Compassionate Grading Policies

This piece was revised and expanded for my new book, Undoing the Grade: Why We Grade, and How to Stop, available now in paperback and Kindle editions.

What kind of assessment approach does our current moment warrant? How do we address the fact that grades as a system disrupt the already fragile communities we are working to build in education? How do we push back against those systems without putting ourselves and our own livelihood at risk? In the face of rules and restrictions that seem insurmountable, what is our ethical responsibility to students?

Increasingly, I think the phrase “compassionate grading” is an oxymoron.

Over the 21 years I’ve done research on grades and assessment, I’ve talked to hundreds of students about their educational experiences and hundreds of teachers about their experiences as students. I often begin workshops about grades and assessment with the questions, “how does it feel to grade? how does it feel to be graded?” The answers I’ve gotten back have been startling. And, even where I find myself unsurprised by the answers, I am struck by the emotional language and by the accounts of trauma that arise within almost every conversation I’ve had about grades. Grades are a technology, an invention with very specific sociohistorical motivations and effects. Conversations about grades are, ultimately, conversations about power, which is why they are so often fraught, especially given how many of us have specific traumatic experiences of both grading and being graded.

A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that summarized the findings of a recent study. The title alone was enough to clench my stomach: “When Report Cards Go Out on Fridays, Child Abuse Increases on Saturdays, Study Finds.” The study tracked calls made to the Florida Department of Children and Families child abuse hotline alongside dates when report cards were released by public schools throughout the state. The increase in abuse following the release of a report card was pronounced when the report cards were released on a Friday, as opposed to other days of the week. This finding led one of the researchers to offer a “practical solution” (in their account of the study to The New York Times): release report cards earlier in the week. Nowhere in the study itself or in The New York Times article does the grading system itself get a sufficient sidelong glance.

Early in 2020, educational institutions across the U.S. (and around the world) were having discussions about how to grade in the midst of a pandemic, something I heard repeatedly described as a “compassionate grading policy.” For at least a single term, many institutions offered some version of a pass/fail approach to grading, but the majority of these conversations also failed to adequately inspect grades as a system. From the start, I wondered why institutions hadn’t been talking about “compassionate grading” prior to the pandemic. And as institutions have begun “pivoting” back to “business as usual,” I find myself wondering why all these supposedly compassionate policies wouldn’t simply continue. Is cruelty a necessary precondition for grades?

When the institution where I taught in early 2020 began its own decision-making process about shifting to some variation of a pass/fail system, input from faculty was collected in a Google document. The document produced was 13 single-spaced pages with just under 7000 words. The most common word is “students,” which appears 138 times. The word “GPA” appears 20 times. The word “struggling” appears 9 times. The word “stress” appears 8 times.

I wrote in that document:

I would encourage us to make sure to center student voices as much as possible in this discussion. Many of us are talking to students and trying hard to help, but the students most likely to be in close communication with us are the students who are best able to cope with this situation. Many other students are overwhelmed and have gone quiet. Those are most likely the students already marginalized to begin with, queer students, disabled students, first generation students, black students, students already experiencing basic needs insecurity, etc. In the last two weeks, I've heard from students who are food insecure, LGBTQ students struggling to find a support system, students who have lost their jobs, students afraid they might lose scholarships, students with intense anxiety. For those students, business as usual is not possible, and it's not even possible to fake it.

Students were not initially asked to contribute in any meaningful way to this decision-making process. They quickly assembled their own Google document, arguing that the institution and its faculty were “clearly lacking student input on this critical decision.” The student document grew to 48 single-spaced pages with almost 26,000 words. The most common word in that document is also “students,” appearing 327 times. The word “health” appears 50 times. “Stress” appears 64 times. “Struggle” appears 52 times. “Anxiety” appears 18 times. “Access” appears 26 times. And “worry” appears 30 times. At least 3 students write in the document about being food insecure, 2 reference being housing insecure, and 11 write about their own disability or concern for other students with disabilities. The word “GPA” appears 77 times in that student feedback document, which I still find heartbreaking. In March 2020, worry about how a compassionate (in this case, pass/fail) grading policy would affect their GPAs was at the top of students’ minds. Students were also worried about whether pass/fail grades would be accepted for transfer or as prerequisites for medical school.

Put simply, if an institution continued grading-as-usual during the pandemic, here’s what all those grades have been measuring: how well students and teachers “pivoted” to working online, whether students had necessary access to course materials and meetings and support at home, whether students had homes from which to “shelter in place,” and how capable students were of “performing” in a crisis. What all those grades mostly weren’t measuring: student learning, engagement, and/or content knowledge. But this is not unique to grading in the midst of a pandemic. Nor was my former institution’s decision to not include students in a conversation about a compassionate grading policy. The biggest cruelty of grades as a system is that they frustrate the already tenuous relationships between students and teachers, and between teachers and their institutions.

I have never been a fan of “best practices,” because the notion presumes there is one universal set of practices that will work for every teacher, at every school, with every student. Instead, I describe “good-for-some-people-in-some-contexts practices.” One of those I’ve offered most frequently over the last two years is for teachers to reassure students that a rug won’t get pulled out from under them. I suggest doing this clearly, directly, and multiple times. And, then, teachers (and institutions) need to actually not pull rugs out from under students. Compassionate grading in a pandemic (or anytime) isn’t just about rewriting policies. It has to be about engaging students more fully and critically in conversations about their own education. At the start of the first pandemic lockdown, I wrote to all the students in my classes, “I’m here to support you however I can. Take care of yourself and your family first. Our class should not be your priority. Everything about this class is flexible. Whatever happens, we will work it out.” A few months later, I wrote a piece for Academe about my own experience of the pandemic, “Care is a Practice; Care is Pedagogical.” I wrote about my husband being laid off from his job, about our cat dying, about my mom’s brain hemorrhage, about telling our 3-year-old (now 5-year-old) that her grandma might die. I wrote, “I’ve heard from teachers around the world that they aren’t sure they want to be teachers anymore if this is what the work continues to look and feel like, . . . and I’ve talked to students who’ve found that the challenges of just living have made their schoolwork an afterthought.” We can’t be afraid to have frank conversations with students about our working conditions and their learning conditions.

We do need to restructure our policies. However, as we find new ways to reach out to students asking for help, and not just in the midst of a pandemic, we also need new (more direct, more honest) ways to draw students into conversation about our pedagogies, not just the what of teaching, but the how and why. Ultimately, grading and assessment can’t be “compassionate,” unless it’s work we do with students rather than something that happens to them.

How I’m Grading in the Midst of a Pandemic

I’ve written over the years about my various approaches to Ungrading. I’ve written about why I don’t grade, how I ungrade, shared answers to frequently asked questions, assembled a bibliography, and more. Meanwhile, the world has changed, education has changed. I’ve continued to question my own practices. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been sharing excerpts from the syllabus I’m designing for my current courses (which start this week). In one thread, I wrote, “as a teacher, my job is to advocate for students -- to stand in the gap between students and institutional policies that do harm. Of course, I am also precarious, and so I am left to rely on administrators to stand in the gap for me.” In another thread, I shared the basic needs and accessibility statements from my syllabus, in which I write, “What’s most important to me is that you feel able to show up fully to our work together. I’m human first. Students are human first.” Right now (and always), we shouldn’t be burying our basic needs and accessibility statements at the bottom of our syllabi. We need to lead with them.

The last bit of my syllabus that I revised was the “Grades and Assessment” section. And it was a struggle to find the words to clearly express my approach. Even after 21 years of not putting grades on student work, I still internalize so many of the tacit assumptions and expectations of our educational institutions. I wonder if students will just stop doing the work if I don’t grade them. (They haven’t.) I wonder if students will stop showing up if I don’t give marks for attendance. (They don’t.) I worry I’m not actually doing the work of teaching if I’m not grading. (I am.) I worry I might be fired, or reprimanded, if I push back too thoroughly on the system or cultural environment in which I work. (I haven’t been.) As much as I have pushed back, these voices in my head have kept me from boldly writing the “compassionate grading policy” I’ve felt compelled to write.

I’ve previously written, “grades are a thorn in the side of Critical Pedagogy.” I’ve written, “grades frustrate our ability to focus on student learning.” And I’ve written, “There is copious evidence that grades are not a good measure of learning, that they inhibit intrinsic motivation, and that they create a competitive environment between students and hostile relationships between students and teachers.”

Ungrading isn’t enough.

In a recent podcast discussion I participated in, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh said, “we shouldn’t be looking to replace grades with something else like grades.” It’s a sentiment I’ve uttered a version of myself, but I was struck by exactly when and how she said it. I am continuing to work out what this means for my work. I’ve written, “‘Ungrading’ means raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply ‘not grading.’ The word is a present participle, an ongoing process, not a static set of practices.” And this work has to continue, because whether and how we grade can’t instantly and altogether change the larger culture of grades that permeates our educational institutions. But given the unequivocal harm of grades, I am working harder to mitigate that harm and wanting (needing in this moment) to get even closer to “not grading” — and also not having students grade themselves (which has been my practice for much of my career).

Here is what I’ve written in my current syllabus:

Grades and Assessment

"Extrinsic motivation, which includes a desire to get better grades, is not only different from, but often undermines, intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn for its own sake." Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”

"Everyone who participates in our course community and completes their self-reflections will get an 'A.' Instead of your grade, here's what I want you to focus on:

  • Actively engage in the work of the course. Writing is ultimately what this course is about, but there will be lots of different ways for each of us to engage.
  • Determine what participation in our community looks like for you – online, in-person, synchronously, asynchronously, on Discord, in our physical classroom, wherever you can best contribute and learn. Listening and reflecting can be just as important as speaking and questioning. Writing is not an independent exercise, so I encourage you to focus a good amount of your energy on helping your peers, reading their work, championing their accomplishments, and offering feedback that pushes them in their own writing process.
  • Reflect on your own work. This course is about process, not product, and so writing about our own writing is the most important work we'll do.

I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. The intention is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your work in the course to date."

And in a section at the start of the syllabus called, “What We’ll Do and How We’ll Do It,” I’ve written this: “Our world is increasingly complex, and so we can't know exactly what shape this course will take over the next several months. Not all of us are encountering this moment in the same ways, so each of us will have to make decisions about how we can engage.”

The phrase “I trust you” appears multiple times throughout this revision of my syllabus. Ultimately, I think trust is the thing that should drive our grading policies, even more than compassion.

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel is faculty at University of Denver and founder of Hybrid Pedagogy. He teaches pedagogy, digital studies, and composition. He spends most of his time with his badass daughter, Hazel.

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