Laura Gibbs

Let's Talk about Grading (1): The Problem with Punitive Grading

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Jan 6, 2019

This is the first in a series of posts about grading, specifically the problem of punitive grading and what we can do about it. Fortunately, there is more and more discussion, both in K-12 and in higher ed, about the negative effects of grading, especially of punitive grading, and slowly but surely I think we are going to see people finding new solutions — at the individual assignment level or course level, and also at the institutional level. Just last week, I was invited to submit a chapter for a book about un-grading in higher ed. There are some really good books about un-grading in K-12 (like Starr Sackstein's Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School), and I am excited about writing something for an un-grading book directed towards a higher ed audience.


So, I had already planned to do a blog post series this semester about grading, and the unexpectedly bad business of red-ink labels in the new Gradebook has given me a greater sense of urgency about that. This new Gradebook actually has more punitive features than the old Gradebook did: OUCH. I'm both depressed and angry about that as you can see in this blog post: GET THE RED INK OUT OF MY GRADEBOOK. The Sequel.


Nobody from Instructure has commented there (yet?), but I sure hope they are following the discussion. I am very grateful that our Community API-miracleworker, James Jones, is exploring the possibility of a solution that will help to remove the red-ink labels with some Google Sheet scripts (much like his amazing adjust-all-due-dates sheet), but we also need an official fix to this problem so that we can simply disable those red labels if we want. There ARE alternatives to punitive grading, and the LMS needs to be able to support those alternatives just as it supports traditional punitive grading.


Shame and punishment. So, let's talk about punitive grading, which is grading that PUNISHES students for making mistakes. That punishment can take the form of a lower grade, or it could take the form of extra work... or it might appear as red ink, like in the new Canvas Gradebook where students are told that their work is MISSING (red ink!) or LATE (red ink!). The only labels that show up in the Gradebook are these negative labels (late! missing!). They could have included positive labels — work turned in, work turned in on time, work turned in early — either in addition to the negative labels, or instead of the negative labels. But there are no positive labels; there are negative labels only. And they could have used a color other than red for the negative labels, but they did not; those labels are red because red is the color of punishment. It's that American classic: The Scarlet Letter.


Scarlet Letter poster


But wait, there's more! The new Gradebook gives instructors to choose our own status colors in the Gradebook spreadsheet view, like this:


screenshot of status label colors


As you can see, I tried changing my "late" and "missing" status settings to white to see if that would white out the red labels in the Gradebook view, but that hack did not work (alas). Even instructors cannot change the red color of the labels, and the students cannot choose the colors they prefer. That would be another good solution to this problem, of course, and to all kinds of other problems too: let the students choose! (I'll have more to say about student choice in grading later.)


But right now, nothing we can do or they can do will make that red-ink label go away, unless you go in and manually remove the labels from the Gradebook, label by label, student by student, assignment by assignment. Click. Click. Click.


Punishment and motivation. Some people think that grades and punishment are how you motivate students, but I disagree. In my experience, both as a student and as a teacher, shaming and punishment have the opposite effect, discouraging students and demotivating them. As an example, look at this screenshot from the new Gradebook, showing what one of my students would see each time he opened the Gradebook view (this is an actual screenshot from a Fall course record, where my school has retroactively applied the new Gradebook). Every time this student opens the Grade view, he sees this wall of shame, one red label after another. If I had to look at something like that every time I had logged on to Canvas, I would get so depressed!


Gradebook screenshot


Even worse: the default is sorted by Due Date, old dates first, which means the student must scroll down through all the old labels to reach the current assignments. No matter how much he improves, he must look at that wall of past failures again and again and again.


Do you think that is motivating? I don't. 


So, for the grading in my classes, I take a different approach:


First, I emphasize COMPLETION: students turn the work in when it is complete. That means every "grade" for every assignment is 100%. And there are no zeroes; if a student chooses not to do an assignment, it's just a blank, a road not taken, not a problem at all. So, each assignment grade is 100% and each student's total course percentage is also 100%. All the time. That does not mean the work they are doing is perfect (ugh! perfectionism: one of the worst aspects of traditional grading! more about that later...). Instead, the 100% just means that each assignment is complete and ready for feedback from me and from the other students — and there will be feedback. There will be lots of feedback. Sometimes I refer to my grading system as all-feedback-no-grades, and I'll have lots more to say about feedback in future posts. There are lots of ways that feedback can provide students with real motivation, much more so than the Tarzanesque vocabulary of ABCDF and the shame of red ink.


Second, I emphasize LOOKING FORWARD, not backward. The goal is always to complete a piece of work. It doesn't matter what you did, or did not do, last week; what matters is what you are going to do this week and next week and the week after that. You always have a grade of 100% in the Gradebook, so that's all good, nothing to worry about. Just devote all your effort to the NEXT thing you are going to do, using what you've learned so far in order to complete the next assignment. My husband is a pilot, and he has this great saying: "You can't use the runway behind you." That's the philosophy I use in my class too: don't look back; just figure out how you are going to use the runway in front of you to take off and soar! So yeah, I like the little rocket icon in Canvas for assignments that are not yet completed; the rocket label totally works for me. Let's GO!


cat rocket gif


Since this is just the first in what will be a whole series of blog posts, I'll stop here for now, with a promise of more to come. There are some other principles I want to discuss (student choice, open-ended assignments, etc.), along with lots of nitty-gritty I want to share (hacking the Gradebook, proactive communication, etc.). Meanwhile, I hope people will chime in here with their own thoughts about grades and grading. A really good discussion erupted at my Gradebook post last week, and we need all the discussion we can get about grading: it's an aspect of the education system desperately in need of reform, and the voices of both teachers and students need to be part of that conversation.


For a hashtag, I'll be using TTOG here (Teachers-Throwing-Out-Grades), and you can always find new things to read about grading and grading reform by looking at #TTOG on Twitter too.


So, that's all for now; I'm going to go outside now and enjoy a beautifully sunny Sunday........ but I'll be back next week with more. Lots more. :-)