Four years ago Elisabeth Gruner, long-time professor of English at the University of Richmond, stopped attaching grades to individual student assignments—a change that she said was greeted with incredulity but transformed her teaching and her students’ learning. In a recent article for The Conversation, Gruner wrote that she has only one regret: “that I didn’t do it sooner.”
The traditional A through F grading system that was first widely adopted in the 1940s has become so “widespread as to seem necessary”, Gruner writes, despite the fact that many K-12 schools, colleges and universities have adopted other ways of assessing students. Gruner argues that traditional grading practices are “highly inequitable” for students who start a given course with little prior knowledge, and often left her feeling that what she was really grading “was a student’s background.” The kids who entered her classroom without the advantages of some of their peers earned lower grades at the start of the semester, according to Gruner, and carried a lower GPA forward even if they were able to master the material by the end of the course.
The practice of “ungrading” isn’t new, Gruner writes: it’s become more popular and resulted in classrooms moving toward new approaches to assessment such as standards-based grading, competency-based models, or portfolios. During the semester, Gruner eschews grades entirely and relies on “extensive feedback” with “ample opportunity to revise” and improve skills. At the end of the semester, students submit a portfolio of revised work along with an essay reflecting on their learning. Students also assign themselves a grade during this process—which Gruner says she rarely changes, “and when I do, I raise grades almost as often as I lower them.”
Other educators who have ditched grades argue the strategy also improves motivation, makes students more reflective about their academic objectives, and decreases debilitating stress in the classroom. High school English teacher Gina Benz told Teen Vogue in 2020 that she went “gradeless” after several of her AP students ended up in the hospital due to the stress they felt from trying to keep up a high GPA and get into the right colleges. Dropping grades in favor of high-quality feedback on assessments helped her students focus on learning instead of ranking, Benz said. She added that the change also gave her more time and flexibility to “test out ideas, make discoveries and embrace failure in an environment where learning is transformational, not transactional.”
It took time for Gruner to master the system, and required some revisions. At the beginning, she had little experience coaching students to think about developing their own goals, actively encouraging them to revise their work, or supporting them more generally in their newfound independence. She also discovered that “students need time to reflect on their own goals for the class at the outset, at a midpoint, and again at the end of the semester, so they can actually see how they’ve developed.” In time, though, the system produced much better results.
Here are three reasons she believes the practice works so well:
1. Students Focus More on Learning (and Grading’s a Drag)
Gruner writes that when grades appear on individual writing assignments, research shows that students tend to focus only on the grade—rather than the feedback, which is more instructive and can help them address gaps. Removing grades, she wrote, allowed her to focus more on “meaningful comments” and “suggested improvements.” According to Gruner, it also allowed her to better connect with students and make them more comfortable receiving, understanding, and responding to feedback—a skill that will be useful for them as working adults.
Students may not take to the new policies immediately, according to Gruner—one of their biggest concerns is knowing where they stand during the course of the semester. But Gruner believes that well-conceived feedback in regular conferences and meetings about their progress gives students a much better sense of how they’re doing than grades ever did.
Finally, grading cuts both ways; it can demotivate students and teachers equally. “Freed from the tyranny of determining a grade, I wrote meaningful comments, suggested improvements, asked questions and entered into a dialogue with my students that felt more productive,” Gruner says, and that practice felt more like a genuine “extension of the classroom.”
2. There’s More Room for Mistakes–And Learning from Them
Before going “gradeless,” Gruner realized that students from top-performing high schools often entered her classroom prepared to write A or B papers. Meanwhile, those who had received lesser quality instruction tended to struggle earlier on. While she couldn’t make up for the “years of educational privilege” some students had, removing grades allowed “less confident” students to position themselves as learners when approaching coursework—rather than worrying constantly about their grades.
During conferences and one-on-one meetings with students who begin her course struggling, Gruner is able to uncover and proactively manage their longstanding anxieties about reading and writing. Knowing that they wouldn’t be graded on all of their work, these students “see that they could improve, could develop their skills and meet their own goals.” They are also in a better position to overcome their fear of speaking up in class due to the concern that they aren’t as prepared as other classmates or can’t keep up with them.
3. Students Drive Their Own Growth
Getting students to self-evaluate can be hard in an environment where they are constantly worried about racking up points and getting a good grade on their next assignment. But Gruner writes that authentic and meaningful self-evaluation is a key component of her gradeless classroom.
In addition to a final portfolio of work, her students submit an essay reflecting on and evaluating their learning over the course of the semester. She encourages that self-reflection early on in the course, asking students questions that often catch them off guard: What do you want to learn? Why are you here? She also encourages students to set content related goals throughout the course and reflect on them at the end. Students are remarkably honest and accurate in their self-evaluations: “At the end of the semester, when they submitted portfolios of revised work, their reflections on the process and assessments of their learning tracked closely with my own. Most recognized their growth, and I concurred,” she writes.