CTE Teaching Tip: Why and How to Not Grade

Feedback and grading don't actually work that well together

One is meant to be formative, and one is meant to be summative - so there are mixed signals here. Give feedback on material that is being drafted, or is being turned in only for a completion score.

A rubric is not so much feedback as it is a scorecard of expected content, so it lets the student know what has been missed and why the grade has been assigned. Feedback that is detached from grading will be perceived as more constructive and is more likely to be heeded.

Feedback is more important than grading

In terms of learning goals, feedback is much more important than grading as it promotes growth (and the bulk of that feedback should take place in class - once again, the student has to be there and be receptive in order to get it). So, yes, we have to give grades, but not all assignments external to the class need to be graded - what they need to do is give you a sense of whether a student is achieving the learning goals, and an opportunity to reinforce or redirect student understanding.

Two ways of doing this:

  1. Really buy into the idea of student responsibility for learning, and offer no weight or score to an assignment. If they do it, they learn and get your feedback. If they don't, they don't - and that will show up in their graded work.
  2. Buy into it half way. Have some assignments simply weight for completion. For instance, my course prep assignments account for %30 of the total grade. Students get a √ if it's done within the parameters of the assignment, a √- if it is clearly lame, and a zero for none at all. I have found that the quality of the assignments grows significantly through the semester despite not being graded. The reason is that I give pointed and full feedback on the assignments (in class discussion, not individually) and use the assignments as a guidepost to graded work. That last is a must as the feedback and the graded material ultimately have to be connected in some manner.

What gets students to do work, really?

We also need to be thoughtful about the very entrenched belief that students will not do work if it is not graded, for it is not true that students will do work because it is graded. What gets students to do work, really? This is where our focus should be.

  • They see the work as valuable.
  • They find it manageable in terms of workload and difficulty.
  • They find it interesting.
  • They want to succeed academically.
  • They want to please someone else (including you).

Designing Assignments

Most of these motivators can be enhanced by the way in which assignments are designed and how they are perceived to be integral to the learning objectives and a reflection of the in-class teaching dynamic.

Value - students will see their out of class work as valuable if it is clearly connected to repeatedly stated learning objectives and the teaching that is done in the classroom. Knowing that an assignment will add understanding to the classroom learning experience is a powerful motivator when topics are complex. Additionally, when students see that this work is directly related to how they will be graded, they will be much more inclined to not dismiss it as "busy work," and will put more effort into it.

Manageable - Six hours a week is a reasonable amount of time to spend on a standard 3 credit course aside from class time. Ultimately, the real concern is not how much time a student puts into that work, it is the quality of that time. Course assignments are most effective supplements to learning if the student:

  1. Understands their relevance,
  2. Knows what she is supposed to learn from them,
  3. Can draw on class material to navigate through them,
  4. Builds progressively in knowledge with them,
  5. Is able to complete the assignments in a timely way.

Assign small, intense reading and writing assignments

My specific suggestion is to assign small, intense reading and writing assignments (try to keep reading and writing together), practical exercises, or stages of a project in a consistent way.

Interesting - See if you can incorporate questions or elements into the assignments that make connections to the world outside of academe. Current events, hot topics, innovations, and relevant ethical issues all bring a spark to assignments that will only add to the students' ability to employ critical and synthetic thinking skills with regard to your content.

Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
Email: cte@plattsburgh.edu