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"The Purpose of College is to Get Good Grades"

By Julianne Morgan

To be clear, it is not I who claims that the purpose of college is to get good grades. I would definitely, never, ever say something so cynical and glib (I definitely said this during my undergrad). 

This quote originated from students during a research study conducted by Dr. Susan D. Blum, a longtime practitioner of ungrading in her anthropology classes at Notre Dame. She is also the editor of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) - a book the experience of reading I would analogize to riding a rollercoaster as I sail up to aspirational idealism then fall back down to judgmental practicality.

So, what is ungrading and how does it solve student fixation on grades? And, more critically, how does it ease the burden of grading for faculty? 

Ungrading is essentially exactly what it sounds like. Stop applying points, letter grades, rubrics, pass/fails, etc. to any student work. Stop grading. How, you may ask, probably incredulously, does that work?? I’ve now read about half of Ungrading, and seemingly it can work, but I do find myself thinking that the instructors in the case studies are very much still grading - just in different ways like having students grade themselves, establishing contract grades, etc. So I question a lot of the central tenants and the practicality of ungrading practices. 

But I do also buy into what the authors in this book are claiming - that grades are potentially doing more harm than good - depending on what you think the goal of education is. Critics of grades argue that grades:

  • Reduce student interest in learning
  • Are not good feedback
  • Encourage competitiveness over collaboration
  • Increase motivation for cheating
  • Escalate student anxiety
  • Discourage risk-taking
  • Are inherently unfair

I think it’s those last two points that stand out to me the most. 

Grades Discourage Risk-Taking

If the purpose of college is to find who you are and what you love, you can’t do that if you stick to classes you know you’ll succeed in. “Grades seem so consequential that students believe they can’t take a chance on anything unproven. [. . . ] Yet mistakes are information and contribute to learning [. . . ] Feedback about shortcomings is information that helps with improving” (pg. 57). This definitely applied to me in my academic career, and it’s honestly one of my biggest regrets to this day. If I had been less fixated on grades in my undergrad, I would have pursued my passion and gone into the sciences - but instead, I only took classes that would let me keep my high GPA. 

Shortly after I was hired by the Center for Online Learning, I was pulled into a conversation:

  • Person A: “Hey, Juliannne -- does GPA matter on a resume?”
  • Me: “Yes, for sure it does. It shows that someone is a hard worker and is dedicated to quality.”
  • Person B: “A GPA absolutely does not show that. It shows they can follow instructions and find easy classes.” 

I was walking around thinking I was smart - I have the credential, the high GPA, to prove it. That conversation with my coworkers was one of those revelatory moments for me. I had never before questioned the value of getting good grades. Getting high grades was a part of my being. But my colleague was one hundred percent correct - my GPA showed nothing but a long, sad academic career where I dropped any class that actually pushed me to do something I didn’t already know how to do (e.g. math). I may still be smart, but my GPA has nothing to do with it. And maybe I’m not smart, after all. I should have realized earlier on that I was missing an opportunity to find my vocation. 


Grades are Inherently Unfair

Everyone comes into a class at a different level. Grading systems often privilege certain kinds of students - students who have supportive parents, who have money for reliable technology and books, who came from a better K-12 system, who do not have disabilities, etc. Is it fair that a student who already knows a subject pretty well and learns nothing earns an A but a student who works really hard, learns a lot, but can’t succeed on a paper because of many grammatical errors earn a C? Maybe it is fair, but a lower grade can really de-motivate the student to keep persisting at improvement. 

Beyond the inequity in students’ prior knowledge and support systems, the authors of Ungrading say that “grades are arbitrary and inconsistent. Different professors have different scoring - participation, homework, teamwork or no teams, tests, showing your work, partial credit -- all of which appear to be plucked out of thin air and make no sense. [. . . ] Just because there is a number doesn’t mean it is objective” (pg. 56). 

Instead of focusing on grades, instructors should establish a pedagogy of equality. An instructor in an equitable, student-centered class “aims to support and inspire the greatest possible student success, creativity, individuality, and achievement, rather than more traditional hierarchies organized around a priori standards of selectivity, credentialing, standardization, ranking, and the status quo.” 

It’s idealistic and pie-in-the-sky, but I think this is, at least partially, the goal of education - especially a Marianist education. Our University should be a bastion of everyone "working together to achieve lasting relationships of friendships and trust, supporting and challenging each other in developing their mutual gifts" (Characteristics of Marianist Universities, pg. 8). 


So, How to Ungrade?

Well, that is the big question. Here’s where I often was in the “judgmental practicality” dips of my roller coaster ride as I was reading this book. I questioned a lot of the authors’ claims. How can you ungrade in a math class? Either the student learned how to do the math or they didn’t! It might be fine for my museum tour guide - or perhaps your Online Learning support friend - to not be able to get the answer correct 100% of the time, but for sure I want my surgeon to have pretty well demonstrated high aptitude for removing my tonsils. 

In one class where the author has students assign themselves their own grades at the end of the year, he says that there is a full range of grades in his classes - not all As. You can’t see my face as I read that, but basically this

The authors state at various times that students seem to be okay with not receiving grades. YEAH. RIGHT. I can’t imagine that really being the case, for sure not for first-year students. I suspect this could be true in a capstone kind of course where the instructor and students likely have an established relationship and the instructor has laid out extremely clear expectations for how this ungrading would work. 

But, this book does have case studies from STEM classes, including math. Ungrading seemingly can actually work. There’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy, but there are different ways to implement it depending on what kind of class you are teaching. 

I won’t detail all the methods in this blog post. Rather, I invite you to come to discuss ungrading with me and Dr. Michelle Pautz this summer. We are reading Ungrading together, and I know it’ll be a dynamic (read: there’ll likely be a lot of hot takes) discussion. We’ll talk about the purpose of education, our roles as educators and support staff, how to fix the disengaged student problem, and the practicality - or impracticality - of ungrading/grading. 

We will meet on Zoom at 1 PM on the following Thursdays:

  • May 26th
  • June 9th
  • June 23rd
  • July 7th
  • July 21st

The first ten people to sign up will receive a free copy of Ungrading

Please sign up and join us

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