As numerous students obsessively refresh their browsers to see if their grades have been posted, it’s time for a reminder that traditional grading is toxic to individual learners and society as a whole. Here is a (partial) list of reasons why grading is a huge problem:
- It encourages ableism. Ableism – discrimination against those considered “disabled” – is based on the idea that humans can (and should) be hierarchically ranked by ability level, that those with exceptional abilities should be rewarded, and that those with deficient abilities should be punished. This is exactly what grading does – rank based on ability, then reward or punish based on these rankings.
- It discourages creativity. The things that can be easily measured in testing tend to be analytical, with “right” and “wrong” answers, etc. The things that are very difficult to assess – creativity and soft skills – are devalued and thus discouraged.
- It encourages conformity. To compare and rank large groups of students, you need to use narrow assessment criteria. When everyone tries to excel in the exact same ways, they start to think, act, and produce in nearly identical ways.
- It discourages risk-taking. Making mistakes and problem-solving is an essential part of learning. With grading, mistakes are punished. As a result, learners get risk-averse, timid, and perfectionist.
- It encourages competitive mindsets. When you’re constantly judged in relationship to your peers, you begin to see them as competition. When there are only so many ‘A’s’ to go around, you start to develop a scarcity mentality. These mindsets can poison relationships and contribute to larger societal problems – sexism, racism, etc.
- It discourages self-assessment. Grading promotes the idea that assessments of performance should be done by an outside authority. In fact, learners need to get to the point where they can monitor, assess, and troubleshoot their progress.
My solution to this problem was to build a teaching career outside of academia, in which I don’t use formal grading (although I do try to provide plenty of constructive feedback on performance). I believe the successful learners excel in spite of, not because of grading. While traditional grading continues to be the bedrock of formal education, I believe there are many things we can do to develop alternate frameworks. But the first step is to acknowledge the problems with the status quo…