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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

It’s time to rethink letter grades

Students and instructors could benefit from learning practices that do not revolve around letter grade outcomes

After nearly two years of mainly virtual and hybrid classes, the pandemic has undoubtedly altered the way students at all age levels view and engage in learning. This is a time of vast change for our educational system, making now the perfect opportunity for universities to reevaluate the educational practices and strategies that create the best learning environment for students — for many, this may look like redefining the current standard grading system. 

For students, learning is often tied to a culture of stress that revolves around grades and exams — an environment that can be harmful for the mental health and academic performance of students. In one survey, 55% of college students in residence halls indicated academics as being their biggest source of stress. The link between ongoing stress and anxiety and depression is well-established, and anxiety and depression are known to hinder academic performance.

One aspect of the education system that has been called into question is the effectiveness of grades as measurements of learning. Several K-12 school districts have recently transitioned away from the ingrained system of grades to focus on standards-based learning, citing non-academic considerations and inconsistencies between teachers as major flaws of the grading system. Though such a system is uncommon in post-secondary education, many universities changed the standard grading to pass/fail during the COVID-19 pandemic, in recognition of the fact that letter grading would cause students more undue stress. 

Higher education has already taken steps to distance itself from inequitable and biased means of judging students’ academic performance, like the elimination of SAT and ACT scores from the UC’s admission process. The SAT is administered by the College Board, whose stated mission is to promote equity in education, but it perpetuates racial and economic inequality, giving the upper hand in admissions to more affluent students. Given that the traditional grading system has been known to perpetuate similar biases, it’s time to reconsider our institutions’ reliance on grades as relevant predictors of our learning. 

Instead of enhancing students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, grades are a form of extrinsic motivation, distancing classes from their primary goals of learning. When students are more concerned about the grade they receive than actually understanding the material, an environment of increased competitiveness, greater anxiety around performing well and an enhanced fear of failure may ensue. 

Certain tactics like curved grading and including subjective effort and behavior outcomes in grading systems can also penalize low-income students without providing an accurate metric for their learning. Since practices like curved grading include subjective effort and rely on comparative performance, grading based on individual performance and improvement is fairer to all students.

Practices like providing descriptive feedback, offering opportunities to improve work and encouraging self-evaluation can be effective tools for promoting intrinsic learning in the classroom. These practices foster a growth mindset and encourage failure as a crucial aspect of learning. Studies have shown that incorporating these practices without giving students grades is most effective for a student’s improvement in the class. 

While some smaller colleges like Reed and Sarah Lawrence have implemented non-grading options for their classrooms, it would be hard to imagine such a setup becoming widespread without a massive reorganization of our education system. Grades are much faster for instructors and can require less effort than other forms of feedback, especially in classes where hundreds of students are enrolled; for example, scanning a scantron is considerably less work than providing in-depth, individualized commentary to each student. 

For such a system to be effective at UC Davis, instructors would need much smaller class sizes and more resources, and a grade-less education system would also require more effort from students and instructors alike. Similarly, employers, graduate schools and internship opportunities would need to find other measurements for judging applicants in order to reduce the emphasis on grades for students.

That being said, there are a number of small steps instructors can take to create a more learning-focused environment in their classroom, and the eventual transition from virtual to in-person learning is an excellent opportunity to do so. Assignments and practice problems based on completion provide avenues for students to practice material without the fear of losing points. In certain classes, allowing note sheets on exams can also encourage students to identify and study important concepts before exams and can reduce some of the stress of test taking. Even just emphasizing that grades are not accurate predictors of success at the beginning of the course, especially in postgraduate life, can be comforting steps to alleviate the stressors of grades. 

Using these tools, instructors can begin to move away from using grades as an indicator of learning and focus on other metrics for defining academic success — creating a more effective learning environment for students and teachers alike. 

Written by: The Editorial Board 



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