Dear Students, You're more than a grade
On the first day of my annual undergraduate course in Western Concert Dance History, I admitted to the students that I’d gotten a “B” in a required course for my own undergraduate major in dance. I’d received no justification—just the letter grade. Their jaws went slack; maybe at the injustice, or maybe because they’d assumed their teachers never got a grade below an “A.” I wasn’t sure what they were thinking, so to diffuse the tension I followed up with a quick: “I think I turned out okay, though. Don’t worry.” They giggled. My feet dangled off the edge of the desk.
Sometimes I think students believe I’ve never done anything wrong, never failed, never didn’t achieve exactly what I’d intended to do. They’re wrong, of course, but they didn’t know it until then. And at that moment, we needed the levity.
We’d been walking through the syllabus together in that often-maligned first-day ritual that I use to build a classroom ethos. When we arrived at the section I’d titled “On Grading (Or Not),” we discussed the idea of grades as extrinsic motivators, and the atmosphere of mistrust, antagonism, stress, and competition that grades create at every level of the system. Students’ posture changed; they shifted in their seats. Many nodded or voiced agreement. Some suggested that they’d known this implicitly but had never heard a professor—the authority figure—acknowledge it as a problem.
And then the stories started. One by one, students came forward with their experiences with grades—with being graded. The feelings in these stories were alarming: of inadequacy, of not belonging, of lack of agency, of resignation, of disempowerment. Their recognition of just how deeply the culture of grading had affected them was profound, eliciting everything from tears to moments of near-rage. Being able to share a laugh at my long-ago “B” was a moment of camaraderie. We had become a community.
Before this iteration of the course—which has become a pivotal moment in my work to ungrade—my implementation of a gradeless course design had been just that: implementation. I described my gradeless approach in the syllabus, reviewed it briefly on the first day of class, and went on with the course despite some raised eyebrows; in dismay or delight I’m not certain, since we didn’t discuss it much as a group. This past semester, though, the extended first-day dialogue helped us build our community around a shared dedication to learning rather than grading. These students became my co-conspirators, my partners in bucking the system, and my inspiration for this work.
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Some background: Western Concert Dance History is required for Junior BFA dance majors in my department. I’ve known or worked with all of these students in the ballet studio long before they arrive in my class—we’ve established a rapport. They’ve worked together as a cohort for five semesters; they know where my office is if they haven’t already spent time at my table; and I know each of their names, histories, and inclinations as learners. I have watched them develop as dance artists and performers for two-and-a-half years. This place of ease and familiarity is where I have the incredible fortune to start this course each spring. Being able to enter a course with students I already know and have built relationships with is a dream scenario for me as an educator; I tailor the work to fit them. My relationships with these students were the catalyst for my initial gradeless course design a few years ago, and they continue to propel my efforts.
The day-to-day business of the course consists of mini-lectures on major figures, dance genres, events, and periods in dance history. I’m generally lecture-averse for several reasons: lectures communicate to students that I own the disciplinary knowledge; that my knowledge and engagement is somehow superior; and that they should be silent recipients of my perspective. I believe none of those things. And besides—I’m far more interested in learning about how the students are thinking than listening to myself talk. To remedy these issues, I invite students to jump in with their knowledge, questions, or comments, which they thankfully do. We watch films of dances, talk through them, and reference readings and personal, lived experiences. I welcome all contributions, no matter how far “off-topic” they may stray. As dance majors, these students bring lifetimes of studio-based physical practice with them, so giving them space to contextualize their own embodied knowledge is essential for their understanding of tradition and lineage in dance.
Most importantly, we’re casual. Many students call me by my now-famous initials (courtesy of the Jay-Z: music mogul Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Mr. Beyoncé). Appropriate modes of conduct include eating, sitting in the windowsills, standing, and even stretching out on the floor, because they’re dancers. I sit on the desks and let loose a four-letter word here and there, or I teach without shoes. My dog, Sam, is our sometime mascot: a goofy Chocolate Lab who I forbid students from feeding lest he pester them throughout class. And we laugh—a lot.
Course assignments—all ungraded—include daily readings, which students do or don’t do, and they know I forgive them for sometimes not doing them. They complete three in-depth reading responses, which they choose based on their curiosity about the subject and when their schedules permit given the various demands on their time. All other assignments lead up to an archival research paper roughly ten pages in length: a primary source analysis and annotated bibliography for which I offer loose guidelines; and a paper outline and three drafts which they design a process for completing. They develop a method of drafting that makes the most sense to them given their chosen subject matter, and we dialogue about each assignment in a shared Google Doc. Students set their own deadlines early in the semester, and they can move them for any reason if they give me notice. This flexibility can be challenging, but it gives them space to breathe and time to submit work they’re proud of. It also allows students to engage in the professional practice of requesting more time, as academics often do (but fail to admit…) with editors.
Students also write end-of-semester self-evaluative essays, which I love reading more than any other assignment. They discuss their processes of engaging with the course; the products they generated as evidence of their learning; and what they learned about themselves as learners. Since they haven’t been graded at any other point during the semester, I ask that they suggest one overarching course grade for themselves according to a “Grading Narrative,” comprised of three sections: 1) Research Processes/Products, 2) Citizenship, and 3) Meta-Cognition/Self-Awareness. It’s an unweighted set of criteria that apply to the whole course, designed to honor traditional demonstrations of academic learning, development of personal agency in learning, contributions to the class environment, and one’s ability to self-reflexively examine learning. I then meet with each student to reflect and finalize their letter grade, since the university requires that I submit one.
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During the last few weeks of classes this past semester, I’d started posting notes of encouragement for these tired and stressed students using a “Dear Students” format on my Twitter account. Here’s one, from April 24:
They caught on, of course, and were delighted when I requested permission to post some of their essay insights. This thread of student wisdom is testimony that freeing students from the constraint of grades is an essential pedagogic practice in our attempts to prioritize learning and educate individuals in and of the world:
“This course has made me realize that learning is not reliant on grades, and good grades do not constitute learning.”
“Once grades were removed from the equation, I often found myself unwilling to ‘drop the ball’ because my integrity as a student was on the line.”
“I was able to hold myself accountable for my actions as a student, rather than relying on my professor to.”
“…I want to be more aware of when I am extrinsically motivated and when I am learning and applying myself in a way that is best for me.”
“This course allowed me to learn while also taking personal ownership of my work. There was no looming grading system hanging over my shoulder, but instead the standard that I hold for myself as a student and learner.”
“Knowing I wasn’t getting a grade led me to take a lot more personal ownership of my work...”
“…I am learning to take ownership over my education and have taken active steps to move away from using grades as a source of motivation.”
“Having a ‘grade-less course’ allowed for me to feel like my efforts in class were recognized and I was able to actually enjoy my education, rather than stress about meeting certain points. I did more readings, took more notes, and I focused more in class…”
“I loved learning and researching my topic because my paper was… dare I say fun?”
“My ability and desire to retain information increased dramatically because of the absence of exam pressure…. I was able to simply be present, think about, and discuss history, relating it to my past experiences and other courses…. I was eager to engage.”
“Thank you for making learning a choice and for respecting us enough to give us the freedoms you did. I feel like a capable, responsible, critical-thinking, accountable, prepared, challenged, respected, curious, balanced, adult!”
“The more I learned in this class, the more I wanted to know.”
“I am not just a more informed student… I am a student who wants to learn more and further investigate…”
“I can see clear growth in myself as a learner.”
“I feel accomplished and proud…”
“Thank you for allowing me to enjoy learning again for the sake of learning.”
“Notably, intelligence is so much more diverse than what people make it out to be, making connections between material is a really effective way to learn… and dropping [spinning] plates is okay and sometimes great!”
Another powerful endorsement surfaced on the last day of class, as we reflected together as a group: “It makes me want to learn more.” She shrugged.
And just when I thought I wouldn’t hear any more about it, my anonymous course evaluations arrived:
“As a student I felt more motivated to complete my work and participate in class. …I really enjoyed feeling like I had a place in the classroom again.”
“The ‘grade-less’ format of this class provided me an opportunity to learn more fully and deeply. I did not have to worry about memorizing material for quizzes or exams, but instead could simply be in class, actively listening and integrating information for long-term use.”
“Thank you for telling us to prioritize sleep. Having a gradeless class really helps my mental and emotional health…”
“JZ should be in charge of educational reform... so yeah, a lot of things worked well :) …the atmosphere she creates in her classes encourages us to produce our best work for ourselves and our learning, not for the letter grade.”
There are no more meaningful affirmations than those from students. In that first class when we chose learning over grading, we’d developed a lexicon that they later used to articulate deep metacognitive understanding of their learning, and of themselves as learners. If nothing else, these students have shown me how this work has the capacity to bring out our humanity. What could be more important?
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Jessica Zeller is an Associate Professor of Dance at TCU. You can connect with her on Twitter @jessicazeller.