Next semester, no quantitative grades until the end of the semester. No As, no Fs, no 83%. At least one study has shown that grades not only do not help students, they actually impede their performance (Butler, 1987). Students tend to take a horse-race approach to grading, and pay less attention to how they are doing and more to whether their grade on one assignment has gone up or down in comparison with the previous assignment, or various satisficing strategies for achieving whatever they have set as their minimum acceptable grade.
I am already using self-assessment in all of my classes. Rather than giving letter grades, I will list the strengths and weaknesses of each student’s work, and leave the assessment–in terms of grade–until the very end of the semester. Of course, I would prefer to go all Evergreen, and have narrative grades make up the final grade in the class, but I don’t think this can happen at my university.
I have toyed with another possibility, which is not assigning a grade, but rather force-ranking students and revealing to them where they land on that ranking. As a matter of practice, in large undergraduate classes, I have often force-ranked assignments, in order to make sure that all my Bs were grouped together, all Ds together, etc., and that I hadn’t somehow mis-evaluated a project. Moreover, students can estimate their ranking when they see the histogram (when I provide one, which is rare). And at some essential level, this is what we are doing when we grade: my grades at QU are essentially a comparison of work I’ve seen at QU. It would be unfair to compare them to, for example, students in a top doctoral program, or students in 9th grade.
Nonetheless, I can’t decide whether the dire knowledge that your assignment was the worst in the class (or the third worst, or whatever) would be so depressing that you would just give up, or if it would spur you to get off the bottom of the list. According to an article that appeared in the Chronicle, a couple of universities have toyed with class rank and similar measures as alternatives to the all-mighty GPA, but these have generally fallen through.
I suspect, however, that class rank on assignments frankly would not change much from assignment to assignment, even if grades varied somewhat more. I wonder whether the stability of this rank over time would lead to extreme competition among students. My experience has been that under conditions of such competition (think law school) students actually tend to band together, and that may not be a bad thing.
In any case, I’m trying a structured non-grading approach to my courses next semester. If you’ve had success or failure in doing this, I’d be interested in your feedback.
Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 474-482.