This semester, Talbert has been experimenting with perhaps the most offbeat approach possible: “no grading,” in which grades are as little emphasised as possible. However, as he wrote in a recent blog post, he has some reservations about this approach. The big question is: Does derating really make the stock gap worse?
Talbot’s question was provocative. Getting rid of grades is a bold step that proponents see as student-centred. Making disadvantaged students worse would be a dire unintended consequence. The question of the impact of degrading is also difficult to answer: studies on equity gaps often compare student achievement across racial or socioeconomic groups; when not graded, students often determine their own grades. Talbot argues that this self-assessment requires a skill that not all students have the opportunity to develop.
Ungrading has been adopted by a small but growing group of professors, including some well-known professors. As practice expands, Talbot’s question reminds us that context matters in teaching—and that any teaching strategy, whether well-intentioned or evidence-based, must be carefully crafted.
Since release in 2020 Ungrading: why grading students destroys learning (and what to do), The book’s editor, Susan D. Blum, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, has given constant talks on ungraded, most of them on Zoom. By 2022, she has completed more than a dozen times.
The book, which brings together the perspectives of professors across disciplines and institutional types, was written before the pandemic, but its release is proving timely. The challenges of the past two years have led more professors to question long-standing grading practices and raised their awareness of alternatives.
The first semester of the pandemic forced a short-term calculation of grades, which many professors felt was unfair to give grades as usual. Courses were suddenly — and in many cases clumsily — moved online. This is an emergency. Like most emergencies, it disproportionately affects people who are already disadvantaged. Should students fail because they don’t have reliable internet access or their family members are sick?
But the issue isn’t specific to the pandemic. “It’s never been the case,” Blum said, “where everyone is in good, safe, healthy conditions.” Anytime students are graded and categorized, some of them have overcome significant barriers to success, while Others don’t have to.
Derating is to get rid of the rating and classification business and instead provide more personal advice on strengths and weaknesses. But that doesn’t mean it can level the playing field.
“Grades and successes in and out of school are almost entirely related to prior strengths,” Bloom said. “Everything. It’s true with grades, and it’s true without grades.”
Grades and success on and off campus are almost entirely related to prior strengths.
Blum said students with “excellent traditional academic preparation” as well as socioeconomic, racial and linguistic privilege are very familiar with how schools operate because schools largely reflect the dominant culture. High-achieving students know how these structures work – they can use “hidden lessons”.
Alternate grading practices, such as normative grading — where professors don’t grade work but either mark it as satisfactory or give advice on how to improve on a second try, Talbert wrote in his blog post Detailed feedback – could help reduce inequalities. But he worries that removing grades altogether would make it harder for lower-achieving students to master a course. Grades could be the “road signs” these students need to learn about college, and removing them could be like removing “all signs in foreign airports,” he said. Of course, a person may focus more on the sign than the journey they are on. But these signs can certainly help, too. “
Research confirms this hypothesis: having a highly structured curriculum turns out to be especially important for disadvantaged students. Providing structure is one of the main strategies of inclusive teaching, and grades will certainly provide some structure.
After that, she said, check the list. “Are grades the best, or the only ones that allow you to accomplish amazing things for your students?”
If students enter the classroom with mixed abilities to self-assess, Masland said, make self-assessment a learning objective of the course and teach students how to do it. Self-assessment is a skill they will need later. Addressing this discrepancy head-on is better than trying to address it.
Joshua Eyler has been openly critical of the emphasis on traditional grades and concerns about their impact on students’ mental health. Eller, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, is writing a book on grades. He would like to see more teachers try different approaches. “When I think about it, how do I help people find the best model for them? It all depends on the context,” he said. “Who are you, what do you teach, what institution do you teach at, who are your students, how many students do you have.”
There are many ways to do alternative grading, Eller said. No matter which path they take, teachers need to think carefully about how the various parts of their curriculum fit together, he said.
It’s also worth remembering that professors can improve grades without breaking away from traditional grades, said Regan AR Gurung, vice provost and executive director of OSU’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Gurung encourages professors to consider ideas presented in book fair grading, Joe Feldman. For example, they can give students an incomplete grade or defer recording any grades until work begins, rather than giving students a zero that disappoints them. They can move to a grading scale with fewer levels, thereby reducing false precision.
Gurung, who is also a psychology professor, tried not to grade. Before taking the plunge, professors should do some reflection, he said. “There are so many problems with grades. Which one are you trying to address? Are you trying to address stress? Are you trying to address reliability? Are you trying to address bias?”
The answer to this question will help identify potential solutions, Gurung said.
“My other piece of advice is to start small,” he adds. Professors may undervalue grades in smaller, more advanced courses and low-stakes assignments.
Talbert is right, Gurung said, that some students are more willing to evaluate themselves than others, and professors should be mindful of that. “People are very well-meaning and well-meaning people who want to jump to ‘let’s take the grades off’,” he said, “but you have to be aware of how much preparation you need and how much support you need to give students.”
After all, not grading describes what is taught no will do. Perhaps when they stopped grading, other elements of their course design became more important.