Operation Varsity Blues

What's the Best Way to Grade College Students?

Is it Time to Institute 'Ungrading'?

I just read about professors who seem to believe going gradeless in college classes is a good idea. There seems to be serious consideration in some corners to change the traditional way of evaluating the work of college students. Quite frankly, this scares me.

Is there something wrong with the way college students are now being evaluated? Why the need for a change? It’s not like graduates are failing to perform in their chosen jobs. There is no valid reason to change a time-honored system of grading unless there’s ample proof the new system produces a better product.

The scary thing for me is this is a manifestation of the entitlement society we live in. According to the proposal, students should be entitled to be graded on nebulous standards that are “student-centered” rather than determined by the faculty. I worry that the work ethic that is so important for success in business and other pursuits will give way to meeting self-serving standards that purport to produce a better outcome.

In an article by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed, Marcus-Schultz-Bergin, a professor of philosophy at Cleveland State University, is quoted as saying: “My hope,” for students, “is that the reflection they engaged in, and the discussions we had, will lead to a significant commitment in the second half of the course to really achieve what they set out for themselves so that when they tell me they earned an “A” grade they can really mean it.” So, students will set the rules, decide whether they played by them, and then grade their own performance, if I understand it correctly. Really?

Apparently, one reason for the shift is to suggest that students should be asked “why, when and how they learn, what we [teachers] can get back is way more valuable than any standardized assessment mechanism can reveal.” This quote is from Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington. Stommel refers to the issue “ungrading,” and says it “creates space for that kind of honest reflection and dialogue.”

With all due respect to director Stommel, if a college has to ask its students the why, when, and how they learn, it has, in my view, failed in its abilities to determine these issues through the teaching process, in-class discussions, and grading. It’s the instructor’s job to make these determinations through experience, reflection, and even out-of-class discussions with students.

I liken ungrading to asking student (basketball) athletes whether a basket is worth two or three points without regard to the three-point line. Maybe a two point shot in traffic and contested is worth more than a three point shot when the shooter is not being guarded.

Schultz-Bergin is also quoted as saying, that students would still have to be graded since most institutions require it. But the process is based on students “semiregularly reflect[ing] independently, with their peers and with their professors on their learning and performance in a given course. Those reflections…help students to learn better and equip them to eventually grade themselves.” Grader

Interestingly, but not surprising, Schultz-Bergin says that “Professors who have gone gradeless say that students sometime give themselves higher grades than they deserve [what a surprise!]. But they report that’s it’s uncommon, and that they talk with the student about it when it does happen.

I don’t get the last comment. It seems Schultz-Bergin implies that the professors have evaluated the students. How else could they have those discussions. But, what standards are they using? Their own? Standards set by the students? Is it right to have students develop the standards, assuming this is the case, and then being told they mis-graded themselves? It’s confusing to say the least and possibly counter-productive to learning.

My view is why change a system if it’s not broke. To demonstrate the system is broken there needs to be solid evidence that the replacement “ungrading” somehow produces a better graduate who can contribute more to society when they make up the grading scheme themselves rather than the traditional way.

Finally, have these schools considered that accrediting agencies may balk at the student-centered grading? Will it affect their accreditation standards? I know of no accrediting body that doesn’t have some grading standards (by the professor) included in its requirements.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 10, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.

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