Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Courage to NOT Grade

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I’m drumming up the courage to not grade, like I have been wanting to do for years. But I was co-teaching and this semester I’m not. So…some degree of freedom (and risk).

I read a post by Jesse Stommel the other day, and saw incidentally a discussion in a private mailing list (UK-based) about the grading of 70-100% vs 7/10…. 

And this was my response to them, which I thought I would post on my blog (and I’ll later report back on how I ended up doing this in class…implementing a version of Jesse’s approach). 

Anyway – here was my email response:

Coming from a country (Egypt) where 70% is akin to a “C”, and Teaching in an edu system where an A is 92+ (American system)…[so unlike the UK system]

I’m just going to say that for the most part, all these numbers are arbitrary

I’d rather do what Jesse Stommel does and not grade
http://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/

And in fact, my MEd at U of Sheffield had no grades. Just a combination of peer, self and tutor assessment on criteria that were partly developed together and partly developed by each student on her own submissions.

I really like Peter Elbow’s work on this – on removing the nitty gritty of many scales and instead just letting a learner get meaningful feedback – either they’re doing well, they’re totally not getting it, or they need improvement. That’s pretty much what learners need to know. The difference between a 75 and a 78 can be really meaningless.

…unless we’re talking MCQs in a science test where there truly are right and wrong answers and 100% is attainable. Is it too radical to say that areas of study where 100% is attainable (on every single assessment) may need to revise their assessments? And that areas of study where 100% is never attainable should not be judged numerically anyway, but qualitatively?

3 Comments

  1. I’m a middle and high school teacher in France and the pressure to put numbers on students all the time is huge. It’s a burden for the teachers and for the students who associate their future with these numbers. I’m trying to muster up the courage to cut down on the numbers, too – but I feel like I’ve got to establish a “serious” reputation first at my school before delving into practices that might not be perceived as serious in the current atmosphere.

  2. “17 years of not grading”, man that Jesse is something else!

    I’ve not taught nearly as long or as much as that, but I see it not as a grading/not grading distinction; the systems doth require a grade entered in the books. It seems more as a decision not to provide formulaic grading, the kind created by algebra.

    I lean more towards a holistic grade, based on a body of work over the entire course. I did this first teaching ds106 parallel to Jim Groom at UMW. If you really know and have followed your students work, its not hard to sort out superior from above average to average. I did a thing that Jim shared; we did a 10 minute “interview” with students at the end, listening to them describe what they learned got out of the class. We would ask what grade they would assign themselves. It seemed nearly always parallel to the grade I had in mind.

    We tried something like this in the Networked Narratives co taught with MIa Zamora, we paired this closing question with the opening one of a Contract Grade, where we asked students to pick the grade they aimed for (and why). At the end of the semester, we reminded them of this choice, and asked what grade they would self assign, and why. All of this was done in our WordPress site with Gravity forms, it was easy to connect the two.

    There is always the ongoing challenge of giving students a sense of where they stand in between. But moving away from something that has a 4X + 2Y + 3Z formula to me moves the question away from “what do I need to do to get an ‘A'” in terms of a quantified number and more towards asking them to aim for superior levels of work.

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