Can we imagine assessment mechanisms that encourage discovery, ones not designed for assessing learning but designed for learning through assessment? Much of our work in education resists being formulated as neat and tidy outcomes, and yet most assessment takes the complexity of human interaction within a learning environment and makes it “machine readable.” When learning is the goal, space should be left for wonder and experimentation.
A keynote based on two blog posts:
Why I Don't Grade: https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/
How to Ungrade: https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/
Photo by ﬂickr user Peter Lee
“Assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what
we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we
Peter Elbow,“Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment”
Photo by ﬂickr user in pastel
Prior to the late 1700s, performance and feedback systems in Education
were incredibly idiosyncratic.Throughout the 19th Century, they became
increasingly comparative, numerical, and standardized.
Photo by ﬂickr user Shelly
The ﬁrst “ofﬁcial record” of a grading system was fromYale in 1785.The A-
F system appears to have emerged in 1898 (with the “E” not disappearing
until the 1930s) and the 100-point or percentage scale became common in
the early 1900s. Letter grades were not widely used until the 1940s. Even
by 1971, only 67% of primary and secondary schools in the U.S. were using
letter grades. (Schinske and Tanner)
Google Trends shows increased search volume around the term “grades”
over the last 14 years. It also shows an increasingly furious pattern of
search-behavior centered each year around the months of May and
December, like a heartbeat beginning to race.
Without much critical examination, teachers accept they have to grade,
students accept they have to be graded, students are made to feel like they
should care a great deal about grades, and teachers are told they shouldn't
spend much time thinking about the why, when, and whether of grades.
Photo by ﬂickr user Kristina Alexanderson
"[Competitive schooling, grades, credentials] seem to me the most
authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions.”
John Holt, Instead of Education
Grades have been naturalized in EDU to the point that new teachers don't
feel they can safely explore alternative approaches to assessment. In my
experience, new teachers are rarely told they have to grade, but grading is
internalized as an imperative nonetheless.
We have created increasingly elaborate methods of assessment, all while
failing to recognize that the students themselves are often the best (and
always resident) experts in their own learning.
Photo by ﬂickr user Matt Barnett
An “objective” system for grading was created so systematized schooling
could scale. And we’ve designed technological tools in the 20th and 21st
Centuries that have allowed us to scale further.Toward standardization and
away from subjectivity, human relationships, and care.
Photo by ﬂickr userVictoria Pickering
Why do we attempt so often to resolve this...
Photo by ﬂickr userVictoria Pickering
“ANGEL helps busy educators manage grades with ﬂexible features that
are easy to use. Automated Agents Save Time.”
Canvas:“Grades can serve as a communication tool between students and
instructors and allow instructors to track the progress of students.”
“Blackboard is a course management platform that allows instructors to
interact with students … from putting up copies of handouts and
presentations to quizzing students on what they’ve learned to calculating
student grades and putting them online.”
The learning management system and the grade book are red herrings,
symptoms of a much larger beast that has its teeth on education: the rude
quantiﬁcation of learning, the reduction of teaching to widgets and students
to data points.
Photo by ﬂickr user ninniane
The grade takes the complexity of human interaction within a learning
environment and makes it machine-readable: [A/A-] [A-/B+] [F+] [97%]
[59%] [18/20] [10/20] [high ﬁrst] [low 2:1]
Photo by ﬂickr user A L
We’ve built an impenetrable phalanx of clarity, certainty, and defensibility.
There is no space for student agency in a system of incessant grading,
ranking, and scoring.And we generally leave students out of discussions
about their own assessment.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues against the banking
model, in which education “becomes an act of depositing, in which the
students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.”
Photo by ﬂickr user Fio
In place of the banking model, Freire advocates for “problem-posing
education,” in which a classroom or learning environment becomes a space
for asking questions -- a space of cognition not information.Vertical (or
hierarchical) relationships give way to more playful ones.
Photo by ﬂickr user Fio
Grades are the biggest thorn in the side of Critical Pedagogy—and the
biggest barrier to realizing its radical potential.
Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a
hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages
competition by ranking students against one another. Grades are currency
for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere
transaction. Grading is a massive co-ordinated effort to take humans out of
the educational process.
Ultimately, any good assessment strategy demands us to adapt, in the
moment, as we encounter each new group of students.This attention to
context, our own and our students’, is what critical pedagogy calls for.
Authentic feedback (and evaluation) means honoring subjectivity and
requires that we show up as our full selves, both teachers and learners, to
the work of education.
“Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once
we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the
grade rather than for learning.”
Peter Elbow,“Grading Student Writing: Making it Simpler, Fairer, Clearer”
I would argue grading, by any of our conventional academic metrics,
undermines the work:
• Grades are not good incentive.
• Grades are not good feedback.
• Grades are not good markers of learning.
• Grades don't reﬂect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of
• Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration.
• Grades aren't “fair.”
“Research shows three reliable effects when students are graded:They tend
to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in learning itself.”
Alﬁe Kohn,“The Trouble with Rubrics”
I’ve foregone grades on individual assignments for over 18 years. My goal in
eschewing grades has been to more honestly engage student work rather
than simply evaluate it.
While I've experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I
have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in ﬁnal grades at the end of
the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given
“Because I put myself outside of the grading loop, I can focus all my efforts
on feedback and encouragement -- on teaching, not grading.”
Laura Gibbs, “(Un)Grading: It Can Be Done in College”
My view of students as complex and deeply committed to their education
is fueled by the thousands of self-reﬂection letters I've read throughout my
career.What happens with almost every single student is that any
assumption I might make about them is squashed by what they write about
themselves and their work.
“Liking and disliking seem like unpromising topics in an exploration of
assessment.They seem to represent the worst kind of subjectivity, the
merest accident of personal taste. But I've recently come to think that the
phenomenon of liking is perhaps the most important evaluative response
for writers and teachers to think about.”
Peter Elbow,“Ranking, Evaluating, Liking”
There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can ﬁnd no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
'Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial afﬂiction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 't is like the distance
On the look of death.
~ Emily Dickinson
The digital humanities course I
teach for undergraduates has as
its ﬁrst assignment the breaking
of something as an act of literary
criticism. Speciﬁcally, I ask
students to take the words of a
poem by Emily Dickinson,
“There’s a certain slant of light,”
and rearrange them into
something else.They use any or
all of the words that appear in
the poem as many or as few
times as they want.What they
build takes any shape: text, image,
video, a poem, a pile, sense-
making or otherwise.
Breaking Stuff as an Act of Literary Criticism
“Deconstructing Digital Literature” by Timothy Merritt
Shadows the landscape like death
Tis heavenly when it goes
Haiku by Rachel Blume
"A Certain Slant of Light,Typographically Speaking" by Lans Paciﬁco
“To sacriﬁce a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in
deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some
professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own