Radically Respecting My Students: A Semester Without Grades

Radically Respecting My Students: A Semester Without Grades

“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. Obedience to a system of crude ranking is crafted to feel altruistic, because it’s supposedly fair, saves time, and helps prepare students for the horrors of the “real world.” Conscientious objection is made to seem impossible.”

-Jesse Strommel,How to Ungrade

This semester I did something I always wanted to do. I taught an “ungraded” course.

It was Introduction to Veterans Studies, a course that teaches students to critically examine the identities, cultures, and experiences of military veterans. I used a number of ungraded techniques: grade proposals at midterm and finals; choice of assignments in demonstrating mastery of content; we voted on class activities. The one mandatory requirement was a scaffolded oral history project in which students collected and indexed stories for the William H. Berge Center.

Some questions I repeatedly asked the students:

  • How can you connect this content to what you are learning in your major courses?
  • How can what we are learning help you better understand your friends and family members who are veterans?
  • Think of a way this knowledge could be useful in your future career. What if you work with veterans, supervise veterans, or provide them with goods or services?
  • How might we go out into the world and make it just a little bit better for former service members?

I focused on intrinsic motivation. I tried to help them find reasons to care (Read More: “Why Asking Students to Choose the Grade They Want Motivates Them to Learn”). This task is not straightforward. First, I had to check my ego at the door. I had to accept that a lot of the students had taken the class because the time was convenient or because it fulfilled some university requirement.

It wasn’t their job to know how the class could make them more effective in their careers. They couldn’t have known that understanding the difference between an Army soldier in WW2 and a Marine in the Iraq War could help them move past superficial rhetoric and strengthen relationships with friends and loved ones who had served. They didn’t walk into the first class, see me standing there with my fancy hat and diet coke and think, “That man is going to teach me how to change the world!”

It was my job to teach them why they should care. It was my job to believe in the content, the course, and most importantly, the students. I had to give respect to get respect. Looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Learning from Past Mistakes

To be fair, I should say that this semester is the first time I successfully taught an ungraded course. I fell flat on my face the first few times I tried.

My most memorable failure was in 2017. It was a film course. I spent months designing it. It used the Star Trek franchise to explore filmmaking techniques, narrative structure, mise-en-scène, and the human experience. I think the class went downhill when one of my students went to the Department Chair to complain.

“He’s making us play video games.”

Yes, this was an actual complaint. For the final project, students used the “Foundry,” a tool in the game Star Trek Online used to create in-game story missions. They needed to demonstrate knowledge of things like plot structure and character development by creating their own episodes. I even got the game’s Executive Producer and one of the lead designers to skype into the class.

I had the best of intentions, and my Chair tried to explain this to the student, but I couldn’t help but feel like there was an insurrection brewing as the semester progressed. At one point I said, “Don’t worry about the grades. Just complete the assignment using the rubric and you will good to go.”

It turns out students worry a lot about grades. Grades get them scholarships, into grad schools, and the approval of their family. My student had every reason not to take me at my word. She had put a lot of work into a GPA that is valuable in our current system. She had not been convinced that the study of film or learning new technology was valuable her. I had failed to motivate her in that regard. That was my first mistake.

My second mistake was not explicitly stating in my syllabus that the final and other major assignments would be ungraded. If I am being honest, that particular job was precarious, so I had been afraid of rocking the boat too much. I was less afraid after my Chair learned about my plans and backed me 100%. But we were well into the semester at that point. I provided a rubric with a list of clear criteria for the ungraded assignments. But the stated structure of the class likely seemed as though I was keeping a grade in my back pocket just in case the students didn’t meet some unspoken expectation.

Furthermore, I don’t think I did a very good job teaching my students why the content mattered in that particular class. I still look back and cringe. Star Trek was my passion, not theirs. I struggled thinking of ways that the content would make them better nurses, accountants, engineers, or lawyers. I thought it could teach them about humanity and rhetoric. But I hadn’t quite articulated why my passion should matter to them. That was my job as much as teaching content. 

Gul DukatThe course wasn’t a complete failure. We had some powerful discussions about the episodes. I remember one student, an English Major, telling me that the course had inspired her to pursue a career in the video game industry after we watched a short film about women game designers. Another student gave a chilling in-character speech as the infamous Deep Space Nine villain, Gul Dukat. He mimicked contemporary nationalistic rhetoric, seething with self-righteous conviction like a true Cardassian.

Still, my students weren’t Trekkies. They had little time to master a complex video game creation suite. And I hadn’t convinced them of why they should bother. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to teach the class. I certainly wasn’t ready to teach without grades.

You Live. You Learn. 

“Ungraded” can refer to more than gradeless classrooms. Teasing out these nuances was the premise behind the Professional Learning Community I took part in this semester. Our group will be presenting alongside some of our students at next week’s online Pedagogicon conference. It’s free, online, and all are welcome. They have a great lineup centered on the theme of “Students as Partners.”

Matt Winslow (Psychology) and I helped organize our motley, interdisciplinary crew of ungraders: Michelle Gremp (Curriculum and Instruction), Eric Meiners (Communication), Ellen McMahan (Exercise & Sport Science), Gaby Bedetti (English), and Stacey Korson (Curriculum and Instruction), Lisa Bosley (English), David Stumbo (Safety, Security, and Emergency Management), and Jamie Shaffer, our Teaching and Learning Initiatives Coordinator. We all shared a desire to help students focus on learning and growth instead of grades.

Our central text was Susan Blum’s “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College (2016). We attended a fantastic webinar, “Ungrading: Pedagogical Possibilities for Going Beyond the Grade,” hosted by Plymouth State University. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit we moved to online meetings. With campuses nationwide considering pass/fail options and taking into account students extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, we found what we were doing particularly relevant. (Read More: “We Are All Ungraders Now”).

Approaches tested in our learning community ranged from gradeless classrooms like mine to small changes or modular innovations:

  • Democratizing the classroom by collaborating on grading contracts or rubrics,
  • Emphasizing intrinsic motivation by allowing students to choose assignments that connected the materials to their future goals or scholarly interests,
  • Lowering the stakes of assignments by allowing students to revise and resubmit their work using evaluative feedback,
  • Focusing on skills or content mastery through methods other than grading. 

These are just a few examples. Personally, I would consider any classroom approach ungraded if it shifts emphasis away from grades and toward learning and growth.

“If you weigh 200 pounds and you go on a diet and drop 50, you don’t weigh 175 pounds.”

This was an analogy that Gill Hunter used during a Teaching and Learning Initiatives session we led last fall. Many of the participants later became members of our motley crew. And it was interesting to see many participants who didn’t believe ungrading was realistic pedagogy, but who attended in hopes that there was a better alternative than the current system. I feel like we need me more honest inquiry and intellectual humility like that in higher education.

I’d never heard Gill’s analogy prior to that event, but it really stuck with me. Of course where a student ends up at the end of the semester matters more than how they got there. That’s the whole point of a college class. Students take classes to engage in a process of learning, not to demonstrate what they already know. So, why should grades be used to lessen their accomplishments by giving them demerits for the trial and error that leads to growth?

Gradeless classrooms are one end of the ungraded spectrum. I laughed when Gaby said I was “something of a purist” when I explained my grade proposal plans. I wanted a class that focused on revision and evaluative feedback because of scholars like Alfie Kohn. Research shows that students disregard evaluative feedback the moment they are labeled with a grade. Check the garbage cans in your classrooms when you hand back an essay with a final grade on it versus when there’s opportunity for further growth. You’ll see a difference.

My grade proposals, in particular, were based upon Blum’s approach in her Food and Culture class, an elaborate self-appraisal that combines such metacognitive strategies as self-assessment, reflection, and synthesis. My version of the grade proposal focused on the course student learning outcomes:

  1. Build upon Veterans Studies research into the cultural, political, and economic norms within specific veteran sub- groups to identify patterns of societal reassimilation amongst veterans of different eras. 
  2. Articulate “the wounds of war” as physical, social, psychological, and spiritual traumas, relating the impacts of branch, military occupational specialties, and eras of service to the post-service well-being of military veterans. 
  3. Identify instances of resiliency and “post-traumatic growth” in the veteran population. 
  4. Describe the obstacles faced by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans through research into their post-service progress as American citizens as portrayed by various artistic and literary artifacts/movements. 
  5. Demonstrate comprehension of issues faced by veterans in society by analyzing contemporary trends amongst the sub-groups of today’s veterans through the relational, cultural, and institutional lenses of Veterans Studies. 

I asked students to tell me what they knew about the topics at the beginning of the semester. I asked them to tell me what they knew at the end. I told them to tell me how external factors like global pandemics impacted their performance. They had to cite two examples from their work  as evidence of growth in each area. Finally, I asked them to tell me what their inner-motivation for learning about each topic was. So long as the students met three criteria, they received their proposed grade:

  • You did not violate EKU’s Academic Integrity Policy. Examples of this would be plagiarism or falsely representing the work you completed this semester.
  • You completed the Oral History Project or an approved alternative. This assignment was the only mandatory requirement in the course.
  • You submitted this grade proposal and completed it in its entirety. If you do not submit this proposal your grade will be decided by the instructor.

At the end, I asked students to reflect on their performance in the class as a whole and tell me the grade they believed they earned.

How My Class Turned Out

This one goes out to the pessimists and skeptics out there: None of the students gamed the system and completed only the oral history project. All but one student turned in the grade proposal. And, no, they didn’t all give themselves A’s.

The students repeatedly came up with innovative ways to demonstrate their knowledge. I was surprised by how many chose to write papers. But others latched onto posters, infographics, and other mediums each week. I started using Flipgrid as a discussion tool after we went online due to COVID and found myself greatly enjoying their commentary on the course materials. I understand the need to communicate clearly and effectively in writing and speech (I am an English major), but there is something to be said for low stakes discussions separated from grammatical constructs that focus exclusively on ideas.

I found reflected in their work my stated goal of connecting the study of veterans to their personal or professional lives. And the students themselves said repeatedly that the ungraded approach helped them focus more on learning.

One of my students, Robert, wrote a short reflection article for our program’s website: “The ungraded approach] made me push myself harder knowing I would have more control over how and what I learned. I felt I could put my full effort into the class not worrying so much about getting perfect grades. Instead, I used my best judgment to decide how the class would unfold for me personally.” (Read More: “My Experience Learning About the Vietnam War in VTS 200”).

Here are some direct quotes from the reflections in their grade proposals:

I felt very back and fourth on the no grades system throughout this semester. But ultimately I feel like it really forced me to take responsibility for myself and my actions and helped me to prioritize what was important to me. On days where I had other pressing matters, I didn’t have to worry much about getting the work done because it was not technically a grade, and on the other hand I knew I needed to do as much work as possible so I could show myself and you that I deserve the grade that I want and deserve. I think it really shows, especially the underclassmen, what the real world is like. For example I graduate next week, as crazy as that sounds, but my job is not going to grade me.”

“I feel that this was a worthwhile learning experience, and the “ungraded” classroom helped me learn the information rather than memorizing it for an exam. It made me more motivated to learn … based on what our interests are, rather than being assigned a certain topic that may not interest everyone and not getting the full learning opportunity out of it as a result. The pressure of grades being lifted was very helpful in my learning. I will use this information in my career to communicate and treat symptoms of my patients that are veterans and have a better understanding of the culture and problems that may be prevalent in this population as a result of this course.

“The thing I prefer about this “ungraded” system is that you have to justify the grade you think you deserve. You have to provide proof in your work.”

“My final paper was written about veteran resiliency. I’m proud of our fellow student S– for being a great example of resiliency … I think we could all learn a thing or two from him. I’m thankful for the oral history project for allowing me to get to know a veteran friend on a whole new level. I’m thankful for the opportunity to give him the proper thanks he didn’t get when coming home from Vietnam.”

“My emotions were brought out in this class, and for me that plays a huge role in learning … It is not every day that I cry during a lecture or video shown in class. That happened more than once for this course. Being connected to the content in that way definitely motivated me more to do my assignments and not think of them as tasks. I thought of them more as an experience that provided me knowledge on how to better provide for people in life and in my nursing career.”

“The ungraded system in this class has helped me beyond measure this semester. It removes so much stress from your shoulders that you do not even realize is there. When students do not have to worry about doing every single thing correctly to earn a grade, it allows them to pay more attention in class and actually learn the material instead of just memorizing it for the upcoming test or relative assignment. I am most proud of the interview I had with a veteran.”

They go on like this. I am sure that some of the flattery was tied to a perceived need to write a convincing grade proposal. But a few common themes emerged: students were “thankful” for things they learned; these lessons evoked strong “emotions”; they believed what they learned would stick with them; and ungrading removed a lot of “stress.”

Did some students overestimate themselves? Yes. I don’t know if there is any getting around that with the method I used. But I’ve begun exploring why it matters to me so much. Why am I so concerned about students “getting over”? It seems like a very gatekeepery thing to worry about. After all, cramming a bunch of knowledge into one’s brain prior to exam with no intention of remembering it long term is just another form of “getting over.” I want my students to learn, not perform the role of student in some elaborate ritual.

Another place I had to check my ego was after the pandemic, when students openly told me they skipped assignments or needed extensions because they were worried about their other classes. Instinctually, I think any teacher would ask, “Wait, my class is less important?” But think about it. Of course students are going to prioritize a graded course over an ungraded one. The graded classes had consequences that mine did not. That was the whole point. I wanted to remove consequences so that the desire to learn came from within.

Moving forward, I want to focus more on structure. Several students told me that loose deadlines actually made the semester harder. They let the work pile up, and before long, it began to feel like a chore. To their credit, grades show students where and when to put in the most effort. It wasn’t always apparent to my students that a particular speaker, reading, or viewing was crucial.

I still adhere to an attendance policy, so I’ve developed some active listening sheets for the students to turn in after each class. I hope these will show them where to direct their attention. I am also going to incorporate more low stakes quizzes. They will be ungraded and have unlimited attempts. Retrieval practice is a learning method backed by science. I am also considering offering students the option of opting into a graded system and beginning the class by writing a contract together.  In other words, I have big plans for the fall.

The university requires that all instructors submit socially constructed labels that reflect students’ abilities to subordinate themselves within larger power structures. So, I sent the standard A, B, C, D, or F to the registrar. I played by the rules despite trying to flex my subversiveness in this blog. But I am going to keep seeing how far I can push democratization without sacrificing quality.

Ungrading, to me, has been an experiment in egalitarianism. As I continue to grow as an educator, I think I would rather be a mentor than a task master. I have never particularly enjoyed exerting power over others. And though society and our educational system grants me the authority to assign grades, I am no longer convinced that grades and learning are connected.

Grades seem to have more to do with justifying the educator’s right to label a student proficient or deficient. This threat holds great sway; it extrinsically motivates many students. And let me clear: I am not trying to make a moralistic argument about the use of grades. I do not believe for a second that graders have anything other than their students’ best interests at heart.

However, I have come to see grades as a confluence of power, consequences, trust, and learning that can limit student potential. That’s the system we live in. So, I don’t fault people for playing by the rules. But is there a better way? If so, shouldn’t higher education be on the forefront of these innovations?

This semester has taught me that intrinsic motivation can result in knowledge that is both meaningful and long-lasting. From experience, I look back on what I learned in college and remember only those assignments and courses which were made to matter to me on some personal or professional level. I’ve never had so many students tell me they were “thankful” for a college course. I no longer feel the need to use grades to convince my students that I have something to teach them. If I could summarize the experience of teaching without grades I would say,

“I radically engaged in the act of respecting my students.”

I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they would want to learn when given the opportunity. I did not begin the semester under the assumption that they would do the bare minimum. I believed in their abilities and I tried to support them each step of the way. In return, they respected my knowledge and expertise. The students–not some external source of power–granted me the right to teach. I think the way that privilege was bestowed upon me might have been the most rewarding aspect of all.

Travis L. MartinPhD, is founding director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He has established several nationally recognized programs to support returning veterans in higher education and the non-profit sector. A scholar of American literature, psychoanalytic trauma theory, and social theory, Dr. Martin presents frequently at conferences and universities. He has published dozens of research articles and creative short works on veterans’ issues. A former sergeant in the U.S. Army, he served during two deployments in the Iraq War (2003-04 & 2005). His book War and Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generation is slated for publication with the University Press of Kentucky in 2022. He resides in Richmond, KY.