Teachers Going Gradeless

Research at the University of Trondheim, Norway

On the 16th of November, there will be an online webinar on the topic going gradeless, organized by the University of Oslo, FIKS. I know this topic is of great interest in many countries.

In the midst of rapidly changing technology, and consequently, pedagogy, there is another fundamental change I would argue more educators need to embrace. It’s a growing movement to alter the one function of education that most stakeholders steadfastly refuse to revise: how we assess learning.  Education week

Grading has been a key component of assessment systems for hundreds of years. However, researchers and teachers have reimagined the role of assessment in education, leading to teachers “going gradeless” (reducing or eliminating grading). The purposes are many: promoting learning, improving feedback, or increasing student motivation. Reducing grading could impact students in a positive way, but could also have unintended or unforeseen consequences. Nevertheless, we do not know what happens when teachers go gradeless. How is going gradeless practiced in schools, and how is it experienced by students and teachers? The Going Gradeless project will answer these questions. Research – Department of Teacher Education NTNU

When it comes to grading, less is more. So say a number of scholars who have shared their recent experiments with “ungrading” in blog posts and on other social media, sparking renewed discussions about the practice.

“My core hypothesis was that student learning would actually be improved by eliminating instructor grading from the course,” Marcus Schultz-Bergin, assistant lecturer of philosophy at Cleveland State University, wrote of going gradeless this semester in a personal blog post that has since been shared on the popular philosophy site Daily Nous.Inside higher Ed


Every teacher has experienced this. It comes as no surprise to me. The difference between Grades only, grades and comments, and comments.

scores alone made students either complacent or unmotivated depending on how well they did. Scores with comments were just as ineffective in that students focused entirely on the score and ignored the comments. Surprisingly, it was the students who received comments alone that demonstrated the most improvement. Ruth Butler


I have previously advocated for peer assessment. Here they show the significant value of self-assessment:

student self-assessment/self-grading topped the list of educational interventions with the highest effect size. By teaching students how to accurately self-assess based on clear criteria, teachers empower them to become “self-regulated learners” able to monitor, regulate, and guide their own learning. The reason students never develop these traits is that our monopoly on assessment, feedback, and grading has trained students to adopt an attitude of total passivity in the learning process. John Hattie (2012)

Taking the plunge; going gradeless or to grade less

As I see it, it is just as much moving away from the hopeless, grading, and then moving on, leaving a trail of students behind. At the same time, I see how difficult this is for teachers. We need a system that makes this easier and discussions among teachers and leaders. At my school, I hear a lot of talk about students skipping tests to get more time to prepare, and the unfairness of that. We are still at the “one size fits all” phase. If you are not prepared to be tested at the time decided by your teacher, we will move on without you. The reason for this is not only a specific pedagogy but teachers with many students and now apparent strategy to make this work. That is just as much the fault of the school leaders as of the teachers. We need to work on this together.

For some of us, the word gradeless means to grade less,that is, limiting the impact of grades within the context of current constraints. Some are just trying to get away from toxic assessment and grading practices, like assessments with no opportunity to redo or retake or zeroes on the mathematically disproportionate 100-point scale.

For others, gradeless means without grades, that is, avoiding the damaging and demotivating effects of grades entirely. These teachers are trying to put the focus squarely on learning, eliminating grades in favor of feedback and growth. Some may even work in schools that have replaced traditional report cards altogether, using portfolios or descriptive evaluations instead. I experienced the latter at University of Michigan’s Residential College back in the 90’s. (If you’ve got an hour or two, I can show you my report card!)

The important part here is to focus on the learning goal, not so much on the performance goal. Because if you do that, focus on acquiring a skill or knowledge, the grades will follow.

There are two types of goals; performance goals and learning goals. Performance goals are those goals that focus on getting the desired end result. Instead of focusing on some end result, learning goals focus on acquiring knowledge or skill. Once I’ve acquired that knowledge or skill, then I can start to think about setting a performance goal. Forbes

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