I don’t believe there is a quick and easy way to grade for equity. The most appropriate solution I can imagine is to get rid of our grading system entirely. The practice of compressing the lived experiences and learning processes of human beings into a single letter grade is dehumanizing, inaccurate, misleading, and nonscientific. This tradition was developed in the age of eugenics to create hierarchies between learners and rationalize the poor treatment of targeted groups (i.e. anyone that was not a super-rich white man with the heaviest burden falling on black and brown bodies).
Given our historical context and current political realities, the solution of abolishing letter grades is neither simple-to-imagine nor easy-to-implement. But the desire to create a more perfect union is not based on doing what is easy. This journey for social justice is grounded in hope for a better future and involves deep faith in the capacity for human genius in all its colors. To live a life where we practice this hope requires sacrifice, struggle, and continual growth.
It is my belief that we, as college professors, can create a better education system that is free from the practice of assigning letter grades. We, as a collective group, have the capacity, political power, and expertise to figure out better ways to recognize and celebrate student learning. If all tenured, full-time faculty members at every College and University in the United States decided, today, that our current systems of assigning letter grades was to be abolished, I bet that within five years, this practice would be seen as a misguided historical legacy rather than a current reality inside of our classrooms.
Having said this, please do not mistake my vision for what I believe to be possible with naivete. I am painfully aware that systems don’t change overnight. I know that our college education system is a mechanism for organizing the daily activities of millions of people across our nation. This system is based on the day-to-day beliefs and practices of students, teachers, administrators, staff, policy makers, private industry, and government agencies. Each of us recreates this system every day we wake up by running scripts that have been given to us from previous generations and take on life with our every breath.
Because no one person controls the entire system, I believe that in the early stages of system transformation, proof of concept is more powerful than political wrangling. Another way to say this is that the real challenge I face is not to try to transform the system but instead to transform myself. Starting in 2010 and continuing through present day, I have engaged in a long-term academic study of research-based principles of how learning works and the historical forces that underpin our current political reality in the US college education system.
One goal that has emerged from this study is to replace the grading practices I was given by my teachers with equitable grading practices that more accurately describe student learning. In this article, I share highlights of what I’ve learned on my journey. Specifically, I spotlight three equitable grading practices (EGP) that I leverage in my work. This article is a continuation of my Grade for Equity as a College Math Instructor series.
EGP 1: Focus on learning. I start with a research-based definition of what learning is and how it works. I define learning as a growth process that happens inside our bodies and leads to changes in our knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. These transformations occur based on our experiences and increase our potential for improved performance and future learning (adapted from How Learning Works by Ambrose et al.). Here we describe learning as a process, not an isolated event. In other words, the changes that occur as we learn unfold over time and cannot occur in an instant. To learn and change, we must repeatedly engage in special types of practice over many days, weeks, months, years, or decades. When I think about my grading systems, my goal is accurately measure learning. Based on our definition above, I create process-based assessments. In other words, in my classes, I challenge the practice of assigning final grades based only on isolated snapshots of student work. Instead, I strive to empower my students to show progress over the academic term.
EGP 2: Celebrate (don’t punish) student errors. One of the best ways to allow for students to demonstrate progress is to celebrate the process of correcting errors and working towards mastery. In Jo Boaler’s great book, The Limitless Mind, she shares a research-based principle of learning that states: “the times when we are struggling and making mistakes are the best time for brain growth.” I want my grading systems to reflect this reality. Thus, I create classes where students get at least two chances to submit proof of learning on each assessment. The process goes like this. We begin when my students submit a first draft of a given assessment (say a quiz or an exam). I provide feedback on that first draft by identifying correct responses and I point out the mistakes, misconceptions, or incomplete solutions that I see. Then, I return my feedback and students complete a six-step corrections process. For each response that was below my standards, students write the correct solution, identify their mistakes, and reflect on their learning. Only after I receive their corrected work do I assign a grade for that assessment.
In classes that I’ve taught many times, I allow students who are not happy with their grade to retry a different version of the assessment. In other classes where I have fewer resources, I identify the most important concepts on each quiz and then write questions on future assessments to measure progress. In both cases, students get another chance to demonstrate proficiency. My students appreciate these policies because they see for themselves how powerful corrections can be. On my end, I give myself opportunities to measure progress and ensure my students are achieving my desired learning outcomes in each course.
EGP 3: Give students more control Another tenant of my work to grade for equity is to gives students more control over their learning. As Linda Nilson discusses in Creating Self-Regulated Learners, “a goal of higher education is to create… intentional, independent, self-directed learners who can acquire, retain, and retrieve new knowledge on their own.” I believe my students are better judges of their learning needs than I am. Accordingly, I create grading structures that focus on giving students control over their learning. For example, I have students submit an assignment where they propose their own exam questions and explain why they feel those questions are useful for their learning. Over time, I’ve learned how to help my students submit better and deeper questions. In some of my classes, it’s not uncommon for 7 out of 10 exam problems to have originated from student suggestions. Another way I give more control to students is to maintain flexible time constraints. In the pre-COVID era of in-class exams, I eliminated time limits. I pre-communicated exam dates and worked with each student to schedule as much time as they felt they needed. This is an intricate dance in a class with 35 students, but I was routinely able to achieve the right balance. From 2018 – 2020, I did not have a single student submit an incomplete exam based on time pressure. The point of this work is to empower students to exercise control over their learning processes.
In each of these practices, my goal is to create accurate measurements of learning rather than to propagate systems of domination and control. I am proud to say: I believe that the top 100% of my students can earn A’s in my classes. By leveraging practices such as the ones highlighted in this post, I’m getting much closer to making that a reality.