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De-pressing grades

What would the academic world look like if we could stay away from giving grades, or at least from reporting them to our students? For most of you this question may sound attractive, but purely hypothetical as well.  Attractive,  because many of us simply don’t like grading: we love giving feedback, but giving the actual grade feels like an administrative duty that –especially in the case of low grades – may easily strain your relation with students. Hypothetical? Not entirely. While it is true that in the current Dutch academic climate grades are the dominant currency, there are places where they play a less dominant role or are even completely absent from the curriculum.

In order to find this out I visited two liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest of the USA that do exactly that:  Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where grades are recorded but not communicated to students, and Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, where only qualitative assessments are given. The study visit was made possible through a Roosevelt Short Stay Fellowship and also included a visit from two professors of Reed College to University College Roosevelt, where they shared their experience on assessing students with their colleagues in Middelburg. In the next couple of weeks I will share my experiences on grading and assessment and subsequently discuss the way these two colleges have organized their pedagogy: their different approach to grading is just one element of a more comprehensive approach toward student learning.

For now I will just share you some of the reasons that made me in fact explore this problem and organize this visit. I think all of us are fond of giving feedback and could do without the grades. But after 10 years of teaching at UCR I am not so sure (anymore) about our students. I often feel all the hard work I put in my comments is not really appreciated by students: they just want to know their grades. I recall a 300-level course in public policy where students were writing an extensive research paper involving the handing in of several drafts. These drafts were graded, because in previous runs of the course I found out that students would not put much effort in them if I would not attach a grade to it – something I will get back to below. In addition to making remarks in the draft I also designed a feedback form that summarized my remarks for the different elements of the draft and included a grade at the very bottom. I then met with each student individually to go over the feedback.

What I noticed was that all students immediately checked out the grade at the bottom and then leant backward. Those with a passing grade looked demotivated and depressed – and they did not make the impression to be interested in my substantive comments. But the situation was not that much different for those that did well: their looks were happier of course, but they did not pay much interest either and just waited courteously until I was finished with the feedback.So the next year I made a very small change: I left out the grade for the draft at the very bottom and would only tell them at the end of the meeting. This made a whole lot of a difference: the not-telling-the-grade seemed to have considerably opened up the space to talk substance. If that was the case with this single element in this single course, what would this imply if we would roll out this practice more broadly?

There is a second element in the grading that I find disconcerting: in the continuous assessment system of liberal arts programs, students are faced with so many graded assigments nowadays, that these are the course elements for which they will make the most effort. This is obviously a rational thing to do. But it also means that I increasingly find students not being prepared for those elements of the course for which no grades are given. To put it somewhat bluntly: it almost starts to look like we have to keep feeding students grades, in order to get them to work for our courses.

What subsequently happens is that we as instructors feel forced to start attaching grades to more and more course elements in order to get students work for our course again. Hence, in no time,  instructors end up in a kind of arms race where individually it is rational to chop up your course in as many as possible graded assignments. Collectively the result is of course an excessive number of nitty-gritty tasks students have to complete during their semester. I once surveyed my tutees about this and it turned out many of them easily got to between 25 and 40 graded tasks for the four courses they took during a semester.

This in my view is completely contrary to the type of learning that we should aim for, not only in academia in general  but also in liberal arts colleges. Thus, the very small and concrete question about whether and how to grade, ultimately connects us to the very big and abstract question about what a university education is supposed to achieve. I’ll discuss these issues in the next couple of postings where I will first outline Reed’s approach to grading and subsequently focus on the way Evergreen State has ‘unshackled educational thinking’.

Herman Lelieveldt teaches political science at University College Roosevelt, in Middelburg.


1 november 2015


  1. Herman Lelieveldt
    Herman Lelieveldt

    Let me answer in English so that our international colleagues can be kept in the loop: so the question would be whether given more qualitative evaluations (satisfactory, good, pass) might be a good middle ground between not reporting grades at all or giving precise grades. I think it is an interesting proposal and it would indeed avoid the strategic calculating behaviour of students when getting the precise grades and be a bit more informative than just giving bare feedback. I have to think about the way grades are given in Dutch primary schools where there are just three or four categories: fail, pass, satisfactory and good. Would not that be sufficient for evaluating our students?

  2. Daan Peeters
    Daan Peeters

    I share in the optimism of having more qualitative evaluations of student performances, but do feel the urgency for nuancing, for these assessments do not complement the competitive environment that is ‘academics’. Although it is admirable and maybe even pioneering for the two colleges described to represent the (ostensible necessary) need for change in university education evaluations, its efforts will find a lot of resistance once its students leave the safe havens that are Reed College and Evergreen State College. For they will be thrown in a world in which the role of quantitative measurements predominate. Applying for an Exchange, Masters, internship or job often involve competition from other applicants. As means to separate the wheat from the chaff the need for standardized tools of assessment becomes apparent for these institutions, in which (sadly) the Grade Point Average (GPA) determines more than it should have a right to.

    Hence, the point being, the need for universal comparison measures of student performances gives rise to quantitative tools that standardize. But, it remains to be answered if these numbers actually do encapsulate an individual being. During my studies at UCR I have encountered both sides, the students that have had perfect grades in high school and beyond and those who fought for every pass, and have since found it a privilege to know both, for it gave me the (already established) epiphany that grades do neither determine, nor evaluate, that which is important in someone.

    Great read by the way!

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