Is “ungrading” better than traditional methods of assessment?

To the editor:

Prof. King chases the Ungrading Grail, believing it to be the Answer.

He explains: “faced with this systemic and perennial predicament (that different teachers have different expectations and varying standards), a student’s orientation becomes transactional:  Give each teacher what he or she wants, so to acquire the grade one needs.”  The student, in other words, trades ‘learning’ (whatever that means) for recognized achievement.   And this, or so it’s implied, is no good, very bad.

Prof. King believes ‘ungrading’ the Magic Bullet solution which removes all transactional elements and returns the Academy (and its captive students) to the Nirvana of Pure (purer?) Learning.   And he believes this because…”my class atmospheres felt better than usual, and several students reported being pleased and liberated” by this seismic shift in emphasis.

I’m sure they did.  When I was that student, I would have too.  And, honestly, as teacher, ‘ungrading’ sounds much less labor-intensive than the traditional, time-consuming alternatives.

But the Professor is badly mistaken if, after swallowing his own medicine show elixir,  he believes it panacea.  Not even close.

The student’s orientation is transactional because higher education is transactional (for all but the few Black Swans out there). Dress it in whatever costume you wish, paint the scenery in day-glo, drape ivy all across every building – the underlying drama is the same:  I trade you 4 years of my time & a bushel-basket of dollars for a Degree….which is then traded for income and a more or less comfortable life.  That’s it.

Of course different teachers have different expectations and standards – so do different bosses, different jobs, different organizations, different assignments, different customers…..heck, even different families & HOA’s.  The ability to decipher, understand and successfully clear all those variable hurdles – efficiently, effectively, and with a certain elan — is, perhaps, one of the more critical things one can master in the Academy.

Equally important:  to learn the absolute connection between actions & consequences.

If Plagiarism still haunts those hallowed groves, it’s because the consequences of plagiarism have not been real.  Plagiarism occurs because it works.  Not all the time but often enough, with minimal enough consequences to allow it to continue.  But – if plagiarism absolutely guaranteed failure, if it absolutely prevented the acquisition ‘of the grade one needs’, then it becomes a significantly less attractive alternative for those who, like Bartleby, would ‘prefer not to’ do ANY actual work at all.

Sure – learning is a great thing.  To learn to love learning, a greater thing still.  That is not, however, why 20M students are in college.  That’s not central to their college transaction.

But if somewhere on that John Patrick Norman McHennessy Road to Learn one does manage…. with hard work, and great intent…. to pierce that transactional veil …. to discover both a cultural & personal transcendence on the other side of completing one’s weekly assignment:  well, so much the better.  Ungrading, though,  I’m afraid, has nothing to do with those small miracles.  Rather I would suggest, just plain old hard work.

Kansas City, Missouri