Fall is also for SUCCESS!

I have given several talks on ungrading and my approach this year. At every one, there is someone who asks about the course average.

I say 2 things.

1. My first semester of fully ungrading this course, the final course average was 1% lower than the previous traditionally graded term. (This is statistically insignificant, and also demonstrates that students are able to accurately assess themselves.)

2. The average in my course is close to 80%, and was so before ungrading.

Point #2 makes some people squirm, and I’m here for it. I ask – Why is that a problem? The common responses are: assuming that a course average needs to be a C, assuming that the course is too easy, assuming that grade inflation is a nebulous enemy we need to wage war against OR ELSE the whole academy is under dire threat of not being taken seriously.

To the first point, I set up my course so that every student has an opportunity to succeed well. If most of them are not succeeding well, that means I have done something wrong in the architecture of my course. To the second point, I have good data suggesting that students perceive that they work harder in this ungraded course than they do in other more prescribed labs. It does not escape my notice that this “hard work” stems a lot from making braver choices, which they are more likely to do since the advent of ungrading. Choosing to do a project with a novel approach or unknown liklihood of success automatically commits students to the extra mental labor of thinking through possible problems. To the final point, I suggest that this is exactly why we don’t need grades. (Many medical colleges do not grade, and neither do many smaller colleges. Nor does our K-9 public school system in BC). Grades are a recent advent that simply reflects the need to process a lot of students with minimal effort. (For a brief history of grades, I recommend Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) by Schniske and Tanner).

Ultimately I am OK with most of my students doing extremely well in my course. They have earned their high marks and I am increasingly convinced that they do a better job at articulating what theses marks mean than I do.


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