One of our most important goals for our students is a deeper engagement with and investment in the subject matter. We want them to care about what they’re learning, because intrinsic motivation, what Amabile (2018) calls “the drive to engage in a task because it is interesting, enjoyable, challenging, or satisfying in and of itself” makes it easier to persist and learn. (See a review of this literature in Hennessey, 2018.) This is where grades can become a problem.
A long line of research has consistently shown that external rewards and punishments—and grades can feel like either to a student—undermine both intrinsic motivation and creativity. More specifically, and most relevant to the subject of grades, studies show that this undermining can be caused by situations where students expect to be given evaluations of their work or under conditions of competition. Decades of research confirming these findings (this research is explored in depth in Amabile, 2018, and Hennessey, 2018) raise serious questions about whether grades do students more harm than good.
So, what are some alternatives?
With ungrading, you give students feedback on their work throughout the semester but do not give grades; it’s the feedback rather than concerns about grades that drives student growth.
Of course, at the end of the semester the registrar will expect a grade. Given that, what most ungraders do is solicit a self-evaluation, including a grade, from the students themselves. It’s often helpful to set a minimum standard—e.g., a list of things a student has to do to be eligible for credit in the class, let alone an A—and to reserve the right to adjust grades that you see as being too far removed from reality (e.g., more than a half-grade above or below what you’d give the student).
It’s also crucial to warn students from the beginning that they won’t be receiving grades along the way and to let them know the process you’ll be following for determining their final grade.
This practice involves coming to an understanding, articulated in a kind of contract, or set of social agreements, with the entire class about how final course grades will be determined for everyone.
In the words of Asao Inoue, “using labor as the way to calculate course grades is also ethical on the grounds of fairness in what is graded, or what counts toward grades, and so what counts as course goals. What we can ask from students and what we can expect from everyone in the room regardless of where they come from or what habitus they embody should be the same or commensurate” (Inoue ‘Concerns’).
Contracts will vary based on course type, content, goals, and student input. Here’s an example of a Grade Contract by Kathryn Goodman of Georgetown University.