Is grading an effective teaching practice?


Grading is a necessary evil.

At least, that’s what I said about four years ago. I’ve updated on a lot of things since then, but I still feel the same way about grades. Especially as I’m done teaching for the semester, save a short stack of final exams that will come my way.

When I read this excellent piece by Jesse Stommel, it affirmed why I think grades are a bad idea. In this piece, he describes all of the basic mechanisms we use to assign grades, and how they stifle learning and inhibit the intellectual growth of students. I think these arguments are pretty undeniable, or at least, there’s a lot to be gained from reckoning with them.

Grades, as an external motivator, reward students for academic misconduct and also encourage students to do the minimum necessary to get the grade they need.

That said, I still issue grades, though I’m focused more and more on giving full credit for intellectual labor, instead of ranking the outcome. I’m working to find ways to motivate students to be interested in the material, instead of relying on grades as the motivator. Because this just helps people learn better.

Once immersed in professional, post-college life, it’s easy for folks to pretend that grades don’t matter that much. In our own lives, they probably don’t anymore. (As the joke goes, what do you call a doctor who graduated at the bottom of his class? You call him doctor! haha. Get it?) As a tenured professor, nobody really knows or cares if I had a 4.0 or a 2.0 GPA in college. And that’s true for pretty much everybody I can think of who is well out of college. However, even if students shouldn’t be grade-obsessed, grades do matter — for scholarships, awards, competitive programs, and all of the stuff in academia that relies on credentialism. I don’t give a fig about my own grades now, but when I was student, I had to, because if I had a 2.0, then I wouldn’t have gotten into grad school.

Academic freedom goes a long, long way, and I’m curious about how far we could go in our own institutions if we adopted grading practices that are radically different than the norm, in an attempt to remove grades as a motivator. We’d have some issues with peers in our departments, administrators at various level, maybe with the folks running accreditation, and I don’t know who else. If any one of us alters grades as a motivator, the grades that students get still matter, and each one of our courses is just a cog in the big machine.

Anyway, if you’re still using grades — like almost everybody, including myself — here’s good advice about how to escape grading jail.

One thought on “Is grading an effective teaching practice?

  1. simultaneously disturbing and exciting. And deserving of some debate on best, or at least better, practices. Not sure ungrading is it, but quite sure that traditional grading has many problems many of which were crystalized by the linked articles. Would like to see some comments or links playing the devil’s advocate and defending traditional grading in the college sciences (something like a normal curve with the mean around low B to C – all based on test scores).

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