What is the Value of a Grade?

“How can I make this animation better?”

In 14 years of teaching, only a small handful of students have come to me and asked this question. However, I have had many students ask me, “How can I get a better grade?” This is especially true at the end of semesters, when my students who either want to or need to maintain a high GPA inquire about how to get higher marks for their final assignment and/or class grade. 

I have graded thousands and thousands of assignments and each time I have felt that having to grade a student on their art was pretty arbitrary. I made rubrics for how many points off the student would get if they missed making arcs in their animation, or if their feet were sliding when they weren’t supposed to. But how do I actually grade them? Minus one point for every linear arm movement rather than an arc? Or if they made one linear movement, do I just take one point off for the overarching goal of not arcing their movements no matter if they had one or 50? What about the student who tries really hard and makes some marked improvements over the semester, but because of making those tiny mistakes their grade suffers? What about the student who is a natural at animating and just stays safe in their technique because they know it will earn them an A, but never really advances their craft. How do I grade that? To me art is extremely subjective. What I find interesting and worthwhile, someone else may come in and say is rubbish. How do you put a graded value on art? Over the years those have been some of the thoughts I have struggled with as I have taught my classes. When students ask me how to make their grade better, I wonder “Why aren’t they asking how to improve the work?” It is almost always only the grade that the students focus on fixing. And while I find it disheartening, I understand. 

What if there was a way to focus more on the work instead of the grades? I am confident quality work would consistently be the result and quality learning would be achieved. Which leads me to a blog post that I read two years ago at the end of the semester after grading all my students. Elisabeth Gruner’s I No Longer Grade My Students’ Work – And I Wish I Had Stopped Sooner

really spoke to my soul. 

She wrote about the idea of ungrading or the removal of grades and just teaching the lessons while connecting more deeply with the students in the class. She clarified that there is still an assigned grade at the end of the semester (systems don’t just go away when revolutionary ideas begin) The grade is determined by a review of the semester’s work as well as the progress the student made. It becomes a holistic grading assessment. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that article would percolate in my brain and I would reflect on the words throughout the next year, even talking about aspects of it with other professors. 

Then this year, in the Fall of 2023, I received an email that invited educators across the campus to a teaching circle (a space for educators to learn new ideas for teaching and explore options to better educate our students) on ungrading! I almost couldn’t believe my eyes! This idea of removing grades on our campus was being discussed, it was a pleasant shock! 

I emailed the leader of the group Michael Starenko, Senior Teaching and Learning Consultant in the Center for Teaching and Learning here at RIT to sign up for the teaching circle. He welcomed me and pointed me to the book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia University Press, 2020. I flew through this book! On almost every page I found myself nodding my head in the affirmative as the ideas washed over me! I absolutely recognize the cheesiness of that last statement, but it was truly that eye opening! 

The more I read, the more I was ready to just plunge in and make the start! I have always had excellent evaluations from my students so I felt secure enough that if the students were dissatisfied by the end of the semester with this process or the final result, RIT would simply tell me to stop and go back to my regularly scheduled grading rubric. I also recognize that not everyone has this same autonomy, freedom, or privilege to make this leap. My hope in writing this blog is to help add another example of where ungrading is a success. (Only my future self will be able to come back and tell us how it ends.)

After the first teaching circle and further reading of Blum’s book, I talked myself into laying my first stone! I was finally going to do it! Three weeks into the semester, I opened a dialogue with my students about ungrading. I explained to them the philosophy of ungrading and how it can create a better learning environment. 

I posed the question, “If you submit an assignment and get a good grade, do you look for improvements you can make on that work?”? Lots of “No’s” and head shaking were the replies.) Then I proposed, “What if you worked really hard on something, I mean like really gave it your 110% and received a low grade, would you care to want to fix it? Or would you feel like…Well, why try because if I work hard, I’ll still not get a good grade?” Almost all my students nodded their heads, “Yes” and responded they would just be done with the assignment, frustrated and not interested in reviewing or improving their work.

I explained when a grade is associated with work, that the work can become secondary to the grade. Additionally, any feedback (positive or negative) given along with the grade is often disregarded or lost because it is the grade that determines how much success the student has rather than the satisfaction of learning something new. A negative grade can be perceived as punishment, especially when a student has explored something new or stretched outside of their comfort zone. After giving my little crash course in ungrading, the students agreed this would be something they were very interested in exploring with me. Most of them were curious and excited to see how ungrading could benefit their learning and growth, however a few students who have been very driven by grades and are still in classes that are heavily grade dependent expressed some concerns that this system would result in low grades. We continued our discussion and we found that it was the “not knowing where they stood in the class” throughout the semester that was their biggest worry. In other words, without a grading structure to inform them of their progress how would they know if they were succeeding or struggling? How would they know their worth? I relieved these worries by explaining that over the course of the semester we would have check-ins (what I am now calling Self-Assessment Reflection Meetings) where we would discuss their progress, what they had tried, what they had achieved, and how they were doing in their learning objectives. This further explanation and continued discussion relieved their concerns and all my students reported they wanted to give ungrading a try. In a follow up email, I informed the students that if anyone was uncomfortable or did not want to participate in the ungrading experience I would grade them as usual without penalty or concerns. No one took me up on this offer. 

So now my students were on board and I had to figure out “How the heck do I implement this new structure?” I reviewed Blum again before creating my own list of questions for my students.

To remain true to the idea that I want the students to take ownership of their learning and their self assessments, I offered them the opportunity to also create questions for their self assessments. To easily collate this information, I created a Google form that they could fill out as much or as little as they wanted and as many times as they wanted. I asked them to help me ask the right questions, encouraging them to write questions as if they were me, what should I be asking them to really get to know the work they did. The students asked some really good questions! I was grateful and pleased by their ideas and insights.

We now had the content for our Self Assessment Google Form! The final product contains about a 50/50 split of my own questions and my students’ questions. I love that they are partnering with me on this. Their ownership and enthusiasm is refreshing! 

I already had milestone deadlines built into my syllabi, and those time periods easily became opportunities for Self Assessment Reflection Meetings. I created a schedule allowing for 30 minute meetings with each student (virtual or in-person, based on student preference) to allow one to one meetings to discuss their progress and their answers on their self assessments. 

Next up? Meeting with my students, getting their feedback on their own work, offering my feedback on their work and their reflections, and discovering what they and I think of our new system. 

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