Teachers Going Gradeless
Arthur Chiaravalli
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I’m torn on this issue. I understand the arguments for going grade-less, and they make sense to me. In (undergrad and grad) classes I emphasize revisions by requiring drafts that are graded but with limited weight on the final grade, with the final revised paper worth much more. My goal is the get the students to take the initial feedback seriously and improve their work. This system works reasonably well in this regard, most likely because of the reasons you’ve outlined.

But I’m hesitant to eliminate putting any grades at all onto early work, or to move away from quantitative assessments, at least for post-secondary education. This is for two reasons. First, as a practical matter, I find that undergrads and grads struggle with time management, and the “carrot/stick”-like properties of a quantitative assessment actually help students prioritize their work and meet deadlines. I’ve actually had grad students complain that I should have stricter grading penalties for late work so that they would feel more compelled to turn things in on time. One can scoff at the importance of arbitrary deadlines, but researchers know well the value of grant deadlines and conference submission deadlines for getting work done.

Second, on a deeper level, part of me feels it is a disservice to students (at least at the more mature post-secondary level) to entirely withhold the sting of quantitative grading, at least in some muted form. I should qualify myself by saying I strongly disagree with those who wish to make 7 year old soccer games into brutal competitions, as though lessons about the “real world” need to be taught from the cradle. However, there does come a point in an individual’s life, and maybe education/psychology researchers can tell us when this is, when they need to start to learn that the world is judging them, and those judgments are often coarse and reductionist. It may be unfair and feel arbitrary, and the reasoning may be lousy, but in the workplace some people get bigger raises than others, some people get promoted and others don’t, articles, proposals, novels, screenplays get rejected and so forth.

I think the academy needs to prepare students for these realities, not by just “dispensing pain” as though it were medicine in itself, but by teaching students to be resilient in the face of harsh judgments. The students I’m proudest of, and most optimistic about, are not those that score well on everything, but those that score poorly at first and improve, because they were not discouraged by the early negative judgments. Yes, I expect that more students would improve this way if they weren’t given early, quantitative feedback, but when and how do we teach them to take harsh feedback, learn from it and move on?

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