Blog Post

No Grading, More Learning

Scott Jaschik has written a wonderful follow-up to his article last fall, "How To Get Out of Grading," called "No Grading, More Learning":

I'm sure the sarcastic comments will begin to fly but, for now, I'm basking, not only in this fine article but in the aftermath of one of the most serious, dedicated, thoughtful (you'll see that word again in this blog) courses I've ever taught.  


Jaschik's piece in "Insider Higher Ed" touches all the high points of my course.  I'm sure the sarcastic comments will begin to fly but, for now, I'm basking, not only in this fine article but in the aftermath of one of the most serious, dedicated, thoughtful (you'll see that word again in this blog) courses I've ever taught.   Classes have personalities, and "thoughtful" describes this one.  Less laughter than many of my courses, less argument, just serious, concerned, engaged thought, class after class, blog after blog.  I felt humbled by it.   If ever I let myself get cynical (I read a lot these days about the Internet and not all the thinking is first rate), the serious response from my students over and over again made me realize that, it didn't matter if pundits were doing a bad job of it, it was our responsibility to take various topics--from privacy and surveillance and anonymity and intellectual property and pornography--with the proper respect, attention, and complexit it deserved. 


inspired by my blog post "How To Crowdsource Grading" where I talked about an experiment in pedagogy in my "This Is Your Brain on the Internet Course," Jaschik reprizes the basic terms of the grading experiment.  I used a combination of contract grading and peer quality control and feedback.   The new article is just wonderful, and I could not be more proud of student Lacey Kim who responded to Jaschik's request to hear directly from a student.  She stepped up and  exemplfies the eloquence and insights of the students in this class.  I'll quote from the article:  'Lacey Kim, a Duke senior who took the course, said she thought the alternative approach to grading in the course didn't eliminate the teacher's role, but changed the dynamic from "a single teaching-student interaction to multiple teacher-student/student-student interactions" with students in the roles of both student and teacher. She said she was certainly aware that fellow students would be looking closely at her work, and that "peer pressure is a very influential thing."

But Kim said that what was really important in the class dynamic wasn't pressure, but a sense that "everyone had insightful and varying experiences to share" and that in every way, "everyone participated." In making the transition to this approach to grading, students may have been helped by the Internet as the course's subject matter, Kim said. "A lot of the topics we discussed were contemporary, easily applicable to our lives, but because all of us had different voices, we felt we were on an equal plane.'


There is no way to know if the sheer thoughtfulness of this group was due in part to the grading system, which shifted the terms of the class from "how to get an A" to "how to really think through these complex issues in deep ways."   Whether in conversation or in the presentations, my students often took the best writing on a topic and then took it to a new level, with greater complexity and greater attention to a range of possibilities (rather than polemic) that quite literally any published work on the same topic.  I was surprised the first time it happened and by the end of the course began to just accept it as the unspoken rule the standards had set themselves.  It was something on the order of "don't be shallow!" 


By the end of the course, a regular peer-led class was happening the same week as the multi-media collaborative projects (the equivalent of a final exam in seriousness) and the class level had become so high that I kept confusing the two.  None of us could keep apart which was just another weekly assignment and which was the year end extravaganza.   The bar was as high as, well, CNN.  A number of the videos made by students were professional quality.  And then the intellectual, informed and informative discussion began. 


This has been a fabulous week for innovative pedagogy.  On Friday, I was delighted to be part of the panel conversation on "The Future of Learning is the Future of the Web" with my inspiring colleagues Laurent Dubois, Negar Mottahedeh, Mark Anthony Neal, and Tony O'Driscoll.  You can watch we had to say on YouTube, as part of FutureWeb, the conference colocated with the annual meeting of the World Wide Web consortium in Raleigh, NC:

Negar tweeted the whole thing at: #fw2010e #fw2010 #www2010


And of course the HASTAC Scholars Forum continues in its lively, thought-provoking manner on this site.  "Blogs and Beyond:  Teaching with Technology and Creativity."  Check it out!




Once again, I seem to be destroying civilization as we know it . . . The article in Insider Higher Ed is wonderful and so are some of the comments . . . and then some are just plain idiotic.   One of my students came into the fray, answered comments as sagely and carefully as she could, correcting facts and pointing out logical errors, and then wrote, with great feistiness: 

"Thanks though, for an unsubstantiated and completely non-constructive comment." A student defends my honor!


See what happens when you respect students and encourage them to speak their minds.  They do!  (NB:  I could not be more proud.)



I am so inspired by your experiment and the results you achieved in your class.  I have only been teaching a few years and I am so grateful for the people with whom I work and those I come across online (like you) who have inspired me to "think outside the box" in regards to traditional pedagogical practices.  I'm particularly thankful that this is occurring at such an early stage in my career before I get "set in my ways."

I currently teach Spanish at the high school level and I am working on my Master's degree with hopes to teach at the college level. What advice could you give those of us who teach lower-level or beginner-level subjects, like Spanish 1, for example, were the material is more cut-and-dry, right/wrong? Did you meet with the pair of student leaders each week and work with them or were they responsible for the material they were to present?

I like your idea of "if you do the work, you get an A" I have found particularly in my online teaching experience that the students who do the work usually are the ones who do well in the course.  It makes sense.  Not to mention, that allowing students more than one attempt on an assignment has been established in studies to improve student achievement.

The wheels in my head have not stopped turning since I read the article and your original blog post on the topic.  I have so many ideas for implementing this in foreign language classes. 

Thank you for being dedicated to your students, to the advancement of educational practices and, above all, to the advancement of the mind.  You are an inspiration.


Thanks for this lovely comment.  I need to mention that the requirements for this class far exceeded those for a normal class, the contract was tough, and about four or five students dropped out of the class when they saw the requirements (even though they could have set them below the A level had they wished).  There was a waiting list, though, so others moved quickly into the slots.  But they self-selected and two of the students (out of 16) were in our most illustrious undergraduate program, Program II, a self-designed and highly selective program.  That said, I never dreamed 16 out of 16 would fulfill and far exceed their contracts.  I am a hopeful person but I never even dreamed of such a remarkable result.   I appreciate what you saying about me being an inspiration very much as I'm getting lot of trollish, cynical flack.   But, in fact, these wonderful students inspire me.  And so does this really incredible HASTAC community.  Check out what is happening in our student-run Forum right now, on Blogs and Beyond:  Teaching with Technology and Creativity.     Amazing what students come up with when they are inspired.  Good luck with your teaching!


Thank you so much for this!

I tried a very similar approach this spring, and I'm happy to report that it can work  other kinds of courses as well, in this case a computer methods/skills course that meets a requirement for two different majors*. Students generally dread it, though it does teach a highly marketable skill, so it could be worse. I've always relied on a lot of cajoling, coupled with the carrot/stick of grades to get students through it, but I've never enjoyed it.

For the first time in my career, I assigned a full slate of A's. Grade inflation? No. I saw performance inflation, learning inflation, risk-taking and creativity inflation, experimentation inflation. And best of all, whining deflation. I don't want to overstate the success--it wasn't perfect, but the project work that came out of this class was as good as anything I've seen, and it was a lot more pleasant and productive than it has been in the past.

I was trying to imagine how to expand the approach to other courses. You've been a great source of insight and ideas. Brilliant.

*Boring details, if needed.

The first half of the semester involves necessarily onerous training assignments that took 10-12 hours/week to complete for the first half of the semester, followed by work on a project (some indiduals, some groups) using the skills they'd learned (barely) and presented in a conference format. Grades were based entirely on having completed the weekly training assignments and on the project and the final project. I collected written evaluations of each presentation, but the final grade decision was mine. That said, I treat the projects essentially as collaborations between the students and me. They come up with the ideas and do all the work--I just facilitate, point out truly dangerous shoals to be avoided, and help with disaster rescue if needed. By the time they present, I've guided and helped them through the project and they know where they stand.

The only real change I made was not grading the training assignments, but having a TA record whether they'd been fully completed or not (it's the sort of checking that it's worth just paying somebody to do), and making the midterm a threshold to cross--a check on skill aquisition--rather than a graded exam. In the future, I'll turn the final project evaluation entirely over to the students, including a self-evaluation.



thank you for this great comment.  I'm hearing from several people in engineering and CS who use this method---it is, after all, how WWW, Mozilla, Apache, etc, work in the real world.  And I will be forever grateful for the term "performance inflation."  Thank you for posting!