I Stopped Grading. You Can, Too.

If you’re a teacher, at some point in your semester, you’ve been faced with a looming stack of papers or a horrifyingly complex spreadsheet that made you think, I am so done with this. Ah, what to do about grading? When I asked teachers at a conference what word popped into their heads when they thought of grading, they said: tedious, overwhelming, exhausting, soul killing.

First, it might be useful to examine why teachers hate grading so much. Part of it stems from the task itself. It is excruciatingly difficult mental work to give effective feedback to 100-plus students every week. When I grade, my brain maxes out long before I run out of time.

So the work of grading is really, really hard, and often we don’t see the results of that work. English teachers in particular spend hours—students, please know this—we spend hours providing feedback that we mean to be helpful. Then, later in the semester, we see student work that reveals that we were never heard. This is truly discouraging. We feel like the student who studies for hours every day and continues to receive Ds.

And here’s something even more awful to contemplate: Students often never read our feedback. Ask them in an environment of trust, and many of them will tell you that they look at the grade to see what we really think of their work; for the most part, they ignore the carefully worded comments. I admit I did this myself in a class I took at Stanford University extension. I had done poorly on my essay, as evidenced by my grade and my conscience, so I was too embarrassed to read the comments provided by my professor. I already knew I had failed; why did I need that driven home by her comments? I think my reaction speaks to how sensitive most of us are to being graded. Despite the fact that we know “it’s only a grade,” grades somehow feel like the ultimate judgment of our abilities.

I decided at some point that the only way to get my student to really hear what I was saying in my feedback was the shut up the loud voice of the grade. Inspired by Peter Elbow and the amazing folks at Teachers Throwing Out Grades, I took a huge leap: I would completely stop grading my students’ work, aside from the final grade that I am required to give by my institution.

I am aware that this seems absolutely crazy.

I used a method called contract grading, which establishes certain guidelines for what students need to do to earn a particular grade. It’s been through some evolutions, and will probably continue to evolve, but you can see my current contract here. The basic premise is that students who do all of the work of the class will earn a B, provided that they revise any work that is not up to standard. Students who demonstrate excellence of some kind, as defined in my guidelines, will earn an A. A small amount of missed work will earn a student a C, while larger amounts of missed work equals D, which is a failing grade at my college.

No grading was easy with students who had typically earned low grades throughout school. They loved not receiving grades because they’d always been on the wrong side of that stick. My system was a much harder sell with the diligent students, the A chasers. These students were unnerved by the fact that they couldn’t collect points or letters to secure their good grade. Personally, I felt that the insecurity these students felt about their grades actually helped them; not having their grade “locked up” kept them striving to improve. Many of these students came around eventually and said as much in their final reflections.

Here are some comments that students shared about the experience of not receiving grades:

Even though it did stress me out not to know what my grade was, I did learn a lot and put more effort into my work because it was the quality that mattered, not the points. I noticed that before, I used to do the least amount of work in order to get an A. Taking this class made me realize that this method will get me nowhere.

I really do admire your grading system because you made it OK for us to make mistakes in college. That has always been my fear throughout college.

This class is the first time I ever read my teacher’s comments on my essays. Before I just looked at the grade and that was that.

What made it easier for me to focus on learning was your grading system. I was more focused on completing my work than doing the minimum and adding up my points when I got my work back.

I believe no grades allowed us to get creative and enjoy what we were doing. Honestly, grades just set boundaries for students and their creativity.

My students actually worked much harder when they were not being graded—which contradicts the common wisdom that grades are essential to student motivation. I think that extrinsic motivators such as grades actually weaken students’ intrinsic motivation to learn; they can make learning stressful and not fun. In the absence of extrinsic motivators, many students can tap into their intrinsic motivation again.

And what about my experience? Contract grading is a messy, imperfect system, and sometimes I long for the simplicity of just writing a neat 80 in the column of the gradebook. Not grading demands that I be involved with my students and communicate with them more. I talk with them one-on-one, I read revisions, and I spend a lot of time giving personalized feedback (without the use of rubrics). Not grading doesn’t save me time, but it does make me feel that my time is better spent. It feels so good to be able to write a note to my students (or give a voice comment) with goal of helping them, not judging them. It feels absolutely marvelous to sit down with a student with the goal of guiding her to write her best possible essay, rather than sitting down to “show that student how she could have gotten an A.”

In short, I could never go back to grading now that I have stopped doing it.

In a future post, I’ll write more about some of the specific problems I faced and how I have worked to address them. But for now, let me use this space to encourage teachers: You can stop grading. Grading is “how we’ve always done it,” but it doesn’t have to be how we do things now. If we really want our students to get out of the rut of working only for points, then we have to change the system that rewards that behavior. As my student put it, “I wish all the professors used this system of no grades because it has encouraged me to look beyond just a grade and focus on what matters, which is learning.”

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