Going Gradeless

It’s a sexy thing to do right now, going gradeless.

At least, it is something a number of my colleagues — secondary and post-secondary — are experimenting with. Can we go completely gradeless? No. Something tells me that if I refused to submit grades at the end of the semester, I’d get into some trouble. I don’t think the university would take kindly to me saying “grades ruin my teaching, so I’m not giving them anymore.” But to some extent, that’s what I have decided. When we give grades on every assignment, students learn to associate success with numbers and letters, not with the extensive feedback we spend so much time crafting. When students associate “A” with “amazing” and “D” with “deficient,” teachers lose the power of meaningful evaluation. Furthermore, students often take those letters and their meaning to heart, believing that if they get an “A” it means they are amazing, not their work. And by extension, if they get a “D,” they are deficient. In the composition classroom this seems especially true, as students associate their writing with themselves — who they are, what they believe, what they hold dear. Assigning letters and numbers to that undermines my teaching and my attempts to challenge their ideas and arguments. So I quit.

When I say I’m “going gradeless,” I’m referring to a growing (in my circles) interest in “contract grading,” or grading that makes an agreement with students that meeting a certain set of criteria will earn them a certain grade. Billie Hara breaks it down further in an article on ProfHacker/Chronicle of Higher Ed. Her article outlines some of the history of contract grading, which (I think) was first introduced by Peter Elbow, famous in the composition world for developing institutional work-arounds that, in theory, make writing courses more meaningful. Hara also describes some of the drawbacks of contract grading, namely that it uses vague terminology that makes it difficult for students to understand what will actually get them the A (or B, or C) they so desire:

How can a student define “exceptional” writing? How does the faculty member define it? How can a contract help a student know how to achieve the “exceptional”? Additionally, …how do faculty evaluate “thoughtful peer feedback” or “sustained effort” on draft writing? For me, many of these items are still subjective, and because they are subjective, are open to grade complaints.

But that issue of vague language — “engaging,” “effective,” “exceptional” — is an inescapable one for writing teachers, is it not? Because what we teach is messy. Is vague. Changes based on rhetorical situation, goals of the writer, medium of composition… but I digress.

When I first decided to try contract grading with my 229 class this semester, I had a number of conversations with colleagues of mine who had tried the approach. One said “I simply can’t make this work.” She’s not sure if it’s the institution (Michigan students are particularly grade-motivated) or the way in which she’s implementing contract grading, but she has yet to be convinced that it’s the “way to go” for her students. Another colleague said it has its drawbacks, but can work well in Professional Writing (what I’m teaching now), because how does one “grade a resume?” I decided to give it a go.

We’re now working on our final assignment of the semester in my Professional Writing course. Students have analyzed genres from various professions and developed professional web portfolios and social media profiles on LinkedIn. They have explored the role of Twitter and Facebook in the professional world, and we are currently working on writing effective proposals and designing pitches. They have had crash courses on visual and textual composition in Photoshop, Illustrator, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, and a few other digital spaces. And I have yet to give anyone a grade — on anything.

And here’s what I’m learning:

  1. Students like it, in theory. On the first day, everyone was like “yeah ok. sounds good.” Signed the contract, walked out of the room. Peachy.
  2. I’m sort of “grading anyway.” I set up the contract such that students, instead of being given a grade, would either be “meeting, exceeding, or not meeting” (B, A, and C respectively) the standards for an assignment. For each assignment, I give them a set of criteria (usually three or four key things I’ll be looking for). For the first assignment, I told them whether they met/exceeded/didn’t meet each criteria. If they didn’t meet any of the criteria (i.e. “got a C”), I invited them to revise. So basically, I graded them anyway.
  3. If I don’t “grade anyway,” I get asked questions.  When I realized I was sort of grading anyway on the first assignment, I changed my approach for the second assignment and just gave narrative feedback in response to their reflections. This prompted some questions about whether or not they were supposed to get a grade, and whether or not they had succeeded at the assignment (regardless of whether or not I indicated in words that they had done well and/or had other things to think about). These questions are understandable. None of my students had encountered contract grading before my class, so I get it. But the contract grader should be ready to explain — multiple times — the reason and logic behind his or her approach to grading.
  4. Students forget to look back at the contract. I got the sneaking suspicion a few days ago that no one has really looked back at the contract since the start of the semester. Which means I think few of them still realize that the “bare minimum” only gets them a B. I got this feeling when a few students verified the number of blog entries they needed to complete. I will need to remind them in the next week or so to revisit the contract, reminding themselves what’s required of them for the grade they seek to earn.
  5. I’m no longer the primary audience (sort of). This is why I actually went gradeless, so I’m glad this aspect of my experiment is going well. Students are paying attention to my feedback, but they are also adjusting their compositional decisions to reflect their classmates’ input (not just mine), and generally asking more questions about how to make their writing more effective for their target audiences (not just me). Certainly, they are still submitting assignments to me, but I see them paying a lot more attention to those external audiences they hope to target in their future professional writing, which (I believe) is making the writing process more meaningful and motivating for them.

I’ll come back to recap at the end of the semester, but for now, I think I like my approach to contract grading. However, I can also see how in other settings and for different courses, my approach could backfire. In many ways, though we might like to shed the expectations of the institutions of which we are part and parcel, doing so is futile. Would I love to teach a class for which I never had to give a single grade? Definitely, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And one last thing that’s been gnawing at me lately — I have begun to wonder whether or not it’s entirely fair for us to expect our students to be okay with not receiving grades. They are, after all, seeking their educations at institutions with high expectations, and the expectations of their future employers and graduate schools are that they do well in their classes. The way they’ve come to understand what it means to “do well” is through the evaluations — which include grades — that they receive on their work. As the semester has worn on, I have therefore undergone something of a crisis of conscience. I want my students to be compositionists who care about their work because it’s theirs, because they are writers who write for audiences and purposes of their choosing, who seek to make a difference in their world through the things they make and the causes to which they contribute. But my students are also students, and they crave concrete feedback and evaluation from me, their teacher. Academia has “concretized” feedback, and teacher/student roles, by creating grades. Unfortunate, perhaps. Biased, incredibly. But the rule of academia, nonetheless. Who am I to challenge it, even in my smallest of ways? And how fair is it for me to do so with these students?