A pass

I don’t care about grades. It’s not that I hate them, but I do hate that students seem so captivated by them. At least at the undergraduate level, and for students who were aiming for law school or med school, where the GPA seems to have a strong effect on admissions, I kind of understood it. But I completely do not get it among graduate students.

In order to reduce the focus on grades, I tried delaying letter grades until the end of the semester, providing more narrative feedback. I would provide feedback, but no scores or letters on students’ work. There is some indication that this can be effective, particularly with formative types of assessment (see Kitchen et al, 2006), but it really didn’t work at all well for me. It increased anxiety and concern over grades rather than decreasing it, resulting in students who were even more concerned with grades than with the material.

So, I’ve effectively thrown out grades. I see no pedagogically-driven reason to issue them, and a number to get rid of them. As long as students meet some minimum requirements in my courses this semester, they get an “A” in the course. I’ve replaced this with badges, which I will write more about soon.


There is a low bar of participation–what I would consider something like 20% of the expected contribution–in order to get this A. But isn’t this just pass/fail? I suppose it is, to a certain degree, although not formally so.

A lot of the work around doing away with letter grades is about 40 years old at this point. Sgan (1970), for example, found that the would-be grades of students taking a course pass-fail were lower than the students in the same course opting for a grade. However, this was at Brandeis where not all courses were pass-fail. In such a situation, it makes sense that a student might focus more of her energy on the graded courses. It’s also worth noting that this gap disappeared by senior year, when the students taking a course actually did very slightly better (there was no significant difference in what they would have gotten as a grade).

For our online program, students generally only take one course at a time, providing less of an issue of attention management. But I’ll be curious how it works out for our on-ground program, where students may be taking several courses at once.

Assessment vs. Evaluation

It’s important to note here that there are two things moving hand-in-hand. On one side is questions of thinking about students’ progress and effectively changing the course material to meet the students effectively. The other is communicating student progress (and the acceptability of that progress) to wider audiences. This is the divide, as Cizek (2005) has it, between assessment and evaluation.

Of course, one is related to the other–or at least can be. One can assign letter grades based on an assessment of a portfolio of work done in a class, course, or program, for example. But it is a necessarily abbreviated form of communicating the work accomplished or skills gained, rather than providing an instrument for improving learning.

Cizek notes that letter grades, no matter what they are grading, are “consistently inconsistent.” Any measurement should be both reliable (consistent) and valid (measure what we are interested in) and letter grades are almost never either of these things. This isn’t news–educational researchers have known this for at least a century. There are ways of making grades more explicitly reliable, though often at the risk of being less valid. The application of multiple-choice tests tends to push in the direction of reliability (at the cost of creating a whole generation of students who are highly skilled at taking multiple-choice tests and little else), while grading on participation in class may get at what we really want to evaluate, but it very difficult to do fairly and consistently.

For me, letter grades do a poor job of communicating what they are supposed to communicate. If I see that a student has gotten an A in “Introduction to Interactive Communication,” what does that really tell me? Especially, if I don’t know what the other students received as grades, or what was expected of the students. It’s an empty indicator.

On the other hand, students strive to get that A. Some say that a high GPA at the very least demonstrates an ability to be able to follow directions and plan your time reasonably well, but I’m not sure even that is the case. The student with a high GPA simply demonstrates that she is capable of achieving a high GPA–any correlation with other skill sets seems almost accidental.

It’s when that letter grade evaluation crowds out any room for actual assessment and self-knowledge that it deserves to be more than just ignored or disdained. If we want students to learn better, we need to destroy letter grades. Grade inflation may provide the seeds of letter grades’ own demise, but I plan to hurry it on as best I can.

First Seven Weeks

One of the courses I am teaching this semester runs on an accelerated seven-week schedule, and so has just concluded. Everyone who was registered in the course received an A, as promised. One person withdrew from the course, but no one else failed to meet the minimal requirements.

As a whole, the performance of the students in the course was well above that of those in previous versions. I secretly kept letter grades (not reporting them) and the grade average for the course would have been significantly higher. It’s hard to attribute this entirely to throwing out grades in favor of badges. We had a few students who would have done well no matter what, I think.

Among the highest achieving students in the course, the work was ridiculously good and they worked especially hard. At least one expressed relief that they didn’t have to perform to a specified level, and so they took advantage of this and really went all out. I’ll note that two of the other students in the course felt “intimidated” by the level of these leaders, and this seemed to be a bit inhibiting.

The average student in the course did, I think, marginally better than they have in other courses. I’ll note that–having sent out the final evaluation–a number of the students in this group emailed back asking what their grade was. The syllabus for the course put it pretty clearly:

There is no compelling evidence that letter grades enhance student learning. For that reason all students who meet minimum requirements will receive an A in the course. I expect that most of you, if not all, will go beyond the minimum requirements not to improve your grade, but because you are interested in learning more.

I suspect, therefore, that these students just didn’t read the syllabus carefully. Or perhaps they just didn’t believe it. Nonetheless, the large group of students “in the middle” of the class did better than their counterparts in other courses.

It was not all good news, of course. Several students ended up on the trailing end. In a normal course, they would have failed, or at least would have received a very low grade. I’m still undecided what the A means to them. They know they did poorly in the course (I told them), but the reflection to the world is still an A on their transcript. I suppose I see this as the only negative outcome of what I’ve done, and I don’t think it is that negative. I’ve given failing or very low grades to students in the past who have just gone on to retake the course with another instructor or finish their programs with low (but passing) grades.

I suppose in some sense this is “passing the buck,” to other faculty members. On the other hand, it could be seen as merely being as accepting as possible. I know from experience that having low-performing students in a course lowers the level of discourse and is frustrating for many in the course. But short of raising the bar for passing (and re-introducing the concerns over getting over that bar rather than exploring and learning), I’m not sure how to address this issue.

In sum, the positives far outweigh these negatives. We’ll see how this goes for the courses that are new, and not nearly as well planned.

Cizek, G.J. (2005). Pockets of resistance in the assessment revolution. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 19(2), 16-23.

Kitchen, E., S.H. King, D.F. Robison, R.R. Sudweeks, W.S. Bradshaw, & J.D. Bell (2006). Rethinking exams and letter grades: How much can teachers delegate to students?

Sgan, M.R. (1970). Letter grade achievement in pass-fail courses. The Journal of Higher Education 41(8), 638-644.

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