It’s time to change how we think about grading

By JASON MITTELL

As the academic semester resumes in our calendars, albeit not on our campus, I have been gratified to see students actively and thoughtfully discussing grading as part of our academic practices. As a member of a faculty group that has been working to rethink grading at Middlebury since 2016, I am happy to see the topic thrust into the public eye, even under perilous circumstances. I hope that this conversation yields not only short-term agreement on how to cope with this disrupted semester, but longer term reflections and actions about how grades work — or don’t work— at Middlebury.

While I find good arguments about all the various proposals being advocated for, I am concerned about the assumptions which appear to underlie much of the conversation. Hence, I want to lay out some potentially provocative but important ideas for students and faculty to consider within these debates:

Grades evaluate assignments, not students. For the past few years, my syllabuses have included the following statement: “A letter grade is not an assessment of your intelligence, your abilities, or your value as a person — in fact, Professor Mittell never will grade “you” directly, and grading is never a reflection of who you are as a person. Rather, a grade reflects what you demonstrated that you learned in the course: no more, no less.”

This assertion goes against much of the educational climate students (and faculty) have internalized. Much of the world does and will continue to use grades to evaluate people — they’re what got you into Middlebury, they might be used to keep you here (as with some scholarship requirements) and they may launch your path onward into graduate school or careers. Still, I hope students truly consider detaching grades from their personhood. You aren’t your GPA. You aren’t “an A student,” but rather somebody who has produced work that has received A’s. If you receive a B, P, or an F in a course this — or any — semester, it won’t change who you are. We will all (hopefully) emerge from this pandemic as changed people, but not because of the grades we get or give.

Even at the best of times, traditional grades are not meritocratic. Any grading policy for this semester must grapple with the massive, moment-specific inequities students are currently facing, including widely varying technological access, personal health, financial precarity and support systems. But these inequities didn’t suddenly appear with COVID-19; even in normal semesters, many of these same inequities structure and shape students’ experiences. While faculty may strive to grade “objectively” (whatever that might mean in a given field), the disparate realities of students’ lives guarantees that their ability to meet course expectations will always be unequal, shaped by differences in educational and cultural backgrounds, access to technology, disability status and work obligations (to name but a few). These factors shape both what students know going into a class, as well as how their time and attention can be applied throughout the term. Acknowledging these inequities isn’t an excuse for any student receiving poor grades on an assignment, nor does it belittle the accomplishments of students who receive high grades. Rather, it reminds us that any revisions to policies we make this semester shouldn’t pretend that the status quo is an ideal way to evaluate student work.

Any revisions to policies we make this semester shouldn’t pretend that the status quo is an ideal way to evaluate student work.”

I have changed how I grade over the past few years to develop approaches that don’t reward students simply for coming to class better prepared to succeed. I try to focus instead on learning outcomes, calibrating assignments and grading systems to measure how students accomplish the course’s learning goals, rather than just writing “good papers.” While these approaches haven’t eliminated structural inequities by any means, they strive to emphasize all students’ learning in my class, rather than offering undue credit for some students’ abilities to write a “good paper” before they arrived.

Increasing transparency and student agency improves learning. My teaching aims to create opportunities for students to learn by actively engaging in material and pursuing their interests, rather than simply assessing them on how they meet my expectations. Not only does this increased agency deepen the quality of the student work, but it also gives them options for how to balance my course with their other obligations on their own terms, such as opting-out of assignments with clear grade consequences as a trade-off with other courses and obligations. (I make it clear that I will fully respect students who opt-out, and tell them truthfully that some of my very best students have made similar choices in previous years.)

Such agency seems even more essential in the unpredictable and unprecedented contexts of this semester. For the course I’m teaching now, I have laid out specific ways that students might choose to engage throughout the rest of the semester to best accommodate whatever situation they find themselves in. For each choice, I have made explicit what the grade outcome would be. Thus if they complete the semester-long project they’d already started working on with a good faith effort, they know they will receive an A or A–. If they feel they cannot or do not want to pursue that choice, they have an alternative assignment requiring less time and ongoing participation that will result in a C for the course, with the encouragement to opt into P/D/F. By the time the deadline for declaring P/D/F arrives on May 1, they will know exactly what grade they are on track to receive and thus can make their own informed choices. I’ve also tried to make it clear that I will respect students for their decisions, not considering a P or C any less admirable than an A.

For me and (hopefully) my students, such an opt-in system seems to work well, because it maximizes agency and removes any stigma for choosing to get a P instead of a traditional grade. Regardless of whether our Spring 2020 grading system changes again in response to current conversations, I hope we all change the way we all talk about grades. As faculty, we need to work to maximize agency and depersonalize grades during this semester and beyond. In that way, one positive legacy of this uprooted semester can be a healthier approach to grading at Middlebury for years to come.

Jason Mittell is a professor of Film and Media Culture and a member of the Rethinking Grading Community of Practice. He is The Campus’s faculty adviser.

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