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.