It’s time to talk about everyone’s favorite topic: grades. Just kidding—I know that isn’t anyone’s favorite topic. And it’s easy to see why. Grades ruin our students’ motivation to learn, harm our classroom communities, and, well, I’ll get into the rest in just a bit. In what follows, I’d like to go over five reasons why it’s time for us to go gradeless. Then, I’ll be suggesting a better assessment method we can use, one that rectifies the issues I will bring up (and more!).
Let’s get into it.
1. Grades are bad for learning
“How much is this worth? How can I get an A? Why did I get such a low score?” These are the questions we are used to, but they aren’t the ones we want to hear. What saddens us the most, I think, is that our students aren’t focused on learning, not in the least bit. Instead, the main goal seems to be to get a “perfect score.”
But where’s the love of learning? Grades have taken it all away. Alfie Kohn, a well-known educational researcher, quite nicely sums up the issues with grades on motivation and learning in this article.
2. Grades don’t allow our students to fail
We learn from our mistakes. This really isn’t a secret. Think about anything that you have gotten good at over the years—like cooking, parenting, basketball, you name it. I think it’s safe to say that a fair amount of trial and error went into whatever it was you did, right? To get good, you must’ve made mistakes and failed—probably, over and over again. This only makes sense.
But not in the classroom. Grades—because they carry so much weight to them (college acceptance, GPA, scholarships, etc.)—don’t allow students the opportunity to productively fail. Instead, they force students to fear mistakes and the learning process. When this is the case, students don’t look to a prospective assignment to learn something new. No, they look at it with dread, and they hope to get it over as quickly as possible, so they can move on to the next thing.
3. Grades hurt our classroom communities
I think it’s safe to say that most of us strive for a classroom community that is respectful and open to collaboration. Maybe with icebreakers and lots of group-work throughout the year, we almost achieve our goal. Almost.
And yet, inevitably, most of our efforts break down because of the competitive environment that grades create. We want students who help each other on the path to learn, but most of the time, they end up making their peers feel bad when a low grade is assigned. Indeed, the classroom environment suffers when grades are present.
4. Grades don’t provide good feedback
Let’s say you’re a student, and you receive a 73% on an essay. What’s the first thing you are going to think? I’m predicting it’s going to be: “Why? Why did I get this grade?” Herein lies the issue. Grades don’t communicate anything meaningful to our students about their assessed work. Grades—whether in letter (A–F) or number form (0–100; 1–4)—can never communicate the way written feedback can.
But feedback and a grade creates two more issues: (1) our feedback turns into nothing more than justification for the grade we gave. So instead of helping our students move forward, we hold them back by letting them know all the ways in which they didn’t reach the “perfect score.” And (2), when a grade combined with feedback is given, students ignore the feedback anyway.
5. Grades are unfair and too subjective
Let’s face it. Grading is subjective. It really is. Some teachers might take effort into account, others not so much. What one teacher deems an ‘A’ on an essay, another thinks of it as a ‘C.’ In short, this subjectivity makes grading extremely unfair and inequitable.
After years of different grading methods by their teachers, can we really blame students for getting upset over the grades they are assigned?
So what should we do instead?
We can’t get away from grades completely. This is true. But there are a few different approaches we can take that will solve many of the issues caused by traditional grading. The best possible one, in my opinion: labor-based grading. This is heavily based on the work by Asao Inoue. He’s a college professor, but this assessment method can work in middle schools and high schools as well.
Essentially, with this assessment method, only measurable labor is used to calculate a student’s grades. So, for instance, to receive an A in a course, a student might have to complete three papers, miss only two homework assignments, complete three peer-reviews, etc. If a student does the work (and meets the individual standards for each assignment), they get the credit. That’s one part of this assessment method. But the other part is that no numbers or letters are placed on any piece of student writing or other work. In the place of grades, only written or verbal feedback is used. No more grades on assignments.
This method of grading moves students away from thinking about a score or grade, and, instead, helps them focus on what really matters: their learning. On top of that, it allows students to learn from their mistakes and focus on the feedback they receive. And yes, our classroom communities benefit as well. No longer are students looking over the shoulders of their peers to see what they got because feedback is used in place of grades. The learning takes center stage, not the grades.
Labor-based grading also allows us to be far more equitable than we would be with traditional grading methods.
Instead of coming up with a subjective grade on assignments, we now accept the work that students do, as long as the criteria is met. With COVID-19 and racial injustices plaguing us today, we need to strive for classroom assessment methods that are responsive to student needs and equitable. There are enough issues out in the world right now. We don’t need our grading methods to make things worse for our students.
We’d love to hear! Would you consider going gradeless? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.