Meaningful Grading, Is It an Oxymoron?

Grading is such a slippery slope. As a kid, it was why I wanted to teach. I wanted to mark spelling papers with grades so badly. I thought grades were important. I thought good grades meant I was a good person. Very late in life (relatively speaking, that is), the light bulb came on. Grades reflect a combination of educational savviness, work ethic, and aptitude. The mixture is different for every student. They say nothing about being a good person. Most important, they [usually] say nothing about the learning that happened.

On one extreme, people (students, teachers, parents, friends) can get so caught up in grades that they lose sight of actually LEARNING. Most of us have landed here at some point, and I have yet to meet someone who enjoys the experience. Massive amounts of time can be spent detailing a grading system in the syllabus, huge piles of grading aren’t high on the list of job benefits, quibbling over a B+ vs. an A- is rarely how we like to spend office hours, and G-d help me if a parent argues with a professor over their offspring’s college grade.

On the other extreme, a class with no grading seems completely wrong to me. But, the more I thought about using no grading, the more I could see that my discomfort with it existed for the wrong reasons. Consider this:

  • no grading = no assignments (FALSE);
  • no grading = no feedback (FALSE);
  • no grading = no accountability (MAYBE);
  • no grading = blow-off class (FALSE);
  • no grading = untraditional (TRUE);
  • no grading = raised eyebrows from most students, colleagues, parents, and administrators (TRUE);
  • no grading = confusion in the registrar’s office (TRUE)
  • no grading = no learning (FALSE)

I don’t think I’ll ever be someone to completely scrap grading from my classes. But, there has to be a way of massively simplifying the process so that we can focus on learning and so that maybe, just maybe, a grade will mean something.

So, once I was comfortable that I had my colleagues’ support of my teaching (I was nearing the tenure decision time), I started experimenting. The first thing I did was adopt a colleague’s grading system of +, P, and nP. It’s easy. It’s crystal clear. Students can pretty much grade themselves. A + (plus) means you knocked it out of the park, you made us cry for all the right reasons, you nailed it. A nP (not pass) is one of the easiest grades to spot for the student and prof. And a P (pass) is everything in the middle. As I converted more classes to this system, I fine tuned how to turn it into a letter grade for the registrar’s office. In general, if you pass everything all semester, never show excellence (+), never flake out, then you earn a B- in the class. It’s an easy sell to the students, and it’s really easy to keep track of daily grades.

Best of all, this is a grading system that foregrounds excellence. Want a +? Perform an excellent assignment. Intentionally excellent. This goal requires self evaluation and good preparation. Those are skills priceless to my students (Conservatory students), and – in truth – to all of us, no matter our field of study.

Here is follow-up post on the role of redos

7 thoughts on “Meaningful Grading, Is It an Oxymoron?

  1. I’m intrigued that this system works for your students. I wonder if science students are more grade/number driven as I think that it would be hard sell for me to just give a “pass” and then convert that into the +/- system. Is a B- the real “average” at Oberlin? I wonder about grade inflation — even for me going strictly by the numbers.

    • I have no idea what the real “average” is here. B- felt about right; it leaves room for a profile with a smattering of nPs to still be a passing profile, which also feels right. I think science students could easily be swayed by the excellence argument… part of the reason why it works for me is the generous redo policy. But, since the grading system is so transparent it takes very little time for me to grade re-do, and if they’re re-doing I really do think they’re learning more (revision, etc…).

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  3. When I was a college freshman in 1968, the college I attended had adopted a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading system for freshman courses. Half of our academic load was a cross-disciplinary course based on a theme (many were offered; we chose one to register for) that was called Liberal Studies and included a combo of critical writing, critical reading, discussion, service learning, etc. Outstanding work (high A value) could earn you an SD (satisfactory with distinction), but they were rare. What I experienced was that everyone thought mediocre work would still earn them an S and very few of the students put any effort into their assignments. I was very disappointed in the tone of the class. It sounded great in theory, but to some extent, I do think students are driven in part by grades.

    • That’s a great example. I think you are essentially right: most students are motivated by grades, even those who say they aren’t. Knowing that there will be an overall letter grade at the end of the course is probably still the motivating factor for my students who choose redo P grades for a + grade. But, I tell myself “at least they’re thinking about excellence…”. The blend between P/+/nP assignment grading and a letter grade for the course seems to be a good compromise in foregrounding excellence yet still using a grade.

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