on going gradeless

This article is making the rounds, and the comments on the Globe and Mail page are pretty entertaining. Professor Denis Rancourt gave everyone in his fourth year physics class an automatic A+ so they wouldn’t be stressed out over grades and could get into some interesting and meaningful stuff in the class.

I’ll be clear – I think that’s a fantastic idea. I’d maybe pull back a bit and make the course pass/fail rather than automatic A+, but I love the idea of nuking grades and focusing on learning instead.

The problem isn’t with Rancourt’s actions – with academic freedom, he should be able to do what he wants with his class (and of course students are also free to appeal the grades and actions). The problem is that his is likely the only course in that institution, and probably the continent, that has thrown out grades in such a way. The fact that he got fired for it, and subsequently arrested for trespassing, shows how rare this action is.

Isolated professors willing to risk their tenure by experimenting with gradeless classes will be perceived by the public as being “lesser” classes, not up to “the standards” of measurement. When a society only understands assessment of learning in terms of letter grades and curves, anything else is perceived as meaningless liberal garbage. Even if it is actually a profoundly powerful experiment in meaningful teaching and learning.

What is needed is a larger shift away from grades and numerical metrics of assessment. And that kind of change just isn’t possible with a lone professor tilting at that particular windmill. But, maybe, the concept has now gained a bit of public awareness, and subsequent experiments may meet slightly less resistance.

As we continue moving toward a more individual and portfolio-driven assessment of a person’s abilities, philosophies, and educational contexts, grades become less meaningful anyway. What may have been lacking in Rancourt’s class was some concrete means for students to document and describe their learning, once their A+ grade had been essentially rendered meaningless as an assessment metric.

9 thoughts on “on going gradeless”

  1. My undergraduate institution was a gradeless institution, and had been since its inception (in 1965). I thought it was wonderful, and I learned more there than I have anywhere in my life–it was a master’s level education. Sadly, they decided, in my last years, to start to eliminate the gradeless system, and now all courses require grades. I know that getting rid of the competitive, grade-focused learning environment allowed me to grow as a scholar in a way another university never would have, and I’ve often wished all institutions would move in that direction. I appreciate hearing another person talk about the merits of a gradeless system. And you’re right, it does have to be systemic to work, I think. Though I appreciate this professor’s valiant efforts to remodel the learning environment.

  2. This cuts close to home for a bunch of reasons. I am more and more annoyed with the notion of grades as simply categories we lump people into. I am tired with students asking me about grades, tests, and the like. Damn it, just come to class and interact … spend less time worrying about getting an A (or more appropriately getting a C) and have something to say.

    I am seeing it with my 7 year old already … and I have to say if teachers don’t understand how to assess what they are trying to assess then they shouldn’t be allowed to give tests. Testing and assessment is hard work to do it well. We’ve all been screwed by bad tests and poorly designed assessments. Is it really more work to push students to be more engaged and be able to authentically assess progress and mastery? For me it is harder work to deal with the headache of artificial assessment.

    Where is this guy at? I want to hire him!

  3. I would absolutely die to be in a gradeless course. I so often find myself memorizing the useless facts, while ignoring the parts of a course that are applicable to my own life because those will not get me the grades. The tension between being either being distracted by what I find valuable or cramming that which will help me pass is often overwhelming.

  4. I see pros and cons of grading, but in your post, I see no rationale for your position. It’s simply an opinion without any reasoning to help a reader understand why institutions should move away from grading. Perhaps you could follow this post up with why you would eliminate grading.

  5. I will try to work up a more detailed post on why I’d like to see movement away from the intense focus on artificial assessment. I have no idea when I’ll have enough time to put a proper piece together, though.

  6. I agree with your comments Norman , as an art teacher in Portugal I work with portfolio assessment and give periodical qualitative feedback to my students in written and oral forms, We use a lot group discussion and on-line discussion ( The class has a web page on a moodle platform) . This works fine , what is less fine and absolutely stupid is that we need to convert all this information into marks or gades three times per year . Of course the numbers ( we have numbers not letters) mean nothing for them, the most important is the ongoing assessment integrated in the learning process . The marks are just an obsolet ritual in the education system.


  7. I blogged about our NSW final year 12 exam, the Higher School Certificate, being a meaningless test score a while back. It is a broken system. http://tsearl.edublogs.org/2009/01/14/hsc-and-high-stakes-school-assessment/

    How long will it take for those charged with learning responsibility to stop treating students as vessals to fill and products to summatively stamp?

    After 13 years of k-12 schooling students are so focussed on that magic final mark, they really don’t learn much else of worth along the way, brains are certainly not challenged as they could be. Sad really.

    The high stakes testing industry, embedded since William Farish first tried it in 1792, will defend their profitable turf and resist pioneers like Rancourt.

    We need rigourous, repeatable authentic assessments, just different ones than narrow tests.

  8. @ Charles: Here’s why I would eliminate grading:

    1) Grades reduce interest in learning.
    2) In graded situations, people tend to choose less challenging tasks.
    3) Those in graded environments learn less.
    4) Grades are often used to foster competitive environments. In competitive environments, there are few good reasons to help others (classmates learn).

    This is a good article with sources that can lead to further exploration of the topic:

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