Is Throwing Out Grades Too Idealistic?

I teach composition, critical thinking, and literature at a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area. For over two years, my teaching has been gradeless, as much as my institution will allow. I assign no letter grades or point values to essays, quizzes, or homework, only a final grade at the end of the semester. I threw out rubrics, too, for the same reason I threw out grades. Twenty years of teaching led me to the belief that grades inhibit students’ belief that they can improve. Bad grades make students doubt their intelligence, and good grades can cause a superiority complex, whereby students feel they don’t have to try hard to succeed. A system of grading ranks and categorizes students; in doing so, it suggests that students should be the same, instead of encouraging students to build their unique strengths. And, most important, grading trains students to work only for the points or the grade, and in the process, the real excitement and value of learning is lost.

This last point explains why throwing out grades is so difficult. Years of traditional education teaches students that what really matters is their grades, not their learning. Students know that while teachers might give lipspeak to “learning,” in the end, the grade is what everyone—teachers, parents, administrators, other students, and society at large—cares about. And if students are motivated only by grades, how can we expect them to be motivated in a gradeless classroom? One college teacher, writing in an online comment, tried throwing out grades, with some initial success. However, over time, word spread that his class was the “easy” class that was “attracting all of the laziest students … who wanted to coast.” A few students recognized the value of what the professor was offering, but most did not. The professor concluded that the students had been “conditioned to be motivated ONLY by grades, and a single fourteen-week semester was not long enough to recondition them.” He ultimately abandoned the system of no grades, saying that it was “overidealistic” to think that he alone could reteach students to love learning.

This comment resonated with me. I, too, have heard students say that they spend more time on other classes because they fear getting a bad grade in those classes, a fear they do not feel in my class. I, too, struggle with the “slacker” student who takes my class with the mindset of doing the bare minimum to earn the desired grade, and who regards my system of no grading as a way to skate through a required course.

Clearly, the biggest hurdle we face as teachers throwing out grades is the damage already done to student motivation by grades.

I don’t have any quick fixes for these problems. Instead, I think that making a gradeless classroom work requires a massive internal shift on the part of teachers. We have to really believe in our students’ best selves, despite evidence to the contrary. And we need to make it known to our students that we believe in them—all of them, even the ones we might be tempted to dismiss.

Take the “slacker” student. That student has become deeply cynical about school, for good reason. I see it as my job to look at that student and see his potential. If I want to help this student, I can’t look at him and see a “slacker.” Instead, I need to see a person who was harmed by the educational system to the degree that he’s basically given up. I need to believe in that student, even if in the end he lets me down.

There are many subtle ways we indicate that we believe in a student. We can look him in the eye when we speak to him. We can ask honest questions, not questions meant to “show him something.” We can notice something that student has done well and express it. We can be interested in his ideas, rather than his performance. And perhaps most important, we can hold that student to a high standard. We must distinguish high standards from grades, and talk to our students about that distinction.

If a student is slacking in my course, I tell that student that I expect better, and I name exactly what I expect. In my class, I ask all of my students to arrive to class with their readings annotated. That’s their homework. But of course, some students don’t do it, because, well, #no points. It takes a while, but after a few weeks, the students start to get it. I show them why it’s important. I model my own annotations. Students see other students doing it. The students who annotate speak with more confidence about the readings, and other students see that, too. By the end of the semester, 90 percent of students are coming to class with their readings annotated. To me, that’s success. That shift would not be possible in a graded classroom. Yes, I could probably get all of my students to annotate by threatening them with a bad grade, but they would not really be doing it for the learning.

A saying that I’ve been using this semester is, “My students keep telling me that they are lazy, but I just don’t believe it.” I tell my students that laziness is not their true selves, that humans have an inherent desire to do their best work, to be great at something, to change the world. The look on the students’ faces when they hear that is priceless! All their life, grades have been teaching them to do the least amount of work to get the grade they want. It’s a revelation, the idea that people choose to work hard—that working hard fills a need in our soul. The room buzzes with a kind of confused excitement when I say these words.

Last semester, while on sabbatical, I conducted a dozen one-hour interviews with students about their sources of motivation. The sources were many and varied, but one thread was common to all students. Every single student said, unprompted by me, that their strongest source of motivation was knowing that their teacher cared about them and their progress. This is not to say that a classroom of unmotivated students is due to the fact that we haven’t cared enough. Motivation is complex and cannot be coaxed out overnight. However, our care and love for our students can be transformational. When students know that we have thrown out grades to better support their learning, this can impact their motivation. In his first self-reflection of the semester, one of my students wrote that he was initially tempted just to skim through the reading, but when he saw that I really wanted to know what students thought about the reading, he was inspired to put real effort into it. These small victories are the beautiful victories of the grade-free classroom.

Grade-free teachers, please talk to your students about why you are doing what you are doing! Students will respect you for sharing your beliefs and your struggle. One way to begin this discussion is the article “Brainology” by Carol Dweck. I assign this reading to all of my students as their first assignment. Sadly, most of my students recognize themselves in the description of a “fixed mindset,” the belief that one’s intelligence and abilities are fixed, or limited. They have long worried secretly that they aren’t “college material,” that their intelligence just isn’t up to the task, and many slowly begin to give up, rather than work harder.

A discussion of fixed mindset naturally leads to a discussion of grades. When I ask my students what causes a fixed mindset, someone will inevitably say “grades” or “parents’ expectations of our grades.” We talk, too, about why grades are such a strong motivator. I try not to shove my unconventional ideas about grading down their throats. I encourage them to question the traditional system and my own. But I also tell them that the number one reason I have chosen to throw out grades is because I want my students to feel safe to take risks and make mistakes, because these things lead to the deepest learning.

I think these conversations make a difference in how students see a no-grades system. If we take the time to talk to students about motivation, and ask questions that make them think, more students will make the leap from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. It’s true that some students will not make this leap. That’s an unfortunate reality. However, many, many students will discover their intrinsic desire to learn, and this is invaluable. One student, writing in her final reflection, said that, under the no-grades system,

I … 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 wanted to yell a huge “YEAAAAHHH!” when I read that. To me, that comment is worth everything. Sure, throwing out grades is idealistic. Too idealistic? Is there such a thing? Let’s keep believing in real learning. Let’s believe in authentic student motivation. Let’s believe in all students’ potential for hard work and deep thinking. Who’s with me?

1 thought on “Is Throwing Out Grades Too Idealistic?”

  • Thanks, this is helpful. I especially liked this part: ” If I want to help this student, I can’t look at him and see a “slacker.” Instead, I need to see a person who was harmed by the educational system to the degree that he’s basically given up. I need to believe in that student, even if in the end he lets me down.”

    One thing I’ve been reminding myself of is that the fear of going gradeless is fed to a not insignificant degree by the tacit assumption that the grade system works. We wonder about all sorts of possible problems, contrasting those possibilities with a nonexistent perfection. If we were honest about the failures of the traditional system, maybe the risks of gradeless teaching would not seem so great. It reminds me of the conversations we’ve been having at my school about directed self-placement–allowing students to determine (with guidance) what composition class is right for them, rather than using a standardized test. Many of the fears expressed about this approach are founded on the premise that no such problems or analogous problems arise when you use standardized tests. But that is just false. Many students have been failed–wrongly placed, with unknowable consequences–by the old system. We have to recognize that there is no perfect system, and ask ourselves what, in an imperfect world, is likely to produce the best outcomes, the ones most in line with what we say we are trying to do.

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