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If you have read the course outline you may have noticed that there is very little information about grades there. Unlike most other classes, there is not a detailed breakdown of what assessments students will do and how many points or how much weight each one is worth. In fact, there are no points or grades at all during the class. This class uses an approach called ungrading, where we will focus more on your learning and your goals rather than on grades. The best way to succeed in a class like this is to not even think about grades, but just focus on your learning goals and what you need to do to meet them.

Why are there no grades in this class?

Many educators believe that focusing too much on grades is not good for learning. Below I will outline some of the reasons why and list some resources for further information. But I think the best, clearest, and most interesting explanation of the issue is in the video below, which describes how real learning happens and why grading doesn't help real learning.

As Dr. Tae discusses in that video, the best learning experiences happen when you are working to learn something that you are interested in for your own reasons, rather than working to learn something because someone else is making you. Learning for your own reasons is sometimes called "intrinsic motivation", which means that your motivation is coming from inside of yourself (e.g., you are motivated to learn something because you have decided that you find it interesting or important to you personally). Learning for other reasons is sometimes called "extrinsic motivation", which means that your motivation is coming from outside you (e.g., when you are motivated to get a good grade or to learn something that you believe employers want).

Furthermore, learning happens when you personally struggle with a concept. Especially, learning happens when you fail at something and figure out what you need to adjust to succeed. Grades actually discourage you from doing this; when students are motivated to get the highest grade, they are often motivated to do things they know they can succeed at, and to avoid challenging themselves by doing things that they might fail at the first time.

Putting a grade on some work suggests that the work is finished and the learning is over, whereas you actually learn the most when you continue to try to improve and continue thinking about what parts of your work you have done well and what you can do even better next time. Some evidence from this comes from a famous 1988 experiment by Ruth Butler. Butler divided students into three groups. One group got grades on their work throughout the semester; one student got qualitative comments on their work without grades; and one group got both grades and qualitative comments. In the end of the study, the students who got only comments learned more than either other group. And the students who got grades plus comments did not perform any better than the students who got only grades. These results not only suggest that qualitative feedback is better than grades; furthermore, they suggest that seeing a grade on your work actually removes the benefits of receiving the qualitative feedback. This probably happens because grades encourage you to see the work as finished and the grade as final, unlike purely qualitative feedback which can encourage you to continue learning.

For these reasons, I want this class to be an opportunity for you to identify your own goals and be motivated by your own interests; I don't want to use grades to tell you what to do or to make you do "busy-work" that is not relevant to your goals. (Of course there are some limitations to this; this is a pragmatics class, so you will still have to do things that are related to pragmatics, rather than, say, frog biology. But if you're really interested in frog biology I think this class is flexible enough that you could find ways to learn about pragmatics via activities related to frog biology—such as examining the pragmatics of how people describe frog biology!) Likewise, I want this subject to be a place where you can work on something that challenges you, and have opportunities to keep improving and getting better at it.

The book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (ed. Susan Blum, 2020) includes much more discussion about gradeless classes. Some more related readings and resources can be found below:

So how will you get a final grade?

While there won't be any grades or marks attached to your work during the semester, after the semester is over the university still requires you to have a final grade for this class on your transcript. So where will that grade come from?

You will choose a grade for yourself, based on your own evaluation of how well you have learned and whether you've met your learning goals for the semester. This does not mean that you can just assign yourself whatever grade you want; you will need to justify your grade with evidence, i.e. by describing what you've done during the semester that shows your learning progress. This is not completely open-ended; you will be provided with a series of questions to answer to help justify your grade. These questions are in the worksheets below:

As the instructor, I will still have the final say in choosing your grade for this component, but I will choose the grade based on the evidence you have presented. If the grade I think you have earned does not match the grade you think you have earned, I may discuss it with you so we can reach a consensus.

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2021-12-24. CC-BY-4.0.