Reducing the emphasis on grades

Reducing the emphasis on grades

Grades feel as much a component of education as learning itself, but are they actually an essential part of that process? In her book ‘Ungrading’ and in this accompanying article Susan D Blum actually argues that “formal education has led to a lack of learning” and when asked what she would do to change this situation she says she would “get rid of grades“. Mounting research has found that grades are often arbitrary and inconsistent. They offer the student little in meaningful information about their work and can dominate conversations about learning, ultimately leading to poor mental health and lack of engagement. In response the ungrading movement led by academics including Blum (University of Notre Dame) and Jesse Stommel (University of Denver) is considering alternate approaches. Can we reduce the emphasis on grades, or even remove them completely?

In the following video case study (17 minutes 37 seconds) Associate Professor in Political Science Dr Cathy Elliott talks about her efforts to reduce the emphasis on grades in her module POLS0099 Politics of Nature.

What we did and why

Cathy ElliotDr Cathy Elliott shares how on her politics of nature module she uses a portfolio assessment to enable the students to write weekly responses to the learning materials. The best elements from this work are shared along with a reflective questionnaire which asks the students to consider what they’ve been doing throughout the term and how they’ve participated in the module.

Cathy explains “when they get to the end of that questionnaire it asks them to self evaluate their work according to some assessment criteria that I give them. They can also add more assessment criteria and say those assessment criteria also relevant to their work if they want. Most don’t do that. Most use the assessment criteria I give them. They need to evaluate their work according to that and then they give themselves a mark. I reserve the right to change that mark but we have lots of conversations about this throughout the module, so this is not something that comes out of the blue. This is something that’s very scaffolded, it’s carefully supported. We talk about it a lot, but by and large, I try not to change the mark that they give them themselves. So trying to take some of the anxiety out of it, trying to take some of the uncertainty out of marking, also trying to get students to take responsibility for their own work and evaluate it honestly and then come to me with the mark at the end. And so long as it’s in the right general range then it will stand.”

Allowing students to self-mark has realigned the learning process. Cathy refers to over 100 years worth of research which suggests that grading is not a very good idea and that it leads to a focus on marks, rather than on learning. Students become obsessed with marks and start to exhibit some unhealthy approaches to learning. Cathy’s concern is that “all of this seems to me to poison our attempts to learn because everything is focused on the grade. And the more you focus on the grade, the less you do the behaviours that are associated with the learning.” Moving away from this allows you to focus on developmental feedback and improvement.

The self-grading is not an afterthought. It is something that Cathy supports throughout the module and students are provided with readings on ungrading and opportunities to discuss the approach in class. The student experience has been overwhelmingly positive and Cathy has received feedback from some that grades have been a real shadow on their lives and that this module has given back the joy in learning,

Changing the grading process takes thought and planning, you will need to provide scaffolding and support  for your student. Here are Cathy’s suggestions for how to move the focus away from grades in your module:

  • Begin by trying out your own thought experiments: “What would happen here if the grades didn’t matter?”
  • If students ask ‘what they need to do to get a good grade’ change the subject slightly and ask them to think about ‘what they would like to learn’
  • Talk to your students about grades: What do they mean? How do they make them feel?
  • Experiment with collaborative grading
  • Read up on ungrading, understand how it works and what the implications are

What next?

Cathy is now starting to think about how she can encourage more people to change their relationship with grades. For example could the institution make make it possible for some modules or some years to be pass fail? She is having as many conversations about this with colleagues as possible and is glad to share experiences with anyone who wants to know more.

A new UCL Community of Practice has recently been established entitled Freedom to Learn: A community and movement! It hopes to  “help facilitate a freedom to learn, especially where the perceived primacy of grades and products of learning subjugates the processes of learning and its enjoyment.” For further information contact Dr Martin Compton from Arena.

Cathy has created a shorter video (8 minutes 15 seconds) on Freedom to Learn covering how she learned to stop worrying and love marking! 

Further reading on ungrading


Cathy uses a Mahara ePortfolio (known at UCL as myPortfolio) for her module’s main assessment approach . She has created a video (13 minutes 39 seconds) that showcases the student portfolios and takes viewers through some of the portfolio activities.

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