Rethinking How Students Meet Course Outcomes – Part 1

In our January community of practice, our colleagues gave us so much to think about in terms of grading for equity that here we are, still thinking about it. In fact, we take as a starting point an idea that Kathleen highlighted at the end of her post: “All too often our grading practices…‘inadvertently [pull] students (and their teachers) farther away from a focus on learning. Rather than teach students to be curious about the academic content, to care about their progress as a learner to invest in the health of the classroom community, and to co-construct productive relationships with their peers or teacher, we teach [students] to care about points” or grades, and we perpetuate inequities (Feldman 35). While we have been asked to consider different ways that students can meet course outcomes, we can’t separate that conversation from grading. Alfie Kohn emphasizes, “We need to grapple with assessment” and find “more authentic and informative” ways of evaluating students. “Why bother,” he asks, to rethink and reimagine our grading practices “if we’re still using…defective method[s] of assessing achievement?” (xviii). 

Welcome, friends. The blog path ahead is full of grappling.

“Are we here to teach or are we here to judge?”: A Sociological Perspective

Someone asked that question during a recent online workshop on ungrading. When thinking about how we have historically taught classes and used assignments with traditional grading practices and this idea of teaching vs. judging, a quote comes to mind: 

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” 

Paulo Freire

We need to ask ourselves what purpose do our grades serve? Are they for assessment of actual knowledge or are we marking down students for grammar, punctuation, lateness and other factors that insinuate non-compliance (aka not following the prompt)? In other words, are the grades we give on assignments an indication of conformity to our standards or is the grade a reflection of the learning experience of the student? Also, does the prompt allow for flexibility and freedom of thought and exploration, or is there a right and wrong way to do the assignment?

When asked to look at our assignments and grading practices oftentimes we as educators are reluctant in our willingness to change our policies and practices. I’m sure many of you reading this blog may have been challenged recently to move away from giving zeros to our students. I have to admit, I grappled with this idea myself: “How can I give points for a missing assignment? There is nothing there to grade.” Hence the zero. As I reflected on my reluctance to change my own ideas, it dawned on me that my ideas and beliefs regarding the zero and the types of assignments I dish out to my students are the exact things that are perpetuating the inequalities that Feldman (2019) refers to when he states, “we teach [students] to care about points” or grades (35). A student is going to care if they get a zero; it’s punitive and it sends a message: you need to follow directions and turn your work in on time. Points and grades are a measurement of conformity, as well as a message to students. This is the structural barrier that is baked right into our cultural ideas, norms, language, attitudes, and beliefs centered on the “A student.”

Recognizing structural barriers that are in our control and understanding how our beliefs, ideas and norms are the mechanisms that perpetuate inequalities is an important step in freeing our students from the constraints of points and grades. Oftentimes we place focus on support programs as being the solution to inequities on campus, but then we fail to acknowledge that our classroom policies contribute to the inequalities felt by our students. We as educators need to challenge and interrogate our assignments and assessments and ask ourselves: how can we reimagine our assignments and go about assessing the learning experience of our students differently so that we can free and empower the students?

A place where we might begin to think about assignments and grades, is simply asking what is the function of the assignment and grade. Most would agree that the function of an assignment is to determine what the student knows about subject matter; has the student mastered the materials? Depending on the level of their understanding, we assign a grade, either by point system or letter grade. With this we can determine who is proficient, approaching proficiency, or who is below proficiency. In essence, we rank students by performance. We might ask ourselves, how does this ranking of abilities relate to tracking students by ability? Tracking was/is a process that is often experienced in middle and high schools where students are set on an academic path that ultimately impacts social economic status, career choice (or lack of choice) and their overall quality of life. If we are still ranking our students based on ability indicated by grades, then are we doing what tracking was designed to do in American educational systems: placing students on a track and thus recreating social class, forcing conformity and assimilating students into dominant culture where they will become workers. Are we creating a learning environment that allows for flexibility, creativity, and are we freeing our students in order for them to become leaders?

Ungrading, which we’ll dive into more in another post next week, is an idea and a practice that is a departure from the old ways of doing things. Those who entertain the idea and practice of ungrading are the deviants of our campus. Be careful of the crowd you run with – you don’t want to be labeled as a deviant professor! The horror!! But if we consider deviants of the past then we find that social and cultural change often begins with those who depart from the cultural norms. They share new ideas and have the capacity to imagine that there are other ways of doing things. They challenge the naysayers and the status quo and ultimately create cultural change. Our goal is to create cultural change that eliminates structural barriers that exist in our assignments and grading practices.

As you read “How to Ungrade” by Jesse Stommel, think about these questions:

  • What assignments have you utilized in your class that you consider a staple assignment? And why is that assignment and the way you grade it so comfortable for you?
  • What are some of your fears and/or anxieties when you consider the notion of ungrading and changing the way you conduct your assignments and assessments?
  • What are some of the take aways you would love to see your students get from assignments in your courses?  

Works Cited

Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 2019.

Kohn, Alfie. Foreword. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. xiii-xx.

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