Can We Free Ourselves from the Emotional Weight of Grades?

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As I completed my first fully ungraded writing course this semester, I faced up to the inevitable: I still had to post a university-required final grade after a liberating semester without them. While I have done ungraded portions of my classes for many years, this small upper level writing seminar was the perfect opportunity to try a fully ungraded course … an opportunity that left me surprised by how my students and I ultimately felt about putting in a final grade. That was one of many end-of-semester surprises I’m still thinking through.

I sure loved the freedom of crafting innovative assignments  that offered more space for creativity, knowing I wouldn’t have to encapsulate my feedback on student efforts in a single letter grade. I relished instead letting my comments drive the progress between scaffolded drafts. I converted our courseware site to “Incomplete” or “Complete” and reveled in the conversations after each assignment when students decided whether they had completed the expectations of the assignment and their own abilities, or whether they wanted to work further on the essay. Sometimes those conversations were downright giddy: “I surprised myself in this final draft.” “The risks I took were pretty fun, actually!”

What I hadn’t anticipated was how emotional the discussions about the final grade would be for some students. After all, I had been transparent from the start of the semester that we would decide their final grade together in a self-reflective conversation they would lead. I let them know they should be ready to talk about their process, growth, learning, and plans for the future. It was a strong group of writers, and I reminded them often throughout the course that they were meeting my highest expectations, and that in grade-speak they were all doing “A” work. I thought that after all the feedback and many meetings over the semester, our final conversations would be a simple and celebratory. A few were.

In several cases, though, very strong students had real difficulty saying the words “I deserve an A for all I accomplished this semester.” Sometimes students would say they didn’t want to seem “braggy,” and I’d gently help them unpack the difference between being conceited and honestly assessing one’s strengths, and why this was an important lesson to carry forward in all parts of their lives.

I tried to keep quiet as students ventured into the strange territory of putting a conclusive grade on work which we had all semester thought of as work in progress. Some students would claim they only “deserved a B or a C,” and seemed to want me to offer the higher grade for them. Instead, I kept prompting them to reflect on their growth until they landed with some confidence on the grade — inevitably higher — that more accurately represented their learning. 

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that these conversations prompted some tears. After all, the equation of grades with self-worth — or shame — is deeply engrained.  As I held out the Kleenex box and offered space for their reflections, I resolved to make this type of reflection a more substantial part of future class discussions. Certainly, the emotional depth of those exchanges has made me all the more committed to addressing the institutional “need” for grades.

As always, our colleagues are a wonderful resource. The #Ungrading conversation on Twitter about navigating the end of the semester is nuanced, with experienced ungraders and novices mulling over these academic conventions and institutional restrictions. I have found those discussions to be helpful and reassuring. They are also fundamentally democratic in a time when such thoughts are necessary for us as instructors and citizens, I’d argue. Susan Bernstein speaks my mind eloquently in her recent post on concerns for our students in this alarming time of democratic erosion.

There’s a lot to think about this summer as we find time to rest and to prepare ourselves and our students for the work ahead.


Photo Credit: “Weighted Companion Cube Tissue Box Cover” by Mandy Jouan is used under a CC By-NC-ND 2.0 license.

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.