Swinburne University recently announced it will remove grades from core aspects of its design degree. Instead it will focus on learning design processes and feedback throughout the semester.
The “ungrading” movement, led by author Jesse Stommel, is gaining momentum internationally. A growing number of teachers are abolishing grading scales and negotiating more meaningful ways of judging individual pieces of work with students.
Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, some saw ditching grades as helpful in a crisis situation. Adam Rosenblatt, a professor at Duke University in the US, wrote
"Just as COVID-19 has cast a stark and urgent light on the failures of our healthcare system, our economy and other basic structures of American life, the wave of emergency ungrading allows faculty members to think about whether we ever want to go back to reading papers with half of our thoughts already occupied in justifying the grade we’re going to give."
So, what does the research say about grades? Do they improve or hinder motivation? And are there more constructive ways to “judge” a student’s work?
Why we use grades
Categorising student performance is a long-standing tradition but in recent years, grades have assumed a greater significance than they deserve.
Grades serve a number of functions for course admission and progression, scholarship selection, graduation, and employers’ ranking and selection of employees. For most of these instrumental purposes, it is far quicker to use an easily sorted list than ponder what the categories mean.
Grades can also act as a crude form of feedback to students but are a blunt way of describing performance. Think about all the different aspects of performance condensed into a single letter. For instance, should a civil engineer being able to produce good drawings make up for a lack of understanding of bridge construction? Or should medical students graduate if they have an excellent understanding of biochemistry but poor communication skills?
Distilling all the different aspects of a student’s performance into one letter means accuracy itself suffers.
Motivation, competition and anxiety
Awarding grades can have unintended consequences. They can influence students to focus on quick win opportunities to score more marks and ignore useful feedback once they have found out their score.
But not all students are alike – they have individual motivations and goals. Some students are motivated to achieve the highest grades, particularly because it is a system of reward they are used to. Others are satisfied with having learned from the process of completing the assessment or having achieved a “pass” grade.
Grades have been shown to increase anxiety and lead some students to avoid challenging courses. Importantly, they do not communicate sufficient information to enable students to meet the requirements of a course.
Simply removing grades isn’t enough to promote learning
To support student learning, students need a broader range of feedback to understand how they are progressing, and to motivate them to improve what they do.
We conducted a review of studies showing the impacts of feedback on written tasks in higher education. We found it is important for assessment tasks to be designed in ways that support students to feel like they have a relationship with their teachers, to have choice in the task, and for the task to support a sense of competence and achievement.
The emotional impact of grades and feedback also needs to be considered – they can be demotivating for many as much as they are motivating for a few.
So, while removing grades may be one step, we also need to look carefully at the overall assessment design. Feedback needs to come before students submit their final task for assessment so they have an opportunity to improve. This is something which Swinburne has also committed to.
We must also keep in mind that assessment tasks shouldn’t only focus on the here and now. Discussing qualities of work and how to produce it with students helps students develop a better understanding of what quality work looks like.
Once students graduate from university, they won’t have lecturers to formally assess them every few weeks. A move away from grades to get students more engaged in understanding and judging the quality of their work may better develop graduates who can take up meaningful roles and responsibilities in work and society.
All disciplines can ditch the grades
While it’s easy to imagine how student learning in a design course such as Swinburne’s might benefit from removing grades, it can also work in other disciplines. Researchers in computer science and maths have successfully done this through also adopting a portfolio approach. They demonstrated students achieve their learning goals and are more satisfied when they shifted to a clear outcomes-based system rather than one focusing on marks.
Ditching grades entirely will require some rethinking of ingrained systems and beliefs about how we measure and track student performance. But it is worthwhile when we consider the benefits to student learning and therefore our future graduates.
Joanna Tai is Senior Research Fellow, Deakin University
David Boud is Alfred Deakin Professor and Director, Centre for Research on Assessment and Digital Learning, Deakin University
Margaret Bearman is Associate Professor (Assessment and Digital Learning), Deakin University