I hate to even get close to saying, “kids, these days,” but for those of us in higher education, something happened a few years back and teaching became a whole lot harder. There are hundreds of reasons for it and none of those reasons have any real research to back it up. So I’m not going to focus on that part at all.

What I will focus on was the need to shift my pedagogy to better meet the needs of the students in my classes. We had to find a way to keep their focus on the learning and trying and failing and trying again. But one of the biggest barriers to it was the students’ seeming obsession with grades.

This morning on Twitter a discussion came up around an Atlantic article about students obsessing over grades gets in the way and I admitted that I don’t grade. Not in the traditional sense. But that raised all sorts of questions on how that can work.

Go ahead and take a minute and let it sink in. I do not grade. At no point in the term do I ever give a grade. I now have frank and direct discussion with students about the learning outcomes and how they think they are doing in relation to them. I pay close attention to what they seem to be getting and not and we adjust throughout the term. Does this make it harder for me? Absolutely. Is it an adjustment for the students? Absolutely. Do I feel that it has improved the courses I teach? Absolutely.

But here’s the way it sort of works. I say sort of because it’s highly dependent on the course (a production course like information design will be very different from a more theory or thinking course like rhetoric and then a course like research methods needs a slightly different approach too).

Being upfront

I explain on the first day of class that I don’t grade. I lay out the biggest reason for that is because it gets in the way and I want us to focus on learning. There is the inevitable question of how the final grade is determined. I tell them then that we will determine that as we go, which is true. We openly talk about anxieties and what they think of the idea and what problems they see with it.

We talk about education theory and cognitive science and learning theories. We talk about the fact that student learning outcomes aren’t some academic mumbo jumbo and that these are the things they need to walk out of the room with at the end of the term. All of this helpful to frame the idea and place it in the context of the fact the course is about teaching the students something. We refer back to this conversation and their lists of concerns throughout the term. This helps to close the communication loop and it keeps us all moving toward common goals.

Multiple methods of feedback

Grades are a stand in for feedback. They often become the only feedback students care about. That’s not helpful. So the feedback needs to give students information on how to improve and what to focus on to achieve their educational goals. That’s hard to do with a B-, but it’s much easier to do when you sit with a student and talk their work. I typically use the following


  • Discussion posts (or reading summaries) as a means to see where students with understanding concepts
  • Peer-to-peer critiques (some folks call this peer review, but the critique method is different than traditional peer review and that’s a subject for another day and I honed my own method from Laura Wilson)
  • Reflections (multiple times in the term) where they tell me things they’ve learned and what they are struggling with and examples from their work are required. These things are always ties specifically to the course and encourages them to also match the course they are taking with other courses in the program. We then talk about how we can get them over the hump on what they are struggling with. This conversation may be a side bar one-on-one in class or it may be a phone call or it may be an email exchange. How it’s done is also dependent on the student.
  • Collaborative feedback files is a practice I do that has replaced individual comments on student papers. I’ve used it for years and we are in the process of working on a research study about it. The pilot has shown this method to have no negative effects on student performance and it also suggests that it actually improves student products. (I’ll post more on this in the future.)
  • Group discussions at key moments in the term about what’s going well and what’s not. These are framed around the learning outcomes and the projects, which helps to keep the focus where it should be.
  • Summaries are something that I have gotten better at posting for both students and myself. They summarize a class and its activities and discusses how these things we were doing are parts of the process of moving them toward some specific outcome or to some specific professional or personal growth idea. (For example, I often have students provide summaries of readings but they cannot deliver these in a traditional format. This always helps with student creativity—even those who profess to no creativity—and it improves their public speaking skills.)

Much of this work—about 80%–is done in class. That’s where students are the most receptive to it. The 20% that is not done in class is the time it takes for me to review work and consider what may help each student individually and what would collectively help their projects (both individual and collaborative projects), write summaries or do collective feedback files.

This approach could work in an online graduate class (though I would hesitate with an undergraduate class, but I always struggled with creating the same sort of open, direct atmosphere that I can make happen in person in an online class. But others may be more successful at it.) And it works for all sorts undergraduate and graduate classes. It shifts the workload from the intensive individual feedback to more collaborative processes, which for me are more in line with workplace practices. For technical and professional communication courses, that’s a benefit.

Like the vast majority of institutions, mine requires me to input grades into a system. I have to. That’s the way higher education works in the US. And my department even faces a monetary penalty when you input grades late. But the grades I input into that system are determined by the students themselves, in total or in part. I suppose it’s sort of a twist on the idea of the grade contract. The criticism that students will self-report higher is not true in my experience. I have found students to be brutally honest about their own performances; sometimes they even go too far at being critical. They are also brutally honest about others they work with in the class. so toward the end of the term, I ask them to grade themselves along with a more involved reflective piece of writing. Typically, I assign the grades the students assign themselves. Sometimes, I over-rule (usually in a more positive way).

Granted, it has taken a few years to make mistakes to figure out how to make it work effectively. At first, I didn’t really tell the student out right and then it became a waiting game (cause I was curious) as to how long it would take for students complain. (Answer: 12 weeks of a 15 week term.) I also had to learn how to make sure I was giving adequate and useful and helpful feedback in other ways and no kidding, that took a couple of years.

Now, though, about 5 years into the process, it works pretty darn good. It also relieves the intensive burden of those massive grading binges and it reduces some of the anxiety students feel. I do acknowledge that for some students it shifts the type of anxiety they feel, but having had some involved conversations with students after the course (and when they would no longer have me as an instructor), I’ve come to realize—cause they’ve told me—that it’s ok to shift those anxieties.

As someone who works in and around disability studies, I find this “grading” method is a more humane way of meeting the needs of diverse students. It’s no secret that students with various kinds of disabilities need information in different ways. This method has opened up space to provide that different feedback without singling out any one student for any specific reason. It feels more inclusive to me and has allayed many of my concerns about creating an inclusive classroom where we don’t start from “normal.” Rather, we simply start where students are and as they are.

There is much truth to the idea that your own teacher persona directly influences the classroom atmosphere and how students react and interact.So it could be that just based on who I am and how I go about life that this method works for me. However, it means giving a lot of control and it means shifting how you approach your own pedagogy. But, I feel in my bones that anyone can do it.

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