I believe that the letter grade systems used by most colleges and Universities to rate and sort students needs to go away forever. I believe grades are:
- Harmful to student learning
- Harmful to teacher learning
- Harmful to students’ mental, psychological, and physical health
- Harmful to teachers’ mental, psychological, and physical health
- Designed to entrench systemic inequalities
- Tools for domination and control
I formed these beliefs while reviewing decades-worth of peer-reviewed academic research and thousands of pages of scholarly writing related to this subject. In this post, we explore some essential reading lists for any college teacher with an interest in improving their grading systems to empower students. The resources listed on this page have the potential to:
- Revolutionize your classrooms
- Make feedback and assessment much more manageable (dare I say enjoyable?)
- Position students to take control of their education
- Help inform and engage other institutional power players to get behind your mission
- Protect you against naysayers and people who throw shade on your efforts to innovate
May these readings empower your efforts in the classroom and bring as much joy into your heart as they have into mine.
UNgrading, assessment, and feedback
Let’s start with nonfiction books:
Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) Edited by Susan D. Blum
Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional School by Starr Sackstein
Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms by Joe Feldman
Next, let’s look at journal articles and blog posts:
From Degrading to De-Grading by Alfie Kohn (1999)
Teacher More by Grading Less (or Differently) by Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner (2017)
Once against, let’s start with nonfiction books:
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
- The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
Group work, peer instruction, and peer evaluation
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Edmin
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College by Peter Felten and Leo Lambert
How to sell your ideas and manage the logistics of UNgrading
UNgrading in the classroom is approximately 10 – 100 times more work-intensive than traditional grading processes. The added difficulty comes from many directions.
- One of the most mentally-taxing and spiritually-deflating challenges that I’ve faced in my UNgrading journey is push back from students, colleagues, and my larger communities.
As seen in the lists of resources above (which include only a fraction of my reading on these topics), I have made it a mission to become very well-informed about the research on grades and grading systems. In this journey, I have used an inductive attitude to construct and re-enforce my beliefs that grades are harmful to student learning. However, many of my students and colleagues take letter grades for common sense.
When we, as educators, challenge this practice, we force our students and our larger communities to (re)examine their own assumptions and beliefs. This can lead to pain, discomfort, struggle, and difficulty which sometimes manifests as anger, frustration, personal attacks, poor RateMyProfessor ratings, and so much more.
In the early stages of doing this work, before I focused my energies towards developing advanced on-boarding systems for students and my larger communities, I found myself a target for emotional reactions caused by my work to undermine grading.
Every time this happened, I would cycle through various emotions like guilt, confusion, anger, self-doubt, etc. Eventually, I developed a few different mantras to stay grounded in and focused on this important work without gas-lighting myself because of someone else’s issues. In my current practice, I use these mantras to transform negative feedback into useful information that leads to continued action. Below are three such mantras:
A. I am doing important work that is also quite challenging. This person, who might be insulting my professional integrity or questioning my effectiveness as an educator, almost certainly has not done the hard work that I have to explore these topics. My work, in this moment, cannot be to bully or to belittle the speaker. I also need to stay focused so that I don’t get defensive. Instead, I need to listen carefully and actively to make sure that I understand what this person is telling me. I should pay special attention to the words they use and also the message under those words. Remember, this person might not have the vocabulary to identify the problem so I need to think critically as I process this experience.
B. This experience is feedback. I can use this pain as inspiration to design better on-boarding systems and help people like this develop their own well-informed and knowledgeable beliefs about grading, even if their beliefs differ from the ones I’ve developed.
C. One of my central UNgrading practices is to show grace to learners in my communities. I owe this speaker that same grace. I make a commitment to myself to empathize with this speaker and identify the pain points that lead to the reaction I observe. If my work to UNgrade has left this person feeling upset or disturbed, it’s likely that I triggered pain from this person’s past that exists independent of our relationship. Perhaps I unintentionally resurrected grading ghost(s) that are still haunting this person’s learning.
By the time I’ve repeated these mantras to myself (a discipline that can be quite challenging to maintain in the face of a perceived personal attack), I can usually start thinking about how to help this learner process their pain, heal, and come into this project of UNgrading on their own terms.
At this point in my journey, I have accrued enough experience and developed a large enough library of resources that most of my UNgrading work feels smooth. Still, I continue to work to improve my systems and address difficulties as they come up.
- UNgrading is a tremendous amount of work.
Our local, state, and national governments underfund education. This systemic under-investment implies that as a dedicated full-time instructor who cares deeply about equity, it is not uncommon for me to work 50 – 60 hour weeks.
Personally, I am so happy to do this. I am also intrinsically motivated to engage in this work. If I was a billionaire, I would do this work for free and also put a ton of money into our college systems to buy out the teaching contracts of my colleagues so that other teachers have more time to engage in this type of work. I would also fund a lobbying organization to increase my own taxes, to undercut the apparatus that allow for legislative capture by moneyed interests, and to pass voting rights legislation.
When I take on projects related to UNgrading, my life gets a lot more challenging. Personally, I tell myself I can manage those challenge and I am working daily to learn how to do that. One of the ways I turn this belief into action is to develop advanced productivity systems based on cognitive science and the science of expert performance.
Below are a list of resources that have empowered me in my quest to UNgrade. These are not focused on the theory or practice of UNgrading. Instead, these resources provide me with tools that I use to manage the mundane day-to-day tasks that seem to expand exponentially every time I engage in authentic assessment and UNgrading.
Let’s start with nonfiction books that have been helpful to address some of challenges listed above (as well as many challenges that are unlisted):
The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger
- Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and at Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity by David Allen
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverence by Angela Duckworth
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
- David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
The Science of Learning
My work to UNgrade my classes is centered on a number of principles that I hold very close to my heart. These include, but not limited to, the following beliefs:
- Students are the best judge of their own learning experiences.
- Learning is most effective when students are intrinsically motivated by their own interests, create their own visions for how they want to use the knowledge they build, define their own learning tasks, engross themselves in continual self-reflection, and engage in learning within a complex web of social relationships that are strengthened via meaningful, cross-generational dialog about their learning with other learners over long periods of time.
- Learning is way too complex to be accurately measured. The ideas that five single alphabet letters (A, B, C, D, F) can signify anything useful is so painful that it makes me laugh. Until I cry. To the best of my knowledge, modern science does not yet have tools sophisticated enough to fully observe, capture, and measure everything that goes on inside a human brain as a learner grows and develops. Even if we could measure learning accurately and completely, I believe that students deserve the opportunity to make their own decisions about their learning and to direct their efforts based on their own knowledge and beliefs.
- My job as a teacher is to mentor students in believing in themselves, to guide students in cultivating high levels of various types of intrinsic motivation, and to coach students in developing their skills as deep learners. Course content is useful only so far as it accelerates each student’s work in making progress on along those other developmental processes.
When I think about how I developed these beliefs, all of the following books come to mind:
- How Learning Works: 7 Researched-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha Lovett, and Marie Norman
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
- Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Clovin
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
- The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills by Daniel Coyle
- The Talent Code: Greatness is Not Born. It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle
- Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Clovin
Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live without Barriers by Jo Boaler
Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Amond Culturally and Linguisticaslly Diverse Students by Zaretta Hammond
Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching by Jo Boaler
- Develop your own reading systems. Consciously construct and customize your own approaches to reading so that you have a strong desire to read every day that you live. Share those systems with people in your community. Make your reading lists public.
- Read any (or all) of the books above. As you read, think about the following questions:
- What is learning?
- How do students learn?
- What is effective teaching?
- How do I teach effectively?
- How can I help my students learn to teach effectively?
- How can I create learning environments where learners teach each other?
- What is are the similarities and differences between: a teacher and a coach, a teacher and a mentor, a teacher and a learner, a teacher and an advocate?
- What would teaching look like if there were no hierarchical power dynamics between teacher and student?
- Develop research-based models to answer the questions in Community Challenge 2 above from this post. Based on those models, construct your own definition for “authentic assessment” (in contrast to standards-based assessment). How can you incorporate antiracism into this definition? How is assessment related to antiracism? How are these related to whatever topic(s) and content that you “teach”?
- I make a claim that UNgrading without a corresponding focus on antiracism addresses only part of the puzzle of creating equitable learning environments. Seek out information and learning that might help you refute or substantiate this claim. As you learn and grow, develop your own critical consciousnesses about the policy choices that govern the people in your communities that you care most deeply about. How is what you’re learning related to antiracism?