Grading is superficial and dehumanizing: it’s time to rethink it

If one is very quiet for a moment, a soft murmur may be heard: teacher and student voices complaining about grades and grading. And why not? The traditional grading system is showing its cracks, and they’re not pretty.

Let’s talk about the so-called objectivity of grades, and ghosts, and the Easter Bunny.

As a teacher, I grapple with grading. Like trying to measure the ocean with a teaspoon, the grading criteria are most of the time superficial, dissecting work into meaningless fragments while ignoring the bigger picture. I’d much rather spend my time talking with students, fostering their learning while I learn along with them.

And then there are the joys of education – anxiety, depression, and burnout – so common among students who feel self-worth is tied to academic performance, of whom I was one. In school, I had very good grades; this was proof that I was up to good things in the world. I became incredibly good at passing tests, but my relationship to learning was mechanical and impersonal, focused on the result rather than the process. 

Only in university did I realize that grading distorted my experience of learning and of my own worth. I had to un-grade myself: learn to embrace failing, experiment, and let my curiosity take me to places that were not on the curriculum.

Students often avoid risks to safeguard their grades, stifling their own creativity

Grading, in its infinite wisdom, more often than not results in rote learning and conformity. Students often avoid risks to safeguard their grades, stifling their own creativity. To add insult to injury, grades exacerbate socioeconomic divides. Affluent students have access to tutors and resources, boosting their grades effortlessly. Meanwhile, less privileged students may struggle to keep up, having less access to such support. The illusion of meritocracy has pretty real effects: perpetuating inequity. 

Abandoning traditional grading practices doesn’t mean abandoning assessment. It means rethinking our relationship to education. Rather than being a place where we prepare ‘to go into the world’, education could be a place where we are (in) the world. Rather than a commodity that allows for the categorization of people into high-achieving and low-achieving, education could be a practice of meaningful work.

Now I am rarely graded but still get confused sometimes. After undergoing systematic conditioning with grades, I catch myself wondering: How am I now supposed to know if I’m good? 

Grades train us to think about our worth in numbers, and we’re never at a loss for a way to do that. If it’s not grades, it’s the number of citations we have, or of clients, or grants we received, or our annual income. Grading just changes form, but it stays the same in essence: superficial and dehumanizing.  

It’s time to rethink our obsession with numerical metrics of success. (Un)Grade this column in the comments if you agree. 



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