There is a great deal of pedagogical literature concerning the harm done to students by the practice of ranking them with letter grades.1 The authors of these papers, self-styled ungraders, focus on the effects of letter grading on students’ mindsets. Ungraders generally agree that letter grades distract students away from true understanding because, as widely cited ungrader Alfie Kohn puts it, “too many [of them] have been led to believe the primary purpose of schooling is to get As.”2.
That students believe this is universally acknowledged, at least by teachers. But why they believe it, in particular why they believe it so tenaciously even though their teachers have been telling them the opposite since forever, is not so clear. Also, I’m not sure that students “have been led to believe” this by anything other than their own accurate observations, or even that the students are wrong about “the primary purpose of schooling.”
The ungrading community believes that, as Susan Blum puts it, “when we grade, we really convey very little information about what is being assessed”3 and their arguments are convincing. Just for instance, there are too few letter grade options to differentiate between the wide variety of student achievements, even in a single class. My institution only offers ten choices, which isn’t granular enough even to draw a conclusion from the bare fact that two students received the same grade in a given class.4
But what I see lacking in the ungrading literature is the undeniable fact that grading practices, and student attitudes towards grading practices for that matter, exist in a larger social context. It’s the context not only within which schools also exist, but which creates and requires pedagogical practices such as letter grades, mandatory attendance, comprehensive final exams and which ultimately specifies even the very subjects being taught.
The social context creates life-altering rewards for students with good grades and life-altering punishments for those who don’t measure up. It may even be this context that informs student thinking on the purpose of schooling and the significance of letter grades. This larger social context isn’t amenable to change on a pedagogically useful time-scale, which may be why the ungrading literature, as far as I can see, doesn’t really consider it in the design of particular grading practices in particular classrooms in pragmatic ways.
Ungraders may or may not be right about the harm letter grading does to the classroom learning atmosphere, but they are certainly right about the historically contingent status of the practice itself. Letter grades aren’t an immutably objective requirement for successful education. They’re just a tool that some people invented at some point to further their purposes. Since then evolving needs have revealed new capabilities in the tool and letter grading has come to serve many new purposes. But ultimately it was invented and adopted by people and we can abandon it as easily if it suits our purposes to do so.
Consistent with their habit of ignoring the political context in which letter grading exists there is a tendency among ungraders to see their pedagogical practices as creating safe bubbles for their students away from the antieducational but presently unchangeable system of letter grades. By implication, therefore, also away from the larger social context in which all of us, students, teachers, administrators, and schools themselves, exist. As Kohn puts it, the best ungrading practices allow “the prospect of final grades [to remain] as invisible as possible for as long as possible."5 Ungrading as reflected in the literature is fundamentally an accomodation to the larger social system rather than a challenge to it.
But the social context cries out to be challenged. Letter grades are used against students in many ways and in few if any ways that benefit them. If my goal is to educate my students, to help them learn something worth their time and to their benefit, well, this strikes me as incompatible with the pernicious effects of letter grading on my students. In this essay I propose a very partial solution to the question of the role of letter grades in this larger social context, but it’s not a general proposal.
In order to keep my thoughts and experiments as closely linked as possible to my own students’ best interests I resolved to only consider and propose modifications in the things I understand best, which turned out to be my own classroom. But I’m a tenured associate professor of mathematics at Whittier College, a small private liberal arts school in Southern California. This gives me a wide range of not so widely available options, which may make my thinking only narrowly applicable, maybe even only to me. I hope that perhaps my thoughts might inspire other teachers to find ways to address this problem, the problem of letter grading in a coercive society, in ways that make sense in their own disciplines, employment constraints, methodologies, and so on.
Classrooms aren’t bubbles
Instead of beginning with the relatively unexamined assumption that students are wrong to focus so intently on getting As, that it’s something problematic inside the students’ heads hindering learning, it might also be fruitful to assume that the students are right, that they know their own interests better than their teachers do, no matter whether they can articulate them in academic jargon or even at all.
Students clearly understand what they have at stake with respect to their grades.6 Everybody understands. Good grades may or may not correlate to a good education but they certainly afford vastly more opportunities than mediocre or bad grades do in terms of future education, jobs, income, health, and even wealth. These things shape people’s entire lives and the lives of generations of their families. It’s unrealistic to expect students to forget this omnipresent, evident, and absolutely life-essential fact.
The benefits that follow good grades are the carrot, such as it is, but there’s also a stick. In an immediate sense even a single F can mess up students’ financial aid, get them kicked out of school or the dorm, which may be their only housing option. It may trigger loan repayment obligations or worse. Later on bad grades and less education lead to worse jobs, which lead to less money, worse medical care, lowered life expectancy, and less personal control over one’s place in the world, often with heavy student debt adding to the pain.
Bad grades lead to a more precarious existence, in which bad luck or what might otherwise be small errors spiral up into terrible consequences like unemployment, loss of health insurance, hungry children, homelessness, and so on. Without independent wealth it’s life-threatening not to have a job, and the worse a job is the easier it is to lose it. It’s really unrealistic to expect students to forget this omnipresent and evident fact.
The context in which students go to college is coercive, then, and letter grades are part of the coercion. They go on your permanent record, don’t they? It’s hard to create a safe bubble in the classroom to keep grades invisible for as long as possible given the dire consequences attached to them. Bubbles can’t hide the real threat of impending unemployability and potential death from homelessness.7
As far as I can see, though, the ungrading community lacks an analysis of letter grading that confronts this social context. Their attention seems to me to be focused almost entirely on students’ mindsets insofar as they’re within a given teacher’s power to affect during a single course taught in a single classroom. This may well be an essential issue, but I don’t think it’s nearly as important as their larger-context anxieties. For this reason I don’t engage deeply in this paper with ungraders. I don’t think their work is harmful, and I haven’t read enough of it to know if it’s generally useful, but the problems ungraders set out to solve aren’t the problems I’m addressing here.
Who and what are letter grades good for?
Not for the students, but they’re useful to someone or they wouldn’t be ubiquitous. Grades don’t tell students much about their own work in a class, and they certainly don’t tell students more than I can tell them in a brief conversation at the end of the semester. But there are plenty of people, organizations, and other grade consumers who make a lot of assumptions about students, accurate or not, based on letter grades. If a class is a prerequisite the grade consumers might be the people who teach the classes it’s a prerequisite for. Institutions themselves also consume letter grades, which they use to assign or deny various rewards, like diplomas and scholarships. These are important cases and I discuss them below.
But grade consumers outside the institution, graduate schools, governments, financial institutions, employers, also extract a great deal of information about students from letter grades. This is not to say that the information they extract is accurate, but it is information, they do extract it, and they use it to make decisions which then affect students’ lives, sometimes drastically. Its objective accuracy, if there even is such a thing, is not necessarily correlated with its utility to grade consumers.8 They use this information to serve their purposes, but there’s no reason to assume they use it for the students’ benefit. If they do it’s a coincidence. I don’t know why letter grades are so embedded in their ranking and control systems, but they own the whole world, so they must know their business.
The pal in the corral
If you read about collegiate pedagogy you will inevitably encounter the so-called “sage on the stage,” a gloomy and highly non-normative stock character who drones on and on about dusty old irrelevant nonsense, never stopping to check if anyone cares or even if they’re listening. This fellow’s highly normative antithesis is known as the “guide on the side,” who expertly and lovingly facilitates the students’ innate natural desire to learn joyfully.
But if students’ anxiety about grades in fact originates outside the classroom, if it comes from that exact social context which pens students up in classrooms, processes, ranks, and sorts them for external purposes that are decidedly not in their best interests, then more than either a stage sage or a side guide the ungrading teacher risks becoming a pal in the corral, who isn’t exactly serving the students’ interests either. By the way, it may seem like an extreme way of phrasing it to say that college students are penned up in classrooms given the superficially voluntary nature of going to college. It’s not inaccurate, though. At least not in the sense that the choice not to go to college is a weighty one, made under duress with low information since no one can tell the future. It has life-changing consequences no matter which option people choose. If you have the means and opportunity to go to college and aren’t independently wealthy or without solid other plans for your future it’s a big risk not to go.
So whatever the purposes of the institutions that require us to assign letter grades, my claim here is the grades are currently used by grade consumers outside the institution to harm students. There are a couple commonly heard and fairly facile arguments against this claim. Many people with whom I discussed earlier versions of this paper brought up one or both of them. First, that competitive scholarships or grants awarded based on GPA are a use of grade ranking that helps students. This is only even plausible because college is ruinously expensive. Since it should be free as long as it’s so consequential and since As don’t hurt student scholarship chances, I don’t feel any need to respond to this phenomenon in my grading practice.
Another argument raised in favor of letter grades helping students is the argument from motivation. Without the chance of being publicly labeled as a lower class of student, the argument goes, these folks wouldn’t be able to motivate themselves to study. Unstated but often implied is that without people to do better than they’d have no reason to try to do well. I have so little sympathy for this position that I won’t waste anyone’s time arguing against it.
There’s no defensible pedagogical justification for letter grades but there are many defensible justifications, both pedagogical and ethical, for their abandonment. They don’t help students, and any helpful information they may convey can be conveyed through other means. They do help powerful grade consumers, who have no interest in students’ well-being, achieve their own purposes for the students. We wouldn’t have letter grades if grade consumers didn’t require them.9 The difference between an A and a B or a C is negligible if we’re only concerned with whether or not students have learned enough of the material, but it can be huge in their postgraduate life. If my purpose as a teacher is to teach rather than to sort my students into piles for the benefit of those who don’t have their interests in mind, why would I not give all of these students As? And if my job as a teacher, which is not coextensive with my purpose, somehow requires me to do this, well then, I’d like to hear someone say that out loud, which would also be a valuable outcome.
What is to be done?
As a college teacher I have a lot of freedom in how I assign grades. As far as I know as long as I follow the grading policy I create and put on my syllabus and as long as the policy isn’t prima facie insane,10 no one has substantial grounds for complaint – as far as I can see I’m protected by academic freedom.
One of my recent letter grading policies says that an A grade requires an aggregate score of at least 90% or in the top 10% of the class’s aggregate scores or either of these scores on the final exam alone. I have no idea why I chose these numbers. They’re completely arbitrary, although in line with cultural expectations. If I changed them to something similar, like 86% and 13% or whatever, it’d have to be equally acceptable. No one has ever asked me where these numbers come from, and I wouldn’t know if they did ask me. No matter what numbers I use the policy would make equal sense or nonsense and be equally defensible or indefensible. As far as I can see there isn’t and probably couldn’t be a rule even against giving all the students As all the time.
But, as always, the lack of a rule against something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it, even though in this case it would in some real ways be good for students to only give As. But mathematical knowledge is famously cumulative, and it’s not doing anyone, student or not, much of a favor to give them an A in precalculus if they’re utterly unprepared for calculus.11 A specific quirk of my department is useful here. We require at least a C- to move on to the next class.
For me, at my institution then, the prerequisite problem can be solved by giving As to students who are ready to move on and Ds to the others. While D grades can have bad consequences for students they’re much less immediate than with Fs. The bad consequences of being unready for the next class are more immediate and more likely to happen. But this is easy for me to do within institutional constraints. Since the numbers are arbitrary there’s nothing wrong with making an aggregate percentage of 65% or higher12 worth an A and everyone else who participates in the course gets a D. When I first started thinking about these ideas I didn’t see any reason to give students Fs, but I had to revise this position. Space in classes is limited, and if my policy is to give no Fs then it’s likely that some students would enroll in the class and never show up again because a D serves their purposes.
I don’t object to this in principle, and I don’t even see it as taking unfair advantage, but it does use up a seat in the class that could be filled by a student who does want to learn the material. This is a problem because both my employer and my own limited time restrict the number of students I can enroll in each class. So this semester, which is the first time I’m trying this method openly, in the sense of putting it on my actual syllabus, I will assign F grades to students who don’t attempt at least a certain amount of the coursework and don’t earn at least 50% of the possible points. Here’s the actual language from my Fall 2022 College Algebra syllabus:
If you get 65% or more I’ll give you an A. If you get 50% or more but less than 65% I’ll give you a D. If you get less than 50% and you have turned in all homework and completed all tests I’ll give you a D. If you’re missing assignments and/or tests and get less than 50% I’ll give you an F.
My goal with this language is to give at least a D to students who use all their learning opportunities without penalizing them unduly if they don’t succeed in learning at least enough to move on to the next class. This move solves the prerequisite problem and the nonparticipation problem, but it doesn’t address the low information problem. In fact, it makes it worse by exchanging ten possible outcomes for only two (or three, if you include the possibility of an F for not participating, but I assume the students to whom that applies know why it applies to them). It’s not really an issue, though. While there is every reason to hide the numbers behind the grade from external grade consumers there’s no reason at all to hide them from the students.
The grade consumers don’t glean details from letter grades anyway. If they want more information than grades provide they ask for letters of recommendation. But since I continue running my classes as usual, with numerical scores on assignments as always,13 the students can always know where they stand from the numbers and from conversations with me, just like they always could. The information is still there, and completely available to the students who find it useful, but can easily be ignored by everyone else.
Other Social Commitments
So far I’ve been discussing the issue as if the only relevant parties are the students, me, and some external grade consumers. But my department and the college as a whole use letter grades for our own purposes also.14 All of these contexts create responsibilities. Whether I agree or disagree or don’t know how I feel about how my department or my college use letter grades is not the only consideration. In this kind of social context I have essentially the same power as any of my colleagues to work to change how letter grades are used locally. This makes it seem to me that unless I’m willing to work to advocate and effect change or there’s some immediately overriding moral consideration, neither of which is currently the case, I ought to be guided by the collective wisdom of my colleagues.
For example, my department gives various awards to graduating seniors, and some are based on GPA in the major. Some of the awards are named in honor of family members and come with endowed funding to provide money gifts. One is named for a dear, now deceased, colleague with whom I worked personally. These are weighty social commitments whose bonds and obligations I voluntarily accept. Such commitments aren’t to be fooled with frivolously.
Maybe ranking students at all is morally objectionable, but so is unduly violating deep community commitments. I can’t resolve this problem here — there will always be such problems interfacing with the coercive world and they can’t all be solved at once — my temporary solution is to note that percentage scores are as good or better than letter grades for ranking students. If my grading system unduly perturbs departmental or institutional commitments it’s easy enough to convert one to the other. I don’t have a strong feeling as to whether this is good or bad for students and for that reason it seems better to go on as before in the absence of clarity.
When I first started putting this argument together I felt like it implied that I should only give A grades in courses that weren’t prerequisites. That is, the only reason I saw at first for giving Ds was to not harm students and their future teachers by letting them move on to courses they weren’t prepared for. This conclusion seemed obviously wrong to me, but I couldn’t see where the problem was. I didn’t feel like I could defend that position publicly but also I didn’t have a way to explain, even to myself, why I felt this way.
But once I started thinking about the role of social commitments, the weight of the duty imposed on me by my collegial community, I realized that, whether or not I have a duty to rank students for the benefit of third party grade consumers, I do in fact have a duty to my department and to my college to certify that my students understand the subjects I teach them. As a department we set standards for our major and make collective decisions about whether students meet them. As a college we do the same for the degrees we grant. The conclusion, as before, is that at least until I’m willing to work to change my department’s or my college’s policies, which I’m not since I haven’t thought about them enough to have an opinion, I should and will continue to be guided by my colleagues’ collective wisdom.
This is not pass/fail grading
The plan I’m describing here exchanges ten possible grades for only two. In this one sense it’s similar to pass/fail grading, which Whittier College allows students to opt for unilaterally as long as they do it before some deadline. I think I might have the option to require students to take at least some of my classes on this basis, which is something that at least some ungraders see as a good resolution of their concerns about letter grades.15
I won’t do it, though. Not only does pass/fail grading as it’s practiced at my institution not solve the problem I’m trying to address, it actually makes it worse for the students in at least one specific way. If I give a letter-graded student a D they pass the class and get credit for it even though it lowers their GPA and can’t advance to successor classes. But if the student has opted for pass/fail and I give them a D the registrar automatically translates it to an F (or an NC), potentially triggering all the dire consequences outlined above.
I have no control over this at all. It’s an institutional policy. When I’m teaching as well as when I’m entering grades I can’t even tell which students are taking my class pass/fail. To avoid students falling inadvertently into this trap I will explain the situation thoroughly before the deadline so at least they can make an informed choice with respect to their grading options.16
In this paper I’ve presented this problem as if I, the teacher, am somehow outside the coercive social context that weaponizes letter grades against my students. But of course I’m not. No one is. Not only do I have it in my power to adjust my grading practice to shield students from some small part of the harm done by letter gradeas used by coercive power, but I have a moral duty to do so at the very least because I also benefit from that very coercion. College students aren’t directly forced into my classroom at gunpoint like students subject to compulsory attendance laws, but they’re not there on a purely voluntary basis either.17 Not only that, but the coercive society’s insatiable need for technicians keeps math classrooms reliably full enough for me to earn a living teaching in them.
I also, like so many of us do, have blood on my hands. Like so many of us I’m forced into complicity by my bodily needs, the bodily needs of the family to whose support I contribute. There is no purely ethical way to meet these needs in this world, the only world we have to live in right now. I have no way to be noncomplicit, so the resistance I describe in this paper isn’t some kind of neutral benevolence, and it’s not a contradiction-free political theory. It’s an attempt to address what I see as a moral duty to pay back some few of the benefits I’ve gained from coercion, to bite the hand that feeds me, to say out loud that although I’m forced into complicity with exploitation I’m not forced to be quiet about it, as if I approve of it. I do not approve. I didn’t ask for it and I will take all the steps I can see how to take in order to extract myself from it. This is one step.
I am indebted to a number of colleagues, friends, and family who read and commented on earlier versions of this paper. They’ve made it much better than it might have been. I’m especially indebted to Marcus Schultz-Bergin, whose close reading and detailed comments clarified a number of essential issues for me, and whose insight helped me understand what my actual topic was.
[Blum] Ungrading – Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). Susan D. Blum. West Virginia University Press 2020.
[Gibbs] Let’s talk about grading. Laura Gibbs. in [Blum] pp. 91-104.
[Kohn] Foreword. Alfie Kohn. In [Blum] pp. xiii-xx.
See e.g. [Blum] for a comprehensive introduction to the literature.↩
[Kohn] p. xiii↩
[Blum] p. 12↩
There are no A+ grades and neither Ds nor Fs admit +/-.↩
[Kohn] p. xvi.↩
The undergraduates that I teach do, and plenty of kids I went to high school with certainly did.↩
Which may sound extreme, but I don’t think it is. Even if postgraduate life may not be as terrifying as some undergraduates imagine it is, it is terrifying, and the connections to school success aren’t exactly secrets.↩
Also interesting is the fact that students can use the information carrying capacity of grades for their own purposes as well, and not just to signal to Harvard Medical School that they should be admitted. From time to time over more than thirty years teaching college I have had students ask me to lower their grades to send messages to grade consumers the details of which I still consider confidential but which made (and make) complete sense to me.↩
Or at least we wouldn’t have them everywhere. Maybe some free people could find a use for them, but I can’t think of any.↩
By which I mean only that as long as it plausibly and in good faith supports the appropriate goals, e.g. teaching students some mathematics, it’s acceptable.↩
This issue is slightly more complex than I’m making it out to be here, since at least at Whittier College and probably at other institutions as well, not every student enrolled in precalculus intends to go on to calculus. This is too particular and tangential to discuss in detail here.↩
This, or even lower, is a normal cutoff for a C- in many college math classes. It seems low, but it’s possible to adjust the course content so that 65% of it prepares a student for the next cleass. It’s useful to make this number low since then not every student has to learn the same 65% of the material, which I think is pedagogically crucial in math classes.↩
Not that I think this is the ideal way to do things. It might not be. But at least for me it’s not a good idea to change too many variables in my classes at one time without solid reasons for doing so. Also it’s useful to me for keeping grades consistent across similar mistakes, which is extremely important pedagogically. Also I’m really comfortable with this system and as far as I can see it’s working pretty well.↩
I use the pronoun “our” rather than “their” deliberately to acknowledge and honor the fact that I am not just a math teacher in a classroom with students, I’m a math teacher in a math department in a college in a classroom with students.↩
See e.g. [Gibbs].↩
It’s possible, maybe even plausible, that this policy is a violation of my academic freedom in that it allows a passing grade that I assign to be changed to a failing grade without my knowledge or consent. Even though I am the professor and have sole responsibility for assigning grades I have no way to know whether I’m passing the student or not. There are no other circumstances I’m aware of in which the institution is allowed to change the substantial meaning of a grade I assign without some kind of process that all parties can participate in. This is not a battle I care to engage in at this time, but I will certainly keep thinking about it.↩
It’s not hyperbole to say that kids subject to compulsory attendance laws are forced into school at gunpoint. If the laws are enforced, and these days they’re enforced assiduously, they’re enforced by courts and police, which is to say that they’re enforced at gunpoint. Anyone who has raised a teenager who just would not go to school is very likely to have experienced the truth of this fact personally.↩