Abolishing grades: a pipe-dream that could come true (?)

Because Viral said so.((current status = boy, am I screwed on my grading))

Which is why, of course, I’m blogging right now. Expect a “WTF Retrospective” post later on the strange and hilarious items I’ve encountered in student papers since I began teaching. Look forward to a wild ride.

In the meantime, check out this series of posts on abolishing grades in education. While this applies more to secondary ed than higher ed, I’ve often (fruitlessly) toyed with the idea myself, as I believe in my heart of hearts that education is its own reward and that grades and grading rubrics, especially in Comp & Rhetoric, are subjective and often arbitrary. For the sake of helping students improve, there would need to be some sort of general rubric in place so that they could self-assess and continue to grow, but the A-F system has troubled me for years. Pass/Fail seems to be the only alternative in higher ed, but this system can also bite you in the ass when it comes time to apply for graduate school or other areas that require a GPA. Joe Bower presents several compelling reasons to shift away from the traditional model of learning-for-grades in secondary ed, and I wonder how many of these could be modified to work in a college classroom, as initial feedback on drafts, in my classroom anyway, fits with this model to begin with.

Of course, to some extent this is a pipe dream: it’s not like you can abolish grades without the total consent of the department, dean, university, etc., and God help you if you float this idea as an adjunct (goodbye, job; hello, unemployment). But it’s interesting to consider as an experiment. Perhaps something could be secretly implemented in college–especially if your department isn’t constantly on your ass–where the “mark on the report card” is the only concrete traditional grade, and learning occurs for the sake of learning. Or maybe I’m just as green and idealistic as I was when I started teaching 7 years ago.



We are academics. We are halftime, part-time, anywhere/anytime. We are degreed. Underpaid. Overworked. Our name is adjunct, and we are many.
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6 Responses to Abolishing grades: a pipe-dream that could come true (?)

  1. Chandler says:

    I went to a college with no letter grades, just pass/fail and “narrative evaluations,” and it didn’t hurt me in getting into grad school — ditto for my boyfriend and best buddy, both of whom are now in PhD programs. It might be different for something like law or medicine, but in the humanities I think strong letters of rec, work samples, etc. are way more important than anything they ask for in terms of GPA or GRE scores. But it does sound like it’s next to impossible to change the system you’re working under as a prof…


      Oh, good to know–I thought I knew someone who’d had that experience, just couldn’t think of who! It’s definitely different for law and medicine, where they scrutinize your GPA on top of LSAT/MCAT scores, but solid point about the humanities (though I don’t know if this applies to social sciences as well). It seems like the only way to effect change would be at the very top, as Pass/Fail is either university-wide or handed to a specific number of (usually) lower-level classes, at the discretion of the department head + dean and possibly higher.

      At least, that’s the little I know of it on this side of the fence. I need to read up on it, honestly… maybe I can’t do much, but I can at least be better informed.

  2. joebower says:

    Nice post.

    Abolishing grading may be a pipe dream now, but at one time so was Facebook, Civil Rights, democracy, the printed word & cars.


      Thanks! I’m in the grading cave right now, but I hope to revisit this topic more in-depth–it’s something I struggle with a lot, as a somewhat idealistic teacher, and I found your musings on the subject quite enlightening. It would be wonderful if Pass/Fail or grading-exempt courses at universities became the rule rather than the norm, and that’s a pipe dream I’ll happily wait for.

      Meanwhile I guess I’ll just keep doing what I do: bend the rules as far as I can without breaking them in the hopes of creating a system that privileges the acquisition of knowledge, and not the grades that are (too often) so arbitrarily attached to it.

  3. The trap about grades is that we always “need” them to move on to the next level. Must have them for grad school, so can’t give them up for college. And on down the line. I’ve taught a course in public speaking for years. I’ve asked students to design and evaluation form. What do they think makes them effective as a speaker? They create their evaluation form BEFORE we start the learning. When they finally present a final speech, they can chose whether they want grades, numbers, etc. Whatever system they want. All the evaluations must include a narrative, and narrative comments. All speakers are evaluated by the teacher and two or more fellow students. The course is ultimately graded pass/fail.


      I agree wholly. I’ve experimented with various class-created rubrics in the past, where students collaborate to design one evaluation rubric that will apply to all of their papers; usually they focus on categories such as creativity, the strength of a given paper’s argument(s), development, organization, and grammar and mechanical elegance. I usually do this on the first day, so they have that under their belt before the learning begins, but I’ve found that, at the end of the day, students are still more concerned about how their evaluation rubric computes into a traditional letter grade. I do like the idea of letting students choose whether they want letter or number grades (and I assume both operate on the traditional A-F scale?). It seems like this could get them to at least start thinking of grades differently, even if it’s on the same (or a similar) scale.

      I’m really interested in your use of narrative comments as part of the evaluation process, which is something I hadn’t thought of using in my rubrics… As my course involves a lot of peer review and narrative comments to begin with, I think an evaluative rubric including narrative comments could be really effective and engaging. Of course, since I’m an adjunct and all Comp & Rhet courses are on an A-F scale, I can’t go Pass/Fail with it… but I think I could implement it in a way that will at least emphasize learning and improvement over A, B, C, etc.

      Thank you so much for the suggestion; I really appreciate the input!

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