Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Getting Rid of Grades

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that there were no end-of-semester grades.  No mad rush to see who graduated so we can get the diplomas right, no agonizing phone calls from tearful students about to lose their financial aid. No stress from failing too many (or too few).

Also feel free to imagine that students have to find something else to care about than the bureaucracy of hurdles and credentials that "education" has become.  Alfie Kohn writes in this article about rubrics that
[R]esearch shows three reliable effects when students are graded:  They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself. The ultimate goal of authentic assessment must be the elimination of grades.
In know it sounds crazy, but bear with me for a moment, because it's already being done successfully.  As I've noted before, WGU uses assessments instead of grades, but that's not what I mean.  No, I'm talking about sports.  In intercollegiate sports, student-athletes create a performance history that takes different forms, depending on the sport.  These records, videos, and other evidence show the results of performance.  Something as artificial as a grade is unnecessary.  But this is a very different model from what happens in the classroom. In business, a company is ultimately judged by its bottom line, not by its bond rating.  The value of stock shares is not based on ratings by stock-pickers but by on the number on the ticker.  In other words, actual performance is more valuable than someone's opinion about it.  

What would performance look like for academics?  I borrowed the idea the other day that understanding process is more important than looking at outcomes. It's a different, perhaps radical, departure from the way we think about classroom education.

At present, we give assignments, evaluate them according to some scale, and assign a grade.  Then that's the end of it for most assignments.  We accumulate those in some way and crank out an average to go on the grade sheet.  These document outcomes: our assessment of work done.  What would it look like to document process instead?

Before mulling that over, let's follow the rabbit further down the hole.  If students didn't have grades to worry about, what would they do?  It seems obvious that the diploma is just a "big grade" that they get at the end, so we have to get rid of that too.  Does the NBA go looking for a "certificate of participation" by the NCAA or university when recruiting a college graduate?  Somehow I doubt it.

So no grades, no diplomas, no degree programs, no graduates.  The only thing left is direct evidence of participation and performance.  This is a frightening thing from the perspective of a university administrator; half the bureaucracy just went out the window. What's left? 

Building a culture of accomplishment would take time and restructuring.  Instead of absolute ratings in the form of grades, we'd have student portfolios from the past that showcase what is possible with work and wit: not just finished products but also the process of creating them.  I gave an example the other day of what this might look like.  I assume that performance evidence would be housed in public portfolios that live in the cloud.  These portfolios would have to look different from the ones we have now.

The sole purpose of coursework would be to be to lead students to demonstrate performance.  Without grades or credentials to be a proxy between the student and potential employers (for example), only actual evidence of having accomplished something is under consideration.  In this utopia, rather than students trying to find last minute extra credit to bump their grade up, they'd be demanding opportunities to show off accomplishment.  Imagine that.

On the other hand, there are problems with this idea too.  What's to prevent someone from padding their portfolio with stuff they didn't really do?  Or simply buying a complete portfolio from a third world "portfolio farm"?  The problem, represented schematically, is
Actual -> Representation -> Observer
If there's any room to pretty up a representation, then the observer can be fooled.  It's impossible for a NCAA basketball player to fake performance because it's on TV and in official records.  So maybe the bureaucratic role of the university is simply to certify that, yes, this student really did this work, and provide context for it. In this way, the university would build up a corpus of official student accomplishment that it can show off.  Of course, that only brings other trouble.  Now it's the institutions themselves who want their product to look good, and could tilt the scales in any number of ways.  Still, this may be the best compromise. 

Then there's the problem of evaluation.  Diplomas and GPAs are easy to assess; portfolios are a big mess from a prospective employer's viewpoint.  But there's always the possibility that third-party industrial psychology types could provide search services that would ultimately be much more useful than relying on credentials and grades. 

If all this talk of change makes you grumpy, you can always go in the other direction.  Here's some advice on how to make grading even more bureaucratic. 


  1. Just a quick mention that there is a portion in Robert Pirsig's Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that explores this idea as well, beginning chapter 16 onwards. It was a very provocative read for me and left a deep impression, not sure if you might have read it.

  2. I got that book to read, and now I can't find it. I'll check it out--thanks.

  3. Interesting ideas, been there and already done a form of that, however, I believe technical skills assessment are crucial and demonstrations of one's ability to manipulate data, put together coherent assessment of results of one's experimentation and communicate can be used as ways of assessing. By the way I disagree with the idea that sports prospects do get grades, they do, they are called shot percentages, batting averages, tackles, rushing yardage, and on and on.

  4. I would say that shot percentages, etc. are actual performance data. A grade would be the coach assigning an A-F. Performance data can include assessments where appropriate. If Tatiana gets an award for her science project, that's a nice portfolio piece. Similarly, feed back and use of feedback demonstrated in subsequent work would be nice.

  5. The difference between Mr. Eubank's imaginative ideation and sound approaches to grading derives from the differences between a largely untested personal philosophy and empirical evidence based on working with more than 2,500 faculty over the course of 15 years. The latter case involved plodding through issues related to student performance evaluation, feedback on performance, and making distinctions based on relative differences in performance. Over that same span of time, I have designed comprehensive, objectives-based assessments for many degrees in place at many universities, including WGU's first master's degree in Learning and Technology. This is not the place to dig into these issues but I will point out a few differences between conception and execution. Most notable is two conditions that obtain with respect to the countless "Let's get rid of grading" initiatives with which I and many others have experimented. First, they seldom survive the passion of their creator; i.e., they seem to work well enough so long as the person who initiated them pours his or her passion into the project. They don't however, generalize very well beyond those bounds. Perhaps they would in another culture. Second, in all cases of which I am aware, the driving force for bringing back the grades, albeit sometimes incrementally, is the students themselves. On a non-empirically based philosophical note, I happen to believe that making and formalizing relevant and valid distinctions among levels of performance is an inseparable part of the construct of teaching (i.e., it is distinguishable as a concept and activity but logically inseparable from the construct). Beyond the fact that these ruminations fail to appreciate decades of empirical work that I know of (I'm certain that there is more of which I am unaware), there are many worthwhile ideas here. Have at it but, perhaps you could focus on wheels not already invented.

  6. @Robert: If you read the post again, you'll note that it was a thought experiment, not a personal philosophy. I think the difference, though, is that you're talking about an approach to teaching as opposed to learning. The latter most emphatically doesn't require grades. And since the point really is learning, not teaching, it seems reasonable to ask under what circumstances learning requires a complex bureaucracy and investment of thousands of dollars.

  7. I believe I understood what you are conveying but, as I mentioned but did not unpack, I see what appear to be problems with some of the distinctions you made. When you speak of conventional grading practices (not picking on your wording, just referring to the kind of thing with which we are all familiar), you come pretty close to defining them as assessments of outcomes. You then go on to wonder about the benefits of assessing processes instead. Yet, making distinctions with respect to performance does not logically entail assessing outcomes, even if that is usually what it is taken to mean. In fact, one could argue that the entailment, weak though it is, favors processes and impact assessment. I have long been a strong advocate of process assessment, followed by the minimum required outcomes assessment, then focusing intently again on impact (i.e., integrated authentic performance assessment). Of course there are content areas, even domains, where outcomes assessment is a dominate concern but most of it can be assessed in situ with good process and impact assessment, including portfolio processes as you mention, assuming they are authentic. The first comprehensive process assessment I designed (1986), assessed the learning activities, stage and sequence, and adequacy, focusing largely on processes. It worked pretty well for quite a few students spread across a half dozen professional disciplines (all of them applied with problems in other areas noted), especially in terms of detecting the need for and making mid-course corrections. While it was deemed cumbersome by the operations folks and difficult to explain in relation to the received view, in time those issues can generally be resolved.

    With respect to the idea of no grades, diplomas, etc, as I said earlier, it is the students who demand these things. Even if they did not, the accountabilities on the modern professoriate are already so lax (observe the blogs where they unknowingly convey their laziness and lack of skill by whining how hard it is to grade papers, etc. for “unappreciative” students; e.g., http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Grading-Is-Sucking-Out-My-/24911/) that I feel we need something better than we have in place for ensuring that those who teach learn how to do their job. Of course, this concern is irrelevant for anyone who logically separates teaching from learning; i.e., allows for the possibility that someone could teach well in a context where the student learned nothing.

    Separately, you envision an environment where the focus is on competence, performance, the accumulation of a portfolio of good works, a place where learning soars and is unconstrained by imperfect attempts to stick a grade on what was learned. I like portions of that vision as well . . . I know where it lives. Having spend roughly 20 years each in the university and private sectors, you have described good organizations across the world, public or private, where people work and learn and the “two” processes are inseparable. In my corporate life, I can think of single days, it seems, weeks for certain, where the depth of the learning experience exceeded the very best year of my formal educational experiences. I realize that not all individuals are so fortunate as to work in such environments; some may even work in places like “The Office.” Yet, such environments are not that rare. I believe that efforts to build better learning communities in the world of work will return more benefits than if directed at traditional higher education. Remember, this is an institution that places dead last in the rate at which it diffuses innovation.

  8. Robert, I appreciate your comments. You have a lot of interesting things to say, and if you'd like I'd welcome a guest post from you on this or a related topic to headline on the blog. Just email me if you're interested (see my profile).

    I don't suppose that the mass production model of education will ever go away, but there really ought to be economic pressure to make it more efficient. It's ironic that the best students are those who need the least instruction. Doubly so that official notice of learning almost requires certification from a college or university. Ironic that we say we want to prepare students to be 'life-long learners,' but they have to come back to get a Master's to get recognition for it. Later in life, a professional is judged by what he or she has actually done, but it's a piece of paper rather than actual accomplishment, knowledge, or skills that bars the most promising on-ramps. It could well be that this is all fantasy, and that heavy bureaucracy and big cost are the only way to do it, and the ed-punk folks are full of it. I think the jury's still out, though.