Should I Throw Out My Gradebook?

Turns out this is where your grades should go. (

Since I started writing on my little blog three years ago, I haven’t been in the classroom. So I haven’t had any occasion to write about pedagogy (even though as an alt-ac, I did a fair amount of thinking on the topic). Now that I’m back to teaching, I think I might start writing on my classroom exploits here.

Over the past semester, I’ve been reading quite a bit here and there about “throwing out your grades,” “ungrading,” and “contract grading.” All of them are more or less variations on the same ideas, that grading (as distinct from providing feedback) can feel like a lot of work for minimal returns, and that grades themselves aren’t instructive means of feedback.

I haven’t tried these approaches yet, but I think I’m going to take the plunge this next semester. You might consider this post what scholars of teaching and learning call a “metacognitive wrapper” then; it’s a means by which I’m articulating and recording my own thoughts so that I might not only clarify in my mind what I’m thinking about, but also that I’ll have a record to return to later.

So here’s the thing: there’s a lot more to the different approaches I’ve listed above than the simple definition I’ve provided, and many of the different approaches I’ve read about—from John Warner, Cathy Davidson, and Peter Elbow, to name a few—vary both in process and in theory. Where one person might see the function of throwing out grades as a means to reward the quantity of student labor being performed, another might see the purpose of going gradeless as a means of giving preference to rigor over output.

This week I read Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading, which offered by far the most substantive and concrete explanation of how going gradeless might work. It was a welcome deep dive after reading so many article and blog posts. And its convinced me that this is something that I want to try out. But I can’t help but think about the friction behind her methodologies and those of some of the other scholars I’ve mentioned, and what those frictions mean for how this whole thing will play out.

If I had to pick one phrase that I liked most about Nilson’s rationale, it’s the moment where she explains that specifications grading means combining “low stakes” with “high standards.” The idea is that you don’t reward partial credit or mediocre attempts; instead you offer a variety of assignments, making some only required for “A” or “B” students, but insist that all assignments be completed up to specifications. That means that you have to be very specific about what you require: essentially, you make a detailed “one point” rubric for each task. As an instructor, you’re forced to really think about what objectives you’re going for, and how they should be made intelligible by students.

I read a blog post that explained well why this is a good thing. Your instinct, he notes, is generally to give an “A” to that student whose paper has a certain je ne sais quois. This rewards students that have good writing skills, and doesn’t reflect well what they’re learning in your course. Nor does it necessarily mirror the course’s learning objectives.

So here’s what makes me most wary about Linda Nilson: she adopts an unfortunate “kids today” tone in her book towards students. And for a book that is just a couple of years old, there is little in her book about student-centered learning, social constructivism, or active learning. Instead, she draws on the tradition of competency based education, which is laudable in its goals but, from my impression, is historically entangled with a mission to make higher education less about critical thinking than about credentialization.

I want to keep my apprehensions in the fore of my mind when I’m writing my syllabi and drawing from models provided by Nilson and others. I think that means bringing in different approaches to pedagogy and mixing them into a specs grading paradigm. For example, how might I incorporate peer assessment and peer review? What do “naked teaching” approaches and things like class participation mean in the context of going gradeless? (I’ve been thinking a bit about class discussion and activities with respect to “naked teaching” and “small teaching,” and maybe will write about that in a future post.)

Nilson cites Cathy Davidson quite a few times, which makes me curious: How would Davidson respond to this book? I can’t help but feel like there are differences across various approaches to going gradeless that are substantive, and that we might all be enlightened by putting them out into the open. I hope some of these conversations happen in the future. I say this all as a neophyte and an onlooker, but maybe after a semester or two of trying it all out, I’ll be able to participate in and foster these discussions too.

(edit: I’ve now written a follow-up post:

One thought on “Should I Throw Out My Gradebook?

Comments are closed.