13 The Meaning of Grades

by Jessica Zeller

Original blog posting in Jessica Zeller: Writings, May 25, 2023



Image of yellow electrical wires/energy moving across the screen.
Photo by Maxime VALCARCE on Unsplash

My pedagogy is always under revision. I make adjustments when I see it in action with students. I talked about it in a recent post, where I wrote: “I used to decry grades at length, which I stopped doing this past year after discovering that my strong perspective, despite being informed by the research, tends to push some students back (the quietest ones) until they have a chance to experience the learning curve that I’ve been on for years now. I can tell them that grades are bad all day long, but I have to give them time to feel the difference.”

At the end of the Fall semester, a student confirmed this for me. She told me she’d initially felt confronted by the idea that grades were contrived, or that they somehow—after her 14 years in the school system—could be divorced from the deep learning she’d engaged in and been proud of. But, she assured me, she was trying to be open-minded to the possibilities.

I realized I needed to offer more support around how one might approach my version of Ungrading, in which I ask students to grade themselves. How we interpret what grades mean is at the heart of most (or all?) approaches to alternative grading, so I spent some time in class with this idea to better support students in their reflective grading process. Foremost, I hoped to validate a range of perspectives on grades, perhaps especially for those students who didn’t share my own.

As we approached the end of the semester in my Dance History course, I asked a question: What elements of the course are gradeable? The list was long, and we divided it into product and process, or tangible and less-/in-tangible items. Then, I offered a mini-lecture on some widely divergent meanings of grades that I hoped would help students feel philosophically prepared to grade themselves on these items, as this would be a new process for many of them. I’d structured it to describe two ends of a continuum—a learning curve if you will—that echoes many educators’ long-term processes of gradually scaling back the hegemony of grades in our course designs.

I walked over to the left side of the room. On this side of the continuum, I said, holding the air in my two cupped hands, is the belief that the grade (left hand) is completely divorced from the learning (right hand)—that they’re fundamentally different. The grade, here (left), is a too-reductive way to represent a semester-long process of study and thinking and application and dialogues (right). The letter grade on this side too often represents compliance over learning, and learning is what we’re here to do; you’ve been doing it all semester. This letter grade doesn’t represent you as people, yet I’m betting it sometimes feels like it does, especially depending on your relationship with the person who doles it out. This grade is a letter that, to those who believe in this side of the spectrum, is effectively meaningless and devoid of content; it’s a requirement to pass through the system, but it’s also something the system will just as quickly rid itself of when it becomes inconvenient (See: pandemic onset in Spring 2020, and recent strikes across higher education).

This is the side of the spectrum I’ve come around to, I told them, but I’ve spent the last several years on this learning curve, reading the research and writing about grades, and trying to parse what grades mean to me. Since 2017 when I started moving away from traditional grading, I’ve come to understand that grades often hamper learning; at the very least they take the fun out of it. Learning without grades gives us space to meander, to circle back on our thinking and revise; it inspires an organic emergence of curiosity and creativity and personal investment in the work. This side of the spectrum sees grades as tiny, pretend letters that are entirely subjective in what they represent, and yet (I turned my head toward the right side of the room in silent-film fashion), they can inspire so many very big, very real, concerns and anxieties.

(I hope, dear reader, you understand that I’m paraphrasing myself here. I know I spoke these ideas out loud, but please know it was much messier in real time than in this edited bit of writing. I did, however, move almost exactly as I’ve described here. Humor is my most effective teaching tool. It includes making a dramatic fool of myself on the regular, quite often in an exaggerated bodily way.)

I turned to my right, hunched forward, and tiptoed—sneaked, really—across the front of the room. The other side of the spectrum, I said, holding the air between my hands, is what you’ve been raised to understand in all your years in school: the belief that grades (left hand palm up) are accurate measures of learning (right hand palm up); that grades are important and meaningful (I folded both hands together, slowly entwining my fingers); and that you should work hard to get good grades.

I said this in earnest, without a hint of snark, despite my disagreement with this perspective. I wanted to validate the ways students might ascribe significance to grades. I shared with them that this more traditional end of the spectrum was where I’d started out, oddly enough; that I was someone for whom—as a student—getting good grades was important. Dancers, after all, are under unique pressures to demonstrate intellect because we’re so frequently assumed not to have one.

I continued. Perhaps your family values good grades and would be proud of your scholastic achievement and strong work ethic when you bring home a good grade. If you’re the first person in your family to attend college, getting a good grade might represent something larger than yourself. In addition, grades can have a measurable impact on your life. They can unlock access to scholarships, graduate programs, internships, and jobs. They’ve become a widely understood currency of sorts: culturally, socially, economically, and politically. They’re seen as proof of life skills and general capacity. With good grades, you can get discounts on things like car insurance, because those companies trust you to be a safer bet when you bring home an A rather than a C. Grades, on this side of the continuum, are an incentive to do better—to be better, sometimes. They’re a little extrinsic motivation when the intrinsic version isn’t readily available.

I dropped my hands and walked to the middle of the room; between the poles. Did I miss anything? What else do grades mean?

There were some heartfelt contributions and some discussion, along with some delightfully animated faces I read as either, “oh shit this is more serious than I thought…” or “uh-oh this reflection is going to take more time than I have to give it.” No one was unconcerned.

Here comes the fun part.

How will this help me grade myself, you might be wondering? If you’re over here (I gestured to the left side of the room), where grades and learning are distinct, then for the sake of philosophical consistency I assume you’ll be giving yourself an A. You have the space to do that in this class, and since—if the grade doesn’t relate to the learning but is indeed a currency of sorts—why not take the highest mark you can get to help yourself in the eyes of the system? (Ugh reader, I know. I said the biggest Ungrading loophole out loud and made it sound like it was no big deal. Eyebrows around the room nearly reached their respective hairlines.) If this is the direction you go, I’d like you to write about it in your reflection and offer a thorough qualitative review of your work and learning this semester. Because if the grade holds less meaning for you, you’ll need to show that the learning holds more, which means in addition to evaluating your work and your process, you’ll describe your understanding of yourself as a learner in this course. Also? I’m here to help.

If, however, you believe grades can be an accurate representation of your learning (gesturing to the right side of the room), then I recommend you use the goal-setting exercises you’ve done all semester to evaluate your work, and discuss to what extent you were satisfied with the outcomes. You’ll need to consider if you’ll be evaluating the intangible elements of your work—citizenship, participation, timeliness, organization, etc. If it’s important to you, grade it. Make yourself a rubric if you wish; describe what the letters represent. However you choose to go forward, be sure to reflect on what you chose to grade and why, and how you’re associating your work and your learning with that particular letter. Again, I’m here to help.

If you’re somewhere in between (I did a little twirly dance with my hands), GREAT! The gray area is a fascinating place to be. Remember—I’m here to help. You’ll each be meeting with me so we’ll have a chance to talk about it then too, but I want to read about your relationship to grades and what you’re wrestling with as you do this self-evaluative exercise. Please know, too, that if I think you’ve been too hard on yourself, I might make a suggestion in the upward direction that you are welcome to take or leave. This exercise isn’t about placating me—I trust your perspective on your work and I trust your integrity. This exercise is about you; evaluating your own learning and figuring out how to fit that learning into a system that requires a final letter grade, however you choose to go about it.

Every time I’ve presented students with a theoretical conundrum, they’ve offered deeply insightful responses. The reflections they wrote and the meetings I had with them this past semester were evidence of that. If any students from this course happen to be reading this, please feel free to reconsider your approach to grading the next time you land in one of my courses: the meanings we attribute to grades tend to change the longer we think about them. I’ll see you on the learning curve.


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Crowdsourcing Ungrading Copyright © 2020 by David Buck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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