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Why I Don't Grade


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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:

How to Ungrade:

Published in: Education

Why I Don't Grade

  1. 1. Why I Don’t Grade
  2. 2. 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 work under.” Peter Elbow,“Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment”
  3. 3. 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.
  4. 4. 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)
  5. 5. 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.
  6. 6. 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.
  7. 7. 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
  8. 8. 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.
  9. 9. Photo by flickr user Ranking. Metrics. Norming. Objectivity. Uniformity.Accreditation. Measurement. Rubrics. Outcomes. Quality. Data. Performance.Averages. Excellence. Curves. Inflation. Mastery. Standardization. Rigor.
  10. 10. 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.
  11. 11. 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.
  12. 12. Photo by flickr userVictoria Pickering Why do we attempt so often to resolve this...
  13. 13. Photo by flickr userVictoria Pickering Into this?
  14. 14. “ANGEL helps busy educators manage grades with flexible features that are easy to use. Automated Agents Save Time.”
  15. 15. Canvas:“Grades can serve as a communication tool between students and instructors and allow instructors to track the progress of students.”
  16. 16. “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.”
  17. 17. 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.
  18. 18. 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]
  19. 19. 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.
  20. 20. 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
  21. 21. 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
  22. 22. Grades are the biggest thorn in the side of Critical Pedagogy—and the biggest barrier to realizing its radical potential.
  23. 23. 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.
  24. 24. 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.
  25. 25. 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.
  26. 26. “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”
  27. 27. 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 learning. • Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration. • Grades aren't “fair.”
  28. 28. “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”
  29. 29. 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.
  30. 30. 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 themselves.
  31. 31. “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”
  32. 32. 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.
  33. 33. OPTE Map of the Internet
  34. 34. “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”
  35. 35. 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
  36. 36. “Deconstructing Digital Literature” by Timothy Merritt
  37. 37. Winter Oppresses
 Shadows the landscape like death
 Tis heavenly when it goes Haiku by Rachel Blume
  38. 38. "A Certain Slant of Light,Typographically Speaking" by Lans Pacifico
  39. 39. “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