Laura Gibbs

#TotalCoLearner: Week 10. Getting rid of grades.

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Oct 28, 2018

For #TotalCoLearner this week, I want to reflect on some thoughts that came together as a result of preparing my presentation for Can*Innovate (I want to write up a post about the conference too -- which was FABULOUS -- but I am going to wait to do that until I can share some numbers about participation, as well as my own personal appreciation of the experience).


So, my presentation was on creativity; you can see the presentation and lots of supporting materials at the Canvas course I created to house it all: Can*Innovate presentation


One of the slides in the presentation was about my #TotalCoLearner experience, because I am more and more happy with that as I settle into my own learning routine for the semester; I'm still kicking myself for not having been a full 100% doing-all-the-work student in my classes every semester all these years. I would have learned so much more that way! But better late than never: I am going to be a student in my class every semester from now on, that's for sure.


totalcolearner slide


I also had an un-grading slide in the presentation, and apparently that provoked a lot of discussion in the chat, along with questions people asked me about afterwards:


punished by rewards slide


So, as I did my class homework on Saturday (I am so happy with my new story: Why The Bat's Wings Have No Feathers), I thought more and more about how the un-grading really is essential to the creative work my students are doing and also how it is essential to my ability to BE a student in my own class.


I honestly do not think my classes would work if I had not stopped grading (I have not put a grade on student work since I started teaching online over 15 years ago), and the same is true for my #TotalCoLearner experiment: it is only because the student is in charge of their own course experience that I can really and truly be a student in a way that is exactly like any other student in my classes.


Here's what I mean:


Grades, Games, Rules. As a teacher, all I do is set up the experience; if you see the class as a game, I am the one who sets the rules. And, like any game, those rules are arbitrary, but they exist in order to make the game playable, so that the player of the game will achieve their goal(s).


In the case of the game that is my class, there are two kinds of goals: there are earning goals (content, skills, etc.; there are lots of possible learning goals) and there is the institutional goal of Humanities General Education credit for graduation. That second goal depends on the first -- i.e., the reason you get Gen. Ed. credit is because you are learning things that fall under the wide umbrella of Humanities Gen. Ed. at my school. That first goal (learning) is independent of the second goal: I am not taking the class for Gen. Ed. credit, and that is also true of some of my students, although I don't know which ones. Conversely, some of the students enroll in the class only for Gen. Ed. with no learning goals of their own; that's an institutional problem beyond my control (I don't believe in making students jump through meaningless hoops for graduation, but nobody asks my opinion about that question...). I've worked very hard on finding ways to help every student create meaningful learning goals in the class, even if their only goal originally was to get the Gen. Ed. credit while doing the minimum work required (either for an A or just to pass).


Here's how grades then relate to those goals:


The learning does not need a letter grade. Learning just needs feedback; more on that below.


And the Gen. Ed. credit only needs a passing grade for institutional purposes.


In other words, I have turned my class into a pass/not-pass class in terms of my role as the teacher. Yes, the students can opt, for whatever reasons, to do the work that gives them an A or B or C or D in the class; that is totally up to them. As a teacher, I do not care about their letter grade. I mean that in the best beatific Buddhistic sense of not caring: how the student thinks about that letter grade is up to them; I simply do not care. I look at the Gradebook on the last day of class and report what I find there. That letter grade is, sad to say, the only thing my school wants to know about my students' work. (Here's how that works if you are curious about details: Calendar and Chart.)


Being a student. So, as a student this semester, I have really enjoyed that freedom from grading by the teacher; I don't need a teacher to monitor me... I just need a class set up so that I can do the work and learn! At first, I thought I would not have enough time except to do the minimum to pass, and that was okay. But then, as I got more and more excited about the stories and about my project, I pushed myself to find more time to spend on the class, and I used the points system to help monitor my progress that way. It worked great! It was useful, not stressful. I'm going to end up with an A after all... but more importantly, I am going to have probably written 10 stories by the time the semester is over. I am so happy about that. I already have 8 stories so far, and I am really proud of each one.


Other students go about this differently. They might really need an A to raise their GPA for example, and that's fine with me. I don't need to know about that; their plans are their plans. I had an enormous amount of freedom as I worked on the class this semester week by week, just like the other students in the class. I hope everyone uses that freedom to their best advantage: as a writer, as a student, as a human being.


Not caring about grades. In my role as a teacher, if you ask me right now who is getting an A or B or C in my class, I have no idea. I repeat: I have no idea. That's because all I do is sort the Gradebook a couple of times a week from low points to high to see who is currently below the grade of D. That means I see the people who are in D range and people who are not passing, and I enter that information into a spreadsheet so I can track the progress of those students. It's a more or less stable cohort of students over the semester, with a few who do pull themselves up out of that hole, plus a few people who fall into the hole now at the end of the semester because of increased pressure in their other classes or other demands on their time.


As a teacher, my only intervention in terms of grading is with these students who are not passing the class. In every case, it's simply a matter of the students being overwhelmed by other commitments: school commitments, work commitments, life commitments. AKA the rule of 168: the number of hours in the week. So, I try to make sure students can easily see from week by week just what the minimum is that they need to do to pass the class, encouraging them in every way I can to catch up. For several semesters in a row, everybody has passed the class, and that is my goal every semester. I hope I succeed in that again this semester!


Meanwhile, though, about the actual letter grades, A B C or D: it doesn't matter. They get Gen. Ed. credit as long as they pass the class. Mission accomplished!


Feedback for learning. While I don't care about the grades, I do care about the learning. I care A LOT about the learning. So the students get lots of feedback from me about their project stories. They get feedback from other students about their project stories and about their blog stories. Feedback is what is useful for learning; grades are not.


Do they use the feedback? Yes, they do. Sometimes they make incredibly good use of the feedback, other times less so. And the same is true of the feedback they give each other: sometimes it is really excellent, sometimes it is not. That is something I am working hard on; learning how to give good feedback is not easy! The way I am working on feedback is by teaching the students more about feedback while also trying to create a more meaningful feedback culture in the class (details). My job is not to reward or punish people who do or do not use the feedback, or who do or do not give really useful feedback for others. My goal is just to make sure the learning options are there, and to help everyone to improve who wants to improve (and that includes me trying to improve the work I do as a teacher).


Grades do not help people to improve their work. Time and attention, caring and dedication, plus good feedback -- those are some of the things that are required if we want to improve our own learning and help others with their learning.


Looking back and ahead. By sheer luck, I started out with more or less this same course design when I first got the chance to teach online. I've improved the class procedures from year to year, and I've improved my communication with the students (I think that is really where I have improved the most). Plus, I've built in more and more ways to get feedback from the students so that I can keep improving procedures and communication. I'm very happy with how all of it works... and now, I really like being able to give the course a good review as a student too! I have had a really good time being a student in the class this semester, and I am super-excited to be in the Indian Epics class next semester. We just finished Spring enrollment, and all my classes filled, so I can see a long list of new student names (90 students total across my three sections, with 42 students on the waiting list: we need more Gen. Ed. online!)... and I am going to have fun being their teacher AND their fellow student in the Spring.


Yes, I think grades are poison. I know people think it is weird when I talk about not grading, but it's so fundamental to my whole approach that, from my point of view, grading is the thing that is weird. VERY weird. On another slide for Can*Innovate I said that I think grades are poison, and that word probably shocked some people. But I really do see it that way. From my perspective, grades are like smoking back in the 1950s. Yeah, "everybody" smoked. Every teacher gives grades. But now we know smoking was poison. Both of my parents got lung cancer. Literally: poison.


Grades are not literally poison, but I think they are metaphorically poison when it comes to learning. The 25th anniversary edition of Alfie Kohn's classic Punished by Rewards shown in the slide above is just $2.99 for the Kindle edition (that you can read on your phone or with a web browser; you don't need a Kindle device)... and it's a book I would consider to be required reading for any teacher at any level. If you do get a chance to read it, let me know what you think. I find Alfie Kohn's presentation of the research and his philosophical arguments to be fully persuasive, but that's also because they match my own experience as a teacher.


And if you don't want to pony up for the book, he shares an enormous amount of material at his website:


Happy reading, and I am glad to discuss grades and un-grading with anyone who is interested!


Plus, you can always check out #TTOG at Twitter. I am not the only one! :-)


We now take smoking-free as the default. But it didn't used to be that way; we made that change happen, as a matter of public health and well-being. I hope we will eventually take grading-free as the default for the health and well-being of our students. But we have a long way to go!