For the past few years, a renewed interest in emancipatory education has been gaining steam from the larger masses within higher education. Though isolated generations of scholars and teachers have sought to build peace through their classrooms and writing, a shift in our environment has propelled an expansion of teachers wishing to develop a more critical consciousness. The popularity of such authors as Robin Diangelo (2018), Ibram Kendi (2019), and Nikole Hannah-Jones (2021) has made the questioning of systemic inequities more palatable within the public sphere. Trainings and seminars have multiplied, responding to the continued polarization of our country with the hope of education as a healing salve. Universities and colleges are reviewing curriculum and faculty professionalization; and there is an influx of anti-racist work in our collegial organizations.
In the fields of peace and justice work, the expanded interest in emancipatory education is always welcomed. Many scholars and teachers who have long been in such trenches have found themselves dismissed, questioned, and isolated (see hooks, 1994). Finding growing support through the interests of anti-racism and transpolitics, for instance, allows acceptable practices to be challenged even more. It is not enough to diversify content or experiment with inclusive assessments. To nurture the success of students, and success of students as a whole being and participant in the community, a critique and modification of grading practices is a must. It is our argument that leaving unchecked grading practices within introductory peace courses is more a practice of dissonance and is contradictory to the aspirations of the field.
A theoretical and material arena filled with assumptions, the subject and practice of grading ought to be front and center of teaching peace. Challenges to grading have consistently been around for decades, but a more systemic critique has been gaining steam in the twenty-first century that parallels topics within peace and conflict studies. Power and authority, hierarchical relationships, competition and coercion, rewards and punishment, and the tracking of populations are deeper concerns that find their material manifestations in the application of the “A” or the “F” and under the guise of “teaching and learning.” Challenging the practice of grading is a critique worthy of peace studies but is often limited to schools of education or isolated seminars in teaching colleges (see for example, Reeves, 2004; Feldman, 2019; Blum,2020). Here, we provide some introductory themes into the critiques of grading with the view that ungrading, the shedding away of traditional grading frameworks in education, may very well be a base element for an emancipatory education.
Madison College is a community and technical college in Madison, Wisconsin with an enrollment over 30,000. As with other states, we are a part of a system of statewide two-year schools that offer vocational training, transfer programs, and continuing studies and are bound by a network of credentialing networks of recognition. As a community college, we differ from other schools that have taken up the critique against grading. In contrast to small liberal colleges with insulation and collaboration of size and money, large Ivy League schools with the safety of privilege, or the vast professional graduate programs that explore pass-fail options in an experiment on student applicant pools and acceptance rates, community colleges sit between the local K-12 system and either employment or transfer opportunities. Such differences are important when considering additional characteristics of the students we serve, such as first generation, impoverished, or undocumented (to name a few). And, to truly thrive, community colleges are their best when a Homo communitas is nurtured and realized over a lamented Homo aeconomicus.
Our college leadership recognized years ago that serving the community is to serve our students. Well before the Summer of 2020, Madison College recognized the realities of inequalities, understood our school as a safe space in the midst of a larger toxic environment, and supported instructors and staff in lifting up all students. To do otherwise would be to reject the very essence of a community college. The endeavors to create and sustain such an environment has been messy, with plenty of tensions and pragmatism. Yet, within this live-and-learn environment, we are asked to consistently place student success at the center of our existence.
To fulfill this objective, we began to question the role of grading and its relation to the student as a whole being within an equitable relation to all others in a network of equanimity. Community colleges are often the trauma centers for the inequalities that disrupt the development of our students and communities. Content expertise is often not enough for teachers to reach students, and adventures into experimental assessments or experiential learning are beneficial but can also backfire. Still, as long as these forms of dialogue and experiential learning practices are bound with grading practices, student growth and fulfillment will be limited. What follows are brief descriptions of a larger mission to reconsider grading and why. The descriptions are meant to plant the seed for larger discussions.
Honor the journey of learning through supportive and motivating grading practices. No one expects a child, or adult, to be able to ride a bike on the first try. We allow for and embrace the concept of practice, support, failure, and more practice, over and over without judgement or penalty until mastery occurs. Learning new skills or knowledge in formal education should be no different, yet many grading practices handed down to educators penalize students for making mistakes while learning, rather than solely basing the final grade on summative assessments, which are a truer demonstration of a student’s knowledge. Students are often allowed only one chance to complete a graded assignment and then must live with the grade earned on that one chance, rather than allowing resubmissions. Through these practices, students are indoctrinated to chase points, causing performance anxiety and sometimes academic misconduct, rather than embracing a realistic learning journey that allows for growth and mistakes along the way.
Embrace grading practices that rely on evidence of student learning, rather than on behavior or compliance. Our community college students are likely to be part-time students and full-time caretakers and employees. College coursework is just one of many responsibilities and challenges in their lives. While important, we need to see students as a whole person, for whom schoolwork is only one part; just as we would like acknowledgment of work/life “spillover” and grace. When course grades incorporate harsh penalties for late work, deductions for perceived non-participation in class, or added points for supposed effort, we are now assessing conduct rather than knowledge or skills. Basing grades on behavioral observations also leaves room for our biases and assumptions about our students which gives rise to inequities and reinforces an authoritarian position.
Restructure traditional grading scales to provide proportional opportunities for success and failure. The 0-100 percent or A to F grading scale typically sets the delineation between passing and failing at 60 percent, meaning that 60 percent of the scale is inclined towards failure and only 40 percent towards passing. A controversial concept is to cut the scale off at 50 percent, thereby creating a scale that has equal proportions for each grade 50-59 F, 60-69 D, 70-79 C, and so on. When the traditional grade scale is so heavily skewed towards failure, it can be difficult for students to ever recover from even one failure early in a course. In cases where students make mistakes early, but resolutely persist through their learning journey and improve, establishing the lowest grade possible as 50 percent allows for a system in which students can potentially still succeed.
Ungrading concepts such as these can be a challenge to grapple with for faculty. Doing so requires re-evaluation of long-standing beliefs and traditions. Contemplation of change can expose an educator’s insecurities and vulnerabilities to peers. This is no different than what we expect of students in their learning. We frequently articulate that learning can be uncomfortable and difficult at times, therefore we should expect nothing less of ourselves. As a community college, we recognize that innovative means toward student success can be a reprieve from the gatekeeping mechanisms typically found in higher education. Building and supporting practices of ungrading reflect a reconciliation where the dignity of the student is nurtured and the demands of a false meritocracy are silenced. Moreover, incorporating and expanding ungrading practices ought to be embedded within the classrooms of peace and conflict studies where such pedagogical practices align with course content. A call for integrating ungrading practices into our formal learning environments of peace studies is a call to model the very mission of building peace and nonviolence. Providing content and skills-building practices in formal settings should not be suffocating, de-humanizing affairs of biased competitions or false expectations, but a life-affirming, community building path where all participants embrace learning and growth in a just and equitable manner.
Blum, Susan D. (ed.). 2020. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.
Diangelo, Robin. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Feldman, Joe. 2019. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kendi, Ibram X. 2019. How to be an Antiracist. New York, NY: One World.
Reeves, Douglas. 2004. “The Case Against the Zero,” Phi Delta Kappan 86(4): 324-325.