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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Abolishing Grades

I find the idea of abolishing grades cooky and weird. You abolish grades, you lose students like me. I’m competitive, I respond very well to hierarchies and evaluations. None of this had prevented me from being a life-long voracious learner and an adventurous, risk-taking student and scholar. 

What’s the payoff that can be gained from this “there are no winners here, everybody who participated wins!” approach? When is the time to let students know that that’s not how life works? What’s the point of preparing them for the kind of world that doesn’t exist?

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13 thoughts on “Abolishing Grades

  1. Dreidel on said:

    That article is incredibly badly written. The author takes 2,000 words to explain that she actually hasn’t gotten rid of grades at all.

    Near the beginning of the article she says, “I decided I would go all the way and get rid of grades. Or at least, get rid of them as much as I could — all the way to the end of the semester.” Many paragraphs later she states, “Students suggest their grade, which I can accept or not.”

    In other words, all her students do get a final grade — but it’s purely arbitrary and subjective on the professor’s part, and probably worthless as an actual indicator of the students’ knowledge or skills.

    And if you think the article is amazing, read all the glowing comments below it!

    (Yes, I’m in a bad mood tonight, anyway. Why do you ask?)

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    • It’s poorly written, yes — and, yes, in general. But I’d like grades to be able to actually reflect performance against a standard. And the way they have to be made now in some classes, they don’t.

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  2. For multi-level classes where you have to find some way to get students to think about learning goals at all. The best I’ve done so far is a system where students self-select a track, within the same course: one set of homework for people who just came from the minimum prerequisite and-or did poorly in earlier courses, another set for people who are better prepared, and a different set for people who are very well prepared. There are common activities for the class, but then for the work they do outside of class, there are varying levels of difficulty. It’s the only way — I have Spanish conversation, for instance, with native speakers (true native, not heritage) and also people who are in their 5th semester and have weak preparation for the 5th semester.

    I’m thinking of taking ideas from the abolish-grades movement for Spanish 4. These people are sometimes good but many are woefully underprepared and most importantly don’t know what it is to study Spanish. Many have never even heard it spoken, only learned to do exercises in it, and think that is the way to “learn” it. Making them make a study plan tailored for them, and a self-evaluation, and so on might at least cause them to think a little more about actual course goals, is my thought.

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  3. My problem is that Kurdish culture has the exact opposite approach to learning and scholarship as Jewish culture. Kurds completely and totally reject the idea of learning. They all just want As for doing no reading. I have had dozens of students ask me “How can I get an A without doing any reading.” They also don’t come to class. So I spend three hours a week arguing with students about grades. Most of them generally get Cs. They all think they should get As. If it was anybody else doing the grading they would probably all get Fs. Compared to my Ghanaian students there is almost no learning going on because the students militantly refuse to read or look at maps or even pay attention to lectures. My theory is that because literacy was imposed upon Kurds by the Arabs as part of Islamization that they reject reading as an imposed Arabization and to be a real Kurd means to reject reading and learning in principle.

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    • “My theory is that because literacy was imposed upon Kurds by the Arabs”

      A more economic theory (given that similar attitudes are supposedly widefly found among Arab students and something close to it is not uncommon in Spain*) is that both Iraqi Kurds and the Spanish absorbed Arab attitudes toward reading.

      *a now long disappeared blog I used to read was a foreigner in Spain who was often mentioning that reading is regarded with suspicion in much of Spain (Catalonia being the main exception) and apparently some “English teachers” there strive toward a curriculum with no written materials at all…..

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      • The Arabs here are not as bad overall as the Kurds in rejecting reading and there is an historical tradition still active among the Palestinian diaspora of written Arab literature and scholarship. Most scholarship on Kurdish history, ethnography, and literature since 1917 has been done by Armenians.

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        • “Arabs here are not as bad overall as the Kurds in rejecting reading”

          I assume your readings are in English, do they also reject reading in Kurdish? Arabic?
          Do your students speak and/or write Kurdish? Arabic? Both? I know an Iraqi Kurd scholar pretty well (sometimes living in Erbil now) but his dominant language is Iraqi Arabic and admits his Kurdish is fairly weak.

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          • Yes, they also reject reading in Kurdish and particularly in Arabic. Almost none of them have read a complete book on their own initiative ever. Many older Kurds know Arabic, but for the most part the younger generation does not have the ability to speak it. The dominant language among them is Sorani which has a number of differences from the much more widely spoken Kurmanji dialect. Again if you look at the 20th century in particular most of the serious scholarship on Kurds was written by Armenians in the USSR not by Kurds.

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            • “they also reject reading in Kurdish”

              Okay, this makes me suspect that an independent Kurdistan is a non-starter except perhaps as an English-administered American neo-colony….

              Cultivation of a national language is nation building 101 and they seem to be failing that too…

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              • They have a couple of national languages or dialects. But, for the most part the language is oral. The lack of a culture of learning is a big problem, however.

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    • Many Louisiana students are also against reading and in some cases against having any but the most basic vocabulary. I will have to think about this.

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  4. “for the most part the language is oral. The lack of a culture of learning is a big problem, however.”

    That’s what I mean. Things like functioning law systems, educational and civil services and the like aren’t created by people who can’t be bothered to read or learn things.

    I’m not in favor of Catalonian independence (for a number of reasons) but at least they’re mostly going through the right steps (cultivating the language and establishing mostly well-functioning insitutions in that language).

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  5. I did not read the article, but I think the idea behind wanting to “abolish” grades reflects a frustration with the role of grades in education.

    The educators who don’t like grades don’t necessarily believe in the philosophy of “participation trophies” for everyone. I certainly don’t like this philosophy. Many of us are simply frustrated with the fact that today grades don’t really mean anything due in large part to grade inflation (e.g., many C- students have failed to really learn anything, and many A students have not really achieved an outstanding mastery of the course material). So maybe I’m saying that it would be better to keep grades and stop grade inflation. Of course, if I’m the only one to do this, and the average grade in my classes is usually a C- or lower, then think of how well that would go over with my department chair, other administrators, my students, etc.

    I understand how grades are an incentive to study and learn and how they are useful to very competitive people. In high school, I was extremely competitive and wanted to get the highest grade in everything and worked hard to do so. Without grades, I realize, I may not have studied and learned as much as I did. But there is still a problem with how grades work today, and I think the idea of abolishing grades is a response to that, even if it has not been fully thought out.

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