Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Kresge Library, Room 430
100 Library Drive
Rochester, Michigan 48309-4479
(location map)
(248) 370-2751
[email protected]

Large bird flying in a golden sky.

Grading as Domination: Why I Gave Up Grading

Mon Dec 6, 2021 at 07:30 AM

Rob Anderson is associate professor and chair of the English Department at Oakland University. This piece is the first in a series of OU faculty sharing alternative grading approaches.

In the summer before my first job, I called in to a national radio show about grading. I mentioned that I was about to head to Francis Marion University. I explained that, as a grad student, I got frustrated with grading and decided to do an experiment: if the students would commit to take the class as seriously as if they were being graded, I would give them all “A’s.” It was liberating. At the end of what I thought was a successful semester, one student gloated on the course evaluations that he’d coasted on the class and still got the promised “A.” I noted ironically on air that the student sure pulled a fast one on me. 

When I showed up on campus for my job, one of my new colleagues introduced himself and commented about my fame. He explained that a friend of his had heard me on the radio show, and asked him what kind of people they were hiring at Francis Marion. Before I even had time to panic, he laughed and said he hated grading, but had never done anything about it. Chastened by my close call and apprehensive about my non-tenure track position, I resumed grading. It was awful as it was before.

While I have found studies that confirm my experience, I won’t bother with them here. I’ve stopped grading because it hinders teaching and learning. Grading is counterproductive. It doesn’t help students learn. It is deceptive. The letters and numbers we use to assign grades carry an air of rigor that is misleading. Students taking a section of my ENG 1700 class who receive, say, a B+ may not understand exactly what that means about their work (in spite of rubrics or explanations), but the apparent precision of the grade affords confidence that it means the same thing in my class as it does in another section of the same class. That’s frankly not true. This doesn’t mean that every teacher has different standards. As everyone who has graded student writing knows, every piece of student work is unsuccessful and successful in many ways. It is impossible to make a rubric that can account for the myriad combinations of sentence clarity, organizational coherence, intellectual engagement, sustained investigation, addressing the assignment, and capacity to be interesting.

I could go on describing the problems with grading (it’s an exercise in domination, it creates an antagonistic relation between students and teachers, it’s a waste of time, it’s stifling to students) but I don’t think it is necessary. I can’t remember talking with a colleague who thought grading was an unproblematic practice. In my experience, most of my colleagues find it a nuisance they tolerate because they feel it’s a professional obligation. I’m arguing it isn’t. Abandoning grading isn’t a copout. It’s not the easy way out. It lets teachers concentrate on teaching and students on learning.

Although I’ve always looked for ways to de-emphasize grading, it wasn’t until very recently that I gave it up altogether. I didn’t give up grading just to avoid the pitfalls I discussed above. I gave it up to liberate my students from feeling like they had to guess what I was expecting. Students are grade-grubbers because everything in their academic lives—especially their teachers—pressures them to do so. Removing the grade frees them from the urge to replicate what they think the teacher wants. It has also been liberating for me. When I don’t attach a grade to an assignment, I can devote my energies to suggesting improvements rather than justifying the grade. 

The absence of a grade is no panacea. It does leave students with questions that can be frustrating. When students ask questions about papers I’ve commented on, the most frequent question (other than asking for help interpreting my handwriting) is some form of, “Is it good?” I rarely give a straightforward answer. I always try to point out both strengths and weaknesses in papers—so the answer is always some version of, “Yes, but there is plenty of room for improvement.” It’s always true. In fact, it’s truer than saying, “It’s worth a ‘B.’”

Removing grades from the equation makes it possible for students to take risks in unconventional assignments. My courses on Literature of the British Romantic Period now focus on representations of plants and animals (daffodils, lambs, nightingales). Their final projects ask them to write about a tree or natural spot that means something to them. The assignment asks them to spend time observing the tree or the spot. In their papers, they record their observations, relate their history with the spot, and then work in discussions of the texts we’ve read (poems and contemporary essays on our relations with the non-human world). Before my taking my class, few of them have written anything like this. Some are overwhelmed by the strangeness of the assignment and the freedom created by the absence of the grade. I respond to their requests for more explicit guidelines by asking them what they think is the best way for them to integrate the elements into a satisfying essay. Their confusion begins conversations. The freedom brought about by the removal of grades does make a difference. Students ultimately say they feel relieved and liberated when the grade is not looming over their heads. They also say the added responsibility makes them feel less infantilized.

Do these changes—the relief, the liberation, the responsibility—make for better papers? It’s hard to say. I’d like to say the grading does make the papers better, but I can’t. I can say that removing grades doesn’t make them worse. Given the ethical, political, and pedagogical problems involved with grading, the fact that it doesn’t hurt their papers is reason enough to give not grading a chance.

Photo by Hassan Pasha on Unsplash. View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.