Grade Anarchy & Student Learning (guest post by Marcus Schultz-Bergin)


“My core hypothesis was that student learning would actually be improved by eliminating instructor grading from the course.”

Marcus Schultz-Bergin, a philosopher in the Department of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Cleveland State University, has put a lot of research and a fair amount of courage into trying something rather different in his Philosophy of Law course this term. He tells us how it has been going in the following guest post*, a version of which originally appeared at his blog.


[Norman Bluhm, “Inside the Muzzle”]

Grade Anarchy & Student Learning
by Marcus Schultz-Bergin

How will a lack of instructor grading and assignment due dates influence student learning? That is the question I sought out to answer when designing my Philosophy of Law course this semester. The course involved 3 main changes from a standard course:

  1. Students would be provided with a ‘buffet’ of learning opportunities which they could complete at their discretion.
  2. The only required assignments were 3 reflection essays: An early semester Achievement Essay, a Mid-Term Learning Reflection, and a Final Learning Reflection. The aim of these essays was to have students identify what they wanted to achieve and then discuss how they achieved their goals and where they still needed to work.
  3. Students meet with me for two Learning Conferences—one at the mid-term and the other at the end of the semester. In each of these we discuss the learning reflection, the student’s portfolio of work, and end with having the student tell me their grade for the course.

As we recently completed the mid-term grade conferences, I thought it was a good time to provide an update on how the course is going.

The Rationale

Both in class and in the course syllabus I discussed with the students my rationale for this experiment. My core hypothesis was that student learning would actually be improved by eliminating instructor grading from the course. To justify that hypothesis I presented the following argument to my students:

  1. Grades do not track learning (or anything else of importance). Grades—whether in the forms of letters or numbers or percentages, etc.—do not satisfactorily correlate with student learning or really any other thing we would care about. (See, e.g., Schinske & Tanner 2014: “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)”)
  2. Grading actually reduces student learning. Grades do at least 3 terrible things to student psychology: they increase anxiety, place the focus on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation, and encourage strategic performance (“how little can I do to still get the grade I want?”). Each of these takes away from learning by discouraging a focus on what you are doing and discouraging taking risks that may lead to failure. But we learn most from our failures, and so you should be encouraged to fail. (See, e.g., Olson 2006, “The wounds of schooling”; De Zouche 1945, “The wound is mortal”; Butler 1988, “Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation”)
  3. Only receiving feedback increases student learning. The same study has been repeated over and over again: students who only receive feedback on an assignment (rather than only a grade or both a grade and feedback) make the greatest improvement in their learning. Grades end learning opportunities by essentially saying “this is done”. Feedback continues the conversation. (See, e.g., Marshall 1968, Teaching without Grades; Pulfrey, et al 2011, “Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals”)
  4. Self-evaluation and self-reflection improve student learning. Self-evaluation and reflection promote ownership of one’s own learning and therefore assist in an individual’s development into a self-regulated learner who will be capable of learning and honestly evaluating themselves for their entire life. Reflection also encourages recognizing how the educational experience is changing you as a person. Self-evaluation and reflection can be done in a graded classroom, but is more significant in a gradeless classroom. (See, e.g., Grolnick & Ryan 1987, “Autonomy in children’s learning”; Kaplan, et al (eds) 2013, Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning)

Obviously given that rationale, my main concern is whether students learned in the course. There are a variety of ways to assess student learning, and so below I break down my observations based on various possible lines of evidence for student learning.

Attendance & Participation

Active engagement is essential to student learning. And in a small discussion course like Philosophy of Law, it is even more important. In similar classes, many professors may make attendance and participation mandatory, enforcing such things through the grading system. I, of course, did not do that, and so one concern that may be raised is that attendance could be quite poor and/or there may be a lack of participation (perhaps due to a lack of preparation since there was no grade penalty for not being prepared).

While I do not have direct comparative data with regard to attendance, overall I would suggest that there has been little to no impact—positive or negative. Comparing my course to another 300-level philosophy course, I have weeks where attendance is significantly better and other weeks where attendance is poorer (the week after Spring Break was particularly poor on this front, but was certainly an aberration).

Students have indicated that without the grade pressure to attend, they are a little more likely to miss a class if other things come up. I don’t necessarily see this as a problem—it is not the case that students are just skipping because they do not feel like showing up. Instead, they are making a judgment about other commitments or deciding to take care of their health rather than risk infecting others.

As for participation, things are quite good. Although students are not punished if they are not prepared, most students come having read the material (and often preparing a summary and/or questions, as I mention below) and attempt to engage in the discussion. Certainly there have been cases where students showed up unprepared, but the benefit here is that the students still feel comfortable showing up since there was no penalty for being ill prepared.

Finally, it is worth noting a particular experience we had in the class. We read a class court case—Riggs v. Palmer—and the plan for the day was simply to debate the case. We wanted to understand the arguments the judges presented for their rulings, discuss others, and then identify what the case could teach us about the nature of law (the case is referenced by Ronald Dworkin in his criticisms of H.L.A. Hart’s legal positivism). On this day, I had students who had prepared pages of notes—working to consider possible objections to their position and how to respond—and the debate was vociferous but civil and incredibly detailed. All of this without any grade attached to any part of the day.

Assignments

Attendance is easy, some may say, the real test is whether the students would actually complete any assignments for the course, and if so, whether those assignments would indicate any real degree of learning. If students could get away without completing a single assignment, would they? Similarly, if students knew whatever they turned in would not be graded, would they turn in junk work, figuring they could just get by with saying “well I turned stuff in!”

On this front, there were both victories and defeats. I did have some students who did not submit any meaningful assignment before the mid-term. I also had some students who perhaps knew they had to submit something but didn’t put much effort in (its also possible they did put effort in but just did not do well).

But, I also had some students complete a significant number of assignments—more than I probably would have assigned in a standard course—and I had students use the lack of a grade as a ‘training ground’ to improve specific skills. For instance, many students indicated they wanted to get better at extracting arguments from complex philosophical texts. Some of these students submitted a fair number (perhaps around 5 in half a semester) of summaries where they attempted just that. Early on things did not go well, but by the end both they and I saw significant growth. And we still have half a semester left.

Additionally, I have had students sign up to be discussion leaders for most of the classes. Here they put together a 1-page handout and work to really embody the author’s position and defend it, while also promoting discussion on key issues. This often requires a significant amount of extra work, and while not every student has signed up to do it, some have signed up to do it on multiple occasions.

Moreover, I have students planning interesting final paper projects. This includes, for instance, two students working together to engage in a written debate on a topic, so each will be producing at least 2 papers and genuinely engaging objections, etc.

Nevertheless, I think this is a place where I could have done better. I have since noticed that most gradeless classrooms (of course these are often K-12, but that shouldn’t matter much) do not eliminate specific assignments. Rather, there is still an assignment schedule and students are still expected to follow it. But the instructor just provides feedback on those assignments and then students compile the assignments into a portfolio for the learning conferences.

In the future, I think I will do something similar. The idea of producing a portfolio is really great for the student, and fits well with a lot of what we know about enhancing student learning (since it requires reflection and meta-cognition) and that is really what I had in mind in the first place. But, of course, it just didn’t work with everyone. Especially those few students who are simply quite bad at organizing their own time and so need the deadlines to keep them on track.

Learning Conferences & Student Grades

The final thing to discuss is the reflection essays, learning conferences, and whether every student is just going to give her or himself an ‘A’.

Now the first thing to note here is that if the claim I made above, in my rationale, is correct—grades do not actually track learning—then we really shouldn’t be upset if “everyone gets an A”, even if they didn’t submit “A-level work”. However, I understand that many reading this will still feel as if grades matter and feel as if something terrible has happened if a student who should fail the course (or get a low grade) walks out with something higher.

The good news is, so far the evidence shows that is unlikely. But before indicating how students graded themselves, I want to say a few things about the reflection and conference process. I genuinely believe that this has been an absolutely incredible process for the students, and one that has and will continue to result in an incredible amount of intellectual growth. Sure, it isn’t necessarily “content knowledge”, but it is the sort of stuff that will make them better students and better people in the long run.

In writing their Achievement Essays, my students really considered their intellectual strengths and weaknesses and identified where they want to improve. This was especially nice to see given that I see many of the learning outcomes of a philosophy course to be general philosophical skills, like critically reading complex texts, analyzing and evaluating arguments, constructing arguments, etc. These are often the sorts of learning outcomes that it is difficult for students to identify with since they are not as concrete as “could state a definition” and the like. And so although I regularly include these sorts of outcomes in my syllabus, and craft opportunities to develop and display the skills, some students come away feeling like the activities and assignments are worthless. But, in writing these essays, these students really identified with those sorts of skills and considered how they would work on them and display them.

Moreover, some of the students really took my advice to challenge themselves in these Achievement Essays. I told them I wanted them to really shoot for the moon—they should walk out of the course feeling like they achieved a lot, but not necessarily everything they set out for themselves. That was one of the major benefits of not grading the assignments—they could really push themselves and not get anxious about failing or otherwise performing poorly.

For the Mid-Term Reflection Essays, students discussed those goals they set for themselves, as well as the course learning outcomes, and reflected on their growth thus far. Those who completed multiple iterations of the same type of assignment—say, an assignment extracting the central argument from a text—would point to how they put into action the feedback I provided early and how that led to them getting better. Others, particularly those who did not submit much, admitted their failures and set out a plan for themselves for the second half of the course. Either way, students were quite honest with themselves and really treated their successes and their failures as as on them in a way that I don’t always see in a standard class.

Finally, what did the grades look like? Well, most students suggested they had thus far earned a “C+/B-“, with some even suggesting a “D” and only one claiming to have earned an “A”. And, by and large, the grades they assigned themselves were about where I would have put them as well. In a few cases, I think they were lower than where I believed they were. Mid-Term grades, of course, don’t actually matter, and so that may have allowed them to be more honest without consequence. So the final grades may see inflation. But, my hope 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” they can really mean it.

Conclusion

In sum, the experiment has had its ups and downs. There are definitely some things I will change going forward, but I do think the gradeless approach can work well in a course like this.

In the Fall of 2019 I will be teaching an Introduction to Political Philosophy course and I am contemplating, depending on size and some other factors, running that course as a gradeless classroom as well. If I do, I will certainly still maintain an assignment schedule but will only provide feedback on those assignments. In light of that, I will also provide more specific guidelines for the conferences to ensure students are motivated to produce a portfolio of work that they can refer to in reflecting on their learning and growth.


UPDATE: Inside Higher Ed reports on this post and “ungrading” more generally.

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