you normally assign that?

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