Written by Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

____

I’ve been teaching college English for more than 30 years. Four years ago, I stopped putting grades on written work, and it has transformed my teaching and my students’ learning. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

Starting in elementary school, teachers rate student work – sometimes with stars and checkmarks, sometimes with actual grades. Usually by middle school, when most students are about 11, a system of grading is firmly in place. In the U.S., the most common system is an “A” for superior work, through “F” for failure, with “E” almost always skipped.

This system was widely adopted only in the 1940s, and even now, some schools, colleges and universities use other means of assessing students. But the practice of grading, and ranking, students is so widespread as to seem necessary, even though many researchers say it is highly inequitable. For example, students who come into a course with little prior knowledge earn lower grades at the start, which means they get a lower final average, even if they ultimately master the material. Grades have other problems: They are demotivating, they don’t actually measure learning and they increase students’ stress.

During the pandemic, many instructors and even whole institutions offered pass/fail options or mandated pass/fail grading. They did so both to reduce the stress of remote education and because they saw that the emergency, disruptive to everyone, was disproportionately challenging for students of color. Many, however, later resumed grading, not acknowledging the ways that traditional assessments can both perpetuate inequity and impede learning.

I started my journey toward what’s called “ungrading” before the pandemic. In continuing it throughout, I have seen the effects, which are like those observed by other researchers in the field.