A snippet of a 19th century report card

If you have any experience teaching, you likely have experience grading. Grades are often considered an important part of teaching, for example because they are thought to motivate students. However, while grading, ranking and classifying has become the norm in many places (a development which only really kicked off in the late 19th century), many teachers are trying to move away from crude metrics. Some even go as far as doing away with grades completely. For this post in our series on teaching philosophy, Justice Everywhere spoke to Dr Marcus Schultz-Bergin (Cleveland State University), about his attempts to deprioritize grading and his experience with going completely gradeless in one Philosophy of Law course. He has detailed his experience on his blog, and a version of his reflections on gradeless teaching has also been published in a new book about “ungrading”.

Why go gradeless?

Schultz-Bergin started thinking about alternative approaches to assessment when he started at Cleveland State University. He taught several writing-intensive courses, and found himself grading over a hundred papers per assignment. ‘My first thought was, how do I get it returned to them in a meaningful time-period – because one thing that we know is, the more immediate the feedback, the better. How do I do that without dedicating every waking moment to grading?’

This led him to look at alternative grading systems, such as specifications-grading which allowed him to speed up the process without compromising on the quality of the feedback. ‘The big benefit for me was that it encouraged me to think more narrowly about what I was trying to get them to learn and do with each writing assignment, and therefore what I’m actually needing to assess and provide feedback on.’

Over time, he learned about other approaches to grading – or not grading at all. ‘I realized that what I disliked the most about teaching was the grading part. Not the “reading students’ work part”, but the grading part – having to say, here’s the mark I give it and then spend time justifying that mark… It’s not really an enjoyable experience for anyone. And so with specifications grading first, and then later with ungrading, it was just to say, I can provide meaningful feedback, and targeted, productive feedback, better if I put less emphasis on assigning a grade.’

A desire to focus on providing meaningful feedback is a common reason motivating those who seek to “deprioritize” grades. There is evidence dating back to the 1980s that students who receive only feedback show more growth than those who receive a mark (even when the mark is accompanied by feedback). Grades are also very unrepresentative of students’ knowledge, learning or progress – as Schultz-Bergin notes, what mark you receive on a given assignment may reflect as much whether you had a good breakfast, or whether your assignment was at the top or bottom of the pile, as it does the amount of work you put in.

A tweet which reads "Grades are not good incentive or effective feedback; Grades are not good markers of learning; Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration; Grades pit students and teachers against each other; Grades are mechanisms of institutional control; Grades aren’t fair"

A tweet by Jesse Stommel, a prominent proponent of “ungrading”

What did you do?

As is fairly common in these kinds of classes, he started out by enabling the students to come up with their own learning goals. (Though he of course ‘massaged’ them a little to fit with the course). Knowing what students wanted to get out of the course, the next step was to figure out how they would know if they got it. To this end, Schultz-Bergin introduced a buffet of assessment options which students would be able to use to demonstrate their achievement of the learning outcomes they had helped to create. Students could then choose what assignments they did.

There were two “set” assignments: at the mid-term and the end of the semester. Students put together a portfolio which included some of the main work that they had done, revised based on Schultz-Bergin’s feedback if they wanted to do so, along with a reflection essay. The purpose of the essay was for the students to explicitly reflect on the learning outcomes, and to what extent they were able to achieve them. Learning portfolios and similar exercises often form the core of a gradeless classroom, the thought being that they help students reflect on their own progress. ‘This didn’t go as well as I hoped, because some students didn’t focus on their prior work as evidence of achievement… But what is really cool about this is that you get a lot more student ownership of their own learning, when they really dig into it – and some did, for sure.’

The reflective essays provided the basis for students to assign themselves a grade, based on the extent to which they met the learning outcomes. He left it open how exactly to assign a grade: ‘Some went, well, I think I demonstrated all of the outcomes but maybe not as well as I could have, and some of them just went with the number of outcomes they demonstrated, and some of them did go “Well, I get an A no matter what”. But overall, I think they were pretty honest and accurate.’

Lessons learned

Overall, Schultz-Bergin thinks of his fully gradeless experiment as a ‘quasi-failure’ – though an informative one. While some students really flourished, some of them floundered. ‘I think that was interesting in its own right, to learn their backgrounds and what led to them flourishing or floundering. I think one of the key things is that we are so trained to work with deadlines, and I took that away.  And that was great for some students, but for a couple of them, it was really bad.’

Some of those who floundered just didn’t submit anything because they weren’t forced to, whereas others were precisely the ones who figured out how to do well in a more traditional classroom. ‘It was this second group that I was more worried about’, Schultz-Bergin says. ‘They were the sort of students that would have done really well in a normal classroom… They are people who want to succeed, albeit within the dictates of getting a good grade as opposed to learning, but at least they would have been doing the work. But they weren’t doing the work because they didn’t have the components that they are used to. And I don’t want to leave these students behind, even if I also picked up some others, those who would struggle a bit with the deadline-stuff.’

Although he has not continued down the gradeless path, there are elements of the gradeless approach which he values and tries to build on, such as learning portfolios. ‘You can include them into a normal graded classroom and the benefit is you get students thinking more about their own work, and really taking ownership of it, and having to go back to it. When you give them a paper back, in many cases they don’t even look at it, and this encourages them to go back in at least one way.’ Another thing that the gradeless classroom experiment encouraged him to do, is to think more about how we tailor assignments to target and measure specific skills or content knowledge.

Overall, Schultz-Bergin’s experience means that he’s, in his own words, ‘a bit more middle-of-the-road’ than some of the more committed ungrading people. ‘It got me thinking more generally about revolutions versus reform. There are massive costs involved in revolution. So even if it’s the right end point, the transition can be pretty terrible. Whereas reform is often a way to get there in a piecemeal fashion.’  When thinking about how to move forward, he suggests, we need to keep in mind students’ different backgrounds ‘and sometimes going fully gradeless isn’t the right option because it will be too disruptive to them.’

On the other hand, he thinks there is good reason to think that traditional grading systems and traditional grades are problematic. ‘We have a lot of evidence that they don’t put the emphasis on learning at all. And we can actually have alternative grading systems that will enhance the learning but that doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of all grading systems.’


What recommendations does Schultz-Bergin have for those who are dissatisfied with traditional approaches to grading?

Consider the context

First, context is important. One of the main benefits of alternative approaches to grading, including going fully gradeless, is that they encourage people to take a step back and reflect on what we all, hopefully, really care about. ‘When we put the emphasis first on learning, then of course the context sets what the relevant kind of learning should be – it may be the case in some situations that some sort of grading system is the right tool – but grades are just that, a tool to promote learning.’ Grades are so commonplace now that many people use them without giving them much thought. This is what concerns Schultz-Bergin: ‘Once we decentre grades by instead centering learning, it doesn’t mean that grades go away, but it means that when we use them we use them deliberately and precisely.’

Start small

There are several ways we can decentre grades, even at institutions that demand them. For example, you could switch some lower-stake assessments over to a pass/not yet-style grading system. ‘When I assign a reading to my students we’ll do a quiz. Which is pretty standard, a lot of people do reading quizzes. But I think a lot of people do them with an idea of demanding compliance – “I want them to comply with my demand that they read”. And that’s a bad way to use grades in general. For me, I’m honest with the students that it’s part of the learning process. A quiz helps you focus and retrieve information. And in my case, I do them first individually and then as a team, which gives them the opportunity to talk out any misunderstandings. And I only grade the team part!’ This graded part is technically only very minimally graded: ‘They just have to hit a threshold that is pretty impossible not to hit … Because what I care about in that process is the learning, not the grade. But I recognize that maybe without any grade incentive at all, we maybe wouldn’t even get the learning benefit.’

Focus on what really matters

For more high-stakes assessments, Schultz-Bergin recommends really honing in on what they are supposed to assess. ‘So that you’re not just saying “Okay, I’m giving you these essays and now I’m just going to read it and decide what the grade is”, without much of an idea of what you’re evaluating.’ There are many ways to do this, though the most promising approaches do share some key elements, such as a focus on feedback, and allowing students to reattempt assessments. ‘Just try to find ways to recognize that if learning is the goal our evaluation methods should reflect that.’

Let students (actually) do the work

Finally, one of the key aims of many alternative grading practices, including ungrading, is to give students more ownership over their own learning process, and to focus on intrinsic motivation.  This can be supported by letting students do some of the evaluation themselves. ‘Have students write a paper, and then write about what went well for them, where their strengths are, and what went poorly. That also gives you an insight of where to focus your feedback. And it also means they’re more likely to accept your feedback and create a positive feedback-loop between you and the student.’

For those interested in learning more about alternative approaches to grading, there are plenty of resources (some are linked in this post). Schultz-Bergin recommends Grading for Growth, a weekly newsletter on alternative approaches to grading. The 2020 book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) collects the writings of many educators on the topic of ungrading. For those who work in primary and secondary education, Teachers Going Gradeless is a useful resource.

Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century is a new series on Justice Everywhere. It aims to feature posts, interviews and case-studies broadly relating to the topic of “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.” A non-exhaustive list of possible topics includes:

  • Accessibility and inclusion;
  • Using new technologies in the classroom; 
  • Intersectionality in the classroom; 
  • Teaching controversial topics and/or controversial authors;
  • Ongoing calls to diversify/decolonise the (philosophy) curriculum;
  • Different ways of delivering typical political/moral/social philosophy education.

Please get in touch with Sara Van Goozen if you would like to contribute, or if you have any suggestions (for instance someone who does something interesting and new in the classroom who might be interested in talking to us).

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge.
I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.