Would our students do any work at all if it wasn’t for a grade? Would they even bother to show up?
I think the assumption that we need the extrinsic motivation of grades and marks and credits and degree awards to get our students to be interested enough to do the work of learning is quite ingrained in all our minds – both as tutors and as students.
But I’ve had a few quite powerful experiences recently that suggest to me that this isn’t true. Students will work hard at tasks that look a lot like assessments for the intrinsic pleasure and challenge of learning and for the rewards that come from achievement – even if it is not for grades or credit. I have recently worked with students to do original research, make podcasts, create syllabuses and reading lists, build informative websites and give public presentations, among other things, without grades. And perhaps the most compelling has been the experience of writing a co-authored journal article with undergraduate and Master’s students based on original research that they conducted.
So, my presentation to the UCL Education Conference was in two parts. I started with an account of how I went about co-authoring with students in a bit of detail, in case anyone else wants to give it a try. Then towards the end, I reflected a bit, with the help of some questions from the audience, on what that tells us about assessment and grading more generally, drawing on the literature on ungrading.
Writing the article
Our project that started out as a Dean’s Challenge Fund grant with help from Changemakers. I’m not going to tell you the whole story of the project because I’ve done that many times before and also…. you can read our co-authored article about it! But what you need to know is that I hired a group of students all from the UCL Political Science department, where I teach, to do an audit of our reading lists on a range of criteria, particularly the race and gender of authors, whether or not the topics of race, gender, sexuality or disability were included in the readings and what the diversity of ideas was in the curriculum, for example, whether feminism or queer theory were covered. The students worked together with pedagogical support and scaffolding from me to design and carry out a piece of original research, including research design, sampling, developing a coding scheme, coding, reliability checks, analysis and evaluation of the results. We communicated and disseminated our results in various ways including a website and a nice glossy booklet.
Excitingly, not long after we had some results from our project, the London Review of Education sent out a call for papers for a special edition on decolonising the curriculum. I forwarded it to the students and asked if they wanted to write something. Some didn’t and they were excused. Others were keen but admitted that they wouldn’t be able to do it on their own. So, we agreed that we would do it, but in the process, I would teach them how we write peer reviewed articles.
We started off with an abstract which I wrote following a conversation with the students about what they might want to say about the project… and after a few weeks we got an invitation to submit an article. The initial reviews encouraged us to focus not only on the methodology and results of the project but also how it had been an educational experience for students to be involved in producing original research. We liked the idea and we decided to go ahead.
To help us get going, I set up a Google document where students could sign up for various writing and research tasks. Students have different skills and dispositions, but there were tasks there that everyone could do. I’ve linked the whole document here in the text, so that you can see the amount of scaffolding I provided for that initial task. It doesn’t look so very different from the sorts of support I provide for students embarking on an essay or other graded written work.
I of course also set deadlines – which was helped by the fact that the journal had deadlines for the special issue. Everyone more or less met those deadlines, but there were no harsh penalties for missing them other than the mutual accountability that comes from working together on a joint project: something which was mentioned as a motivating factor often by students. Many of us needed the occasional extension, including me, and everyone took the responsibility to each other to complete work more or less on time very seriously.
Once everyone had written their short piece, I then wove it all together into a single article, which then went back to the students for their own comments and ideas – which led to quite a lot of discussion and rewriting. I tried as far as possible to keep the students’ own words, although their original drafts got quite a lot of polishing as we worked on it together. It is difficult to tell, now, which words came from whom.
Feedback and revisions
The final product went off for peer review and Reviewer 2 – perhaps seeing that it had been written by students, many of them undergraduates – softened their usually hard heart and gave us an unconditional accept with very warm comments. Thank you, Reviewer 2, if you are reading this.
Unusually, it was Reviewer 1 who really threw us under a bus! They had a long list of revisions and suggestions they wanted us to make. This was probably the most vulnerable moment for me of the whole project – having my students see work that I had been involved in and thought was good enough to send being criticised. There was one thing in particular which was painful: Reviewer 1 had noticed that one of the articles we had discussed in detail had been completely misrepresented. I had tried to let go of my controlling, ‘extra’ nature and let the students do the work in their own way – but this was embarrassing. I went through agonies of regretting not reading and checking every article we had cited more carefully. Despite these moments of vulnerability in front of my students, I must say that I was very grateful to Reviewer 1, because they wrote the feedback in a way that really communicated to the whole group why this sort of thing matters. They respected the students as authors who deserved serious feedback and helped us with a great lesson in the politics of citation and why the integrity of our citations really matters. The question was not, ‘how can we get away with not doing the reading properly and still get a good mark?’ but rather, ‘how would it feel if someone misrepresented our work? how can we pay proper respect to the writers who have helped us get this far?’ And the students stepped up and responded to that, checking all the other references carefully and weeding out any mistakes.
Just as I had with the original draft, I made a table of all the comments and suggestions we needed to respond to, and students signed up for which ones they would work on. The students found this process, and particularly the task of writing the letter responding point by point to the feedback very ‘intense’ (their words). But everyone agreed by the end that the work on revisions had made the article better. (Happily, it was accepted for publication at that point.)
This experience compared very interestingly with how feedback is generally given to students and how they respond to it, which has made me think a lot about feedback, grades and motivation. I don’t think I have very often seen students respond so seriously to feedback or address it so carefully. Yet when we labour away writing feedback when we do our marking every year, it seems to me that we are kind of hoping that they will….
Assessment… but without grades
So, this experience of seeing students respond to feedback, learn from it and make their work better made me think a lot about the purpose of grades. Not coincidentally, I have also been reading some of the literature on ungrading, which was also brilliantly discussed by Martin Compton in his own UCL Education Conference presentation with Eve Mol.
I think all of us who mark have the suspicion, even as we toil into the night writing our comments on our students’ essays, that students don’t read those comments. I discovered through my reading that as long ago as 1988, Ruth Butler was showing that giving grades alongside feedback tends to have an undermining effect on student learning and motivation, compared with giving feedback alone. But at this year’s UCL Education Conference, keynote speaker David Boud was still making the case for disentanging comments from grades. For us, this was obvious – we got the comments from the reviewers and we knew we had to read and respond to them or else the failure would be automatic (that is, our work would not be published).
It also became clear that always talking about grades means we forget to talk about learning: students are too busy thinking about how well they’re doing to concentrate on what it is they are doing! Students are encouraged to game the system rather than invest in deep learning – they go for the easiest tasks, they are less interested in what they’re learning than ‘what they need to know’, they are more likely to read with an eye to what will be on the exam than wondering whether what they’re reading is true or sensible or well argued or in tune with their ethical starting points.
Students who are focused on grades are therefore not focused on learning. And this is really strange! People actually love learning and can’t get enough of it! But learning is about curiosity and joy and adventure. It’s hard to learn when your emotional state is one of fear, suspicion and anxiety towards your teacher and the envy/contempt for other people that is bred by competition. The adventure of writing a first journal article, on a topic that we cared about, in community together and with the support and respect of both me and two anonymous reviewers was both far more motivating and far more conducive to learning. When I asked the students what kept them going through the tough process of writing collaboratively and responding to comments, they said they were excited to be part of something bigger than themselves, working as a team and potentially contributing something that might make a difference.
I am not going to say that the experience of vulnerability through the round of revisions was particularly enjoyable for me. However, I think that looking back this was one of the most powerful things that happened. Whilst grades start out from pitting students against teachers, these moments of vulnerability helped us dismantle, at least a little bit, those hierarchies and instead helped us think about ourselves and each other as one the same team focused not on pleasing an authority figure but responding to Reviewer 1 as an equal. Ultimately, grades are bad for relationships and for the skills that will help students not only in non-academic careers but also in more advanced academic work.
However, this point actually runs even deeper, prompting me to ask questions about how grades actually shape us as people. Looking back, I can’t help feeling that a lot of my friendships were subtly or not-so-subtly shadowed by how very much my own self-esteem and self-worth were tied to grades – until I was embarrassingly quite old(!!) A question from the audience addressed this point, noting that successful students really like getting good grades and appreciate them. No doubt! It is a very pleasant experience to be told that you are better than everyone else. However, it is a nice feeling that is inimical to learning. The failures and mistakes and unsuccessful attempts that enable us to develop and grow are highly disincentivised by feeling that any failure might take away at best that pleasant feeling and at worst your entire sense of self. It is also a pleasant feeling that doesn’t usually survive contact with a world where we need our relationships with other people to thrive and succeed at things that matter more than grades, since feeling superior to other people is a sure poison to close, trusting, supportive relationships that help us learn and grow. I hope that our work together on our project was more valuable and meaningful to the students, and will stay with them longer, than those numbers I wrote on their classwork.
More assessment, fewer grades
I am quite convinced, then, that grades are bad. But can we get rid of them?
The first thing to say here is that getting rid of grades does not mean getting rid of assessment – assessment is inevitable for learning. But to me, thinking about ungrading has given me a great new mantra, or perhaps a thought experiment. I keep asking myself in all my small decisions: ‘how would this interaction be different if we were not obsessed with grades?’ I promise this will help you if you are someone who agonises over whether to give 62 or 63 for an essay or if you are tempted to get into arguments whilst second marking. It is also a great discipline to help us gently laugh at our own obsessions with grade inflation or getting our own work into top journals. Maybe we can let go of all that and enjoy rewarding our students’ great work, supporting them to do better on their own terms, and writing the articles we want to write for the joy and curiosity of it, instead?
I’m not sure how many articles like this I will write with students. It’s time-consuming and doesn’t necessarily fit well with the timelines of the academic year. In this instance, and for just this really rather small group of us, it was a case of the stars just aligning.
But, this project has changed my practice by leading me to focus more on feedback and not grades, trying to reduce the number of graded assessments and do much more formative assessment which provides only comments and not grades. It has also led me to talk with students more about what we all respectively think a good piece of work looks like. It is useful to think about what they want to achieve with their work as well as talking with them honestly about what I think a good piece of work is and why. Having these discussions open-mindedly is a great way of making everyone’s assumptions a bit more transparent and disrupting the assumption that there is a neutral place to stand from where the ‘objectively correct’ mark for a piece of work might emerge. After all, we all know that Reviewer 1 is as fallible as the rest of us, right? Even if – so long as we read and take seriously the comments – they do inevitably, and annoyingly, help us improve our work.