19 May 2013

Grading Moratorium

I do not assign grades to students. 

If one is serious about students-their learning, their development, their empowerment-then implementing an end to grading is one of the most professional decisions any educator can make. In fact, letting go of grading actually allows me to be a better instructor. Ending the practice of arbitrarily-and yes, all grades are arbitrary at varying levels of abstraction-assigning grades allows me to focus more on individual student learning; working towards their goals, amplifying their strengths, and targeting their areas for improvement. From the standpoint of the students, the abolition of grading allows each student to focus more on their experience of learning in class. This moratorium on grading shifts the conversation amongst students, parents, and faculty from "how can I/my child get an A?" to "to what extent can I/my child learn more?"

The decision to end the apportionment of grades is one of the few unilateral decisions I've ever made in my classes. The rest of the time the students and I, or the students themselves, make choices about what do, how they will be assessed, and the ebb and flow of the course in light of our learning objectives. I've taught university and secondary school courses in politics, history, and geography for the past 9 years. What matters most in the classroom is relationships; period. To revisit Ted Sizer's often-quoted phrase, "I cannot teach a student well, whom I do not know well." Regardless of the lessons, toolkit, curriculum, carrots, and sticks that teachers use, what makes a learning experience beneficial for students and teachers alike is one where there is a positive and mutually-affirming relationship for everyone involved. 

Grades are problematic because they seek to quantify, judge, or rank this vital relationship between students and faculty in some way. I am not against quantification (we use game theory and statistics every day in class), judgement (students are empowered to make their own judgements about the world they observe and participate in), nor ranking (yes, some conflicts are more awful than others, some forms of governments are better than others, etc.) in and of themselves. As a thoughtful social scientist however, I am well aware of the limits of quantification in the study and assessment of individuals and groups. As an academic, I fully embrace the fact that much of our judgements and arguments are based on a variety of evidence, and that there are plenty of situations where more than a single judgement is correct.  It is antithetical to my mission as an educator of young women and men for me to exclusively rank and prioritize student learning and performance in such a way that would constrain a student's future opportunities to learn, progress, and enhance their futures. 

Grades are equally troublesome as they often become a primary extrinsic motivation for students. This is the sophisticated way of saying that earning grades can become the principal reason to go to school. Students in classrooms where student-centered learning is practiced are more likely to select challenging tasks for themselves and had less academic anxiety (Stipek et al. 1995). There is also a a negative correlation between performance an extrinsic rewards (Deci et al. (1999). Students are also less likely to persist in a task once the external reward was removed despite the fact that their level of interest in the subject remained constant (Stipek 1996, Deci et al. 1999). Ryan, Connell, and Plant (1990) contend that learning outcomes of intrinsic motivation are better than those obtained under extrinsic motivation. Of course, Plato may have said it best in The Republic when he wrote, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." Whether you come from the standpoint of academic scholarship or a philosophical position, grades should not be used as either a carrot or stick as an incentive for students to learn.

I've always found that a conversation over grading is a negotiation. As a student, even in graduate school, I negotiated with my professors about my grades. The professors who impacted me the most were those who either took the time to sit, talk, and provide me the opportunities to develop my thinking in a constructive manner or the one professor who told me, "We don't agree theoretically; there's no way you'll get an A in this course." (in fact I didn't, the only non-"A" that I ever received in 7 years of graduate school). Of course, much of our work-in academia, or in the private or public sector-is centered on dialogue, processing information, and negotiation. We liaise with our colleagues about how to identify problems and what the best solutions are. We engage in lively and often contentious debate with stakeholders in all facets of our work. The preponderance of my own work as both an administrator and a member of my school's faculty is that of conversation; with students, parents, and colleagues alike.

Just as every educator I know-from some first-year teachers I work with to my mother who is well into her third decade of teaching-bristles at the idea of having their work "graded"; then why should I continue to inflict this process on my students? Any thoughtful consideration of the contemporary educational profession recognizes the limits of trying to reduce the assessment of classroom teaching to a checklist, a walkthrough, or a single, yearly observation. Why should I seek to replicate this failed system of disjointed assessment in the classes that I facilitate?  If teaching takes place in elaborate community environment, so too does learning; the two cannot be divorced from each other. My experience as an educational administrator-and in a previous vocation, as a division manager-has taught me that no single incident or type of evaluative toolkit can capture all the qualities of a teacher. As a manager, I need to understand the totality of our faculty members; what goes on inside and outside of their classrooms, how they contribute to student learning and the school community in a myriad of approaches. I need to do this so that I can fully invest and foster growth in teachers, out of respect for those with whom I work with day in and day out. It is for these same reasons that I feel strongly that students who take my classes deserve the same respect; a holistic approach to understanding, assessing, and augmenting their learning that is not narrowly limited to an archaic system of percentages and whimsical letter grades.

Education is a complex social experience. Understanding the process by which individuals and groups learn must be understood from a elaborate ontological standpoint; art and science alike. Any attempt to use a singular set of methodologies to appreciate, analyze, and synthesize an individual's learning experience leads to unreliable (or worse, detrimental) information about the student herself. Consequently, it is my responsibility as an educator to simultaneously understand student learning from an individual perspective and in a broader social context, all while providing personalized guidance to the learner towards promoting meaningful learning through authentic assessment. Properly understood, the designation of an "88%" or a "B+" seems wholly inadequate and inappropriate when faced with the reality of teaching and learning.

However, since grades are still a part of my school's practices and are key to a student's future opportunities for university admission, I have not eliminated grades entirely from the classes that I facilitate. On the contrary, I have asked my students to be primarily responsible for deciding what their letter grade will be in our course.  Individuals are motivated by their sense of autonomy, their mastery of a subject or problem, and their sense of purpose (Pink 2009). Similarly, Ariely contends that an individual's motivation is the sum of payment + meaning + creation + challenge + ownership + pride + identity (TED 2013). Grades, particularly those derived from quantitative measures and schemes, tend to diminish student motivation and achievement (Kohn 2011) and are antithetical to proficiency based assessment (Kunz 2011). Practically speaking, orienting student outcomes to learning, as opposed to grades, provides a meaningful learning experience for student, class, and instructor alike (Bower 2011; Barnes 2013). Thus, students have the agency to and are accountable for choosing and justifying their grade each term in our class.

But let's move beyond theory and argument and consider some evidence. I regularly survey my students on their perceptions of the narrative feedback they receive along the lines suggested by Quinton and Smallbone (2010). Students consistently report that our approach in class allows them to explore, create, take risks, and develop synthetic understanding of complex phenomena in ways that they would otherwise be prevented from doing if their were grades attached to their work. In addition, students describe the ways in which our focus on learning without grades enhances their intrinsic motivation to learn, which then in turn leads to more developed and sophisticated learning outcomes.

The reflections, arguments, and documentation I post here to this blog substantiate how students demonstrate their understanding in our class. Throughout each year, students read hundreds of pages of text from primary and secondary sources, including policy and academic journals. Students watch and analyze days of documentary footage and expert analysis. They research complex topics and phenomena, participate in diplomatic and crisis games and simulations nearly every week. They write analytical summaries of the literature they encounter; develop, research, and communicate their own research through papers and presentations; and reflect thoughtfully on their experience through regular debriefings, surveys, and conversations with me. None of this is conjecture-this is actual work done by students at a variety of academic levels throughout the school year. Throughout our time together, the students and I are keenly aware of their own intellectual strengths, as well as areas in which they should improve. The students' and my own mission, each and every day, is to hone and amplify their understanding of world politics; elegantly planned, executed, and refined without the distraction of grades. I have no qualms whatsoever with a student determining what grade goes into the grade book at the end of term; it is her or his learning that is my paramount concern. 

I am under no illusions; the elimination of grades in one's class is not an easy shift to implement. There is not one singular way to construct a learning environment without grades; each of which is fraught with as many challenges as their are opportunities. However, for the punk rock/hardcore kid in me, this decision to give respite to grades in the classes I facilitate has been a thoroughly liberating experience. Most importantly, my decision to emancipate students from grading allows our class to be entirely focused on the students and their learning process; this is what the experience should be.  Please feel free to contact me if you'd like to further the conversation, either via email on Twitter




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Quinton, S., & Smallbone, T. (2010). Feeding forward: Using feedback to promote student reflection and learning - a teaching model. Innovations in Education and Teaching International47(1), 125-135
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