Or Confessions of a Former Tough Grader
I was one of those professors who was really tough on students when it came to feedback and grading. It was difficult to get an A in my classes; I also gave tough assignments with unrealistic deadlines. (sorry, former students!) Ok, to be fair, I was a new prof. and a new adjunct at that, so I guess I had some inkling that I needed to be tough to prove myself to my colleagues and department chairs, who I also thought were being this tough to their students. Then I found out that this wasn’t always the case, and I learned that I actually had freedom to design my courses completely how I wanted them, even for grading.
And a word about power that comes with privilege: I am not a tenured prof., so I’m fully aware there are still limits to this power, but I’m also using my privilege purposefully to help build relationships with my students, which rests on the idea that they can trust me, and that they know I trust them.
I’m certainly not the first professor to decide to “un-grade,” or not to assign grades to my students. In fact, I’m inspired by other scholars, professors, and teachers who have come up with alternatives to traditional grading. A major shift for me came when I was selected as an ambassador for Open Education (including pedagogy) the 8th Annual Academic Technology Institute of the University System of New Hampshire, held in summer 2018. Not only did I find that I had a new network of scholars and professors who were as interested in social justice, equity, and meaningful work as I was, but I also learned more about the ins and outs of Open Educational Resources, Open Pedagogy, Critical Digital Pedagogy and connected learning. By May 31, I was “all in.”
To begin my “open” project for AY 2018-19, a requirement of the ambassadors, I attended several webinars on open education and open access publishing (something I had also done in grad school), dove into related Twitter communities, and I researched publications on the topic of un-grading from as far back as 1995. There is still more research I could do, but for now, I have found enough to back up my new grading plan.
Some of the options I found that aligned with my values included the B-contract, a series of self-assessments throughout the semester, and achievement grading. All of these aligned with what I wanted to change about my grading policy. For my new grading policy, I pulled from these ideas I researched and decided to let my students decide between two options this semester: a B-Contract and attendance plan, which is based upon completing (note- not perfecting) 80% or more of the assignments I post in our campus LMS (Canvas where I currently teach), or a percentage plan in which students can choose how much of their grade they want to come from items on a list I provide. In either option, students who want to go “above and beyond” and aim for an A, will also propose and design a research project. For this project, I am open to the student’s creativity, but I made a handful of suggestions that fit each of the courses I’m teaching this semester.
The values I hold dear outside of the classroom are the ones I want to be clear as day to my students. I value relationships, creativity, hard work, social justice, and equity. I plan to have posts that go into details about how these work into my classes in various ways, but for today, the focus is on how these values show up in my grading policy. For instance, I want my students to know that I value them and I think they can aim higher than “just passing” a class, so I start with a B-contract rather than a C. Of course, things happen, and they might decide that a C is all they can do. I respect that, too. I give some structure by providing two options I designed, but I let each student write up their own grading proposal, based on their own personal goals. I provide information about the college/university expectations about attendance, but I let each student write their own attendance plan. I think this shows my students that they have choices, and I respect them. I believe that equity begins with respecting each others, so this grading plan seems like an important place to start.
What follows is what I placed as a page in Canvas (our LMS), and in my syllabus for all of my courses this semester:
My Un-grading Philosophy:
In the interest of teaching and facilitating your learning alongside you, I will not assign grades to your work. Instead, I will mark individual assignments in Canvas as “complete/incomplete.” Complete is only when the entire assignment has been completed. See assignments for due dates, which are meant to help you keep from getting off-track.
I am informed by research focused on grading policies that have proven to be transformative in education. Some areas have been referred to “un-grading,” and teaching without grades. The idea is to get away from the “transaction” of a teacher providing information to students, and students then regurgitating the information, usually on a test, for a grade. I am, in part, informed by Socrates, who said “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” I aim to spark your interest in learning German for the purpose of expanding your skills, and your understanding of a culture different from your own, but that you may find has some similarities to yours, too.
As I have seen with students in my teaching experience, this puts the teacher in an authoritative position, thus eliminating the student’s agency and ultimately, reducing the amount of learning the student accomplishes. Furthermore, as Jesse Stommel writes, “Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another,” (read more here. Instead of such a heirarchical system, I aim to have us work at building a community in which we can all learn from each other, and that is not equitable if you are afraid of the grade I will ultimately assign you.
Therefore, this is what I promise you in my un-grading policy:
This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions or making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. I will mark them complete or incomplete on Canvas. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to (i.e, to satisfy what I’m looking for). If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. We may need to make an appointment to discuss this in private. You will complete three (3) self evaluations throughout the semester, and your blog will serve as your e-port. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the practice in class, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions. I will rely on you to talk to me openly about this so that we can find this new way together.(re-mixed from Jessi Stommel’s statement on assessment found here).