TRAVERSE CITY — When Brandon Bugai was asked to vote on going gradeless in his professional communications class at Northwestern Michigan College he was one of only two students who voted against it.
“I was confused about it,” said Bugai, who is 23. “I guess I just didn’t understand how that system would work.”
A few weeks later he was sold on the concept. Rather than robotic learning that tends to float away when the semester ends, he said, going gradeless let him learn concepts and how to apply them.
“I feel like I learned a lot more in the end by not having the pressure of the grade,” Bugai said.
The class is taught by Kristy McDonald, business instructor and director of NMC’s Experiential Learning Institute. Her students went gradeless last fall and this spring, before COVID-19 cut everything short.
“The cool thing about ungrading is that it allows the student to become involved in what they are being graded on and how,” McDonald said. “You still are grading. You still have to have some way you are assessing learning outcomes.”
But students have input on what they should be assessed on. Students are asked to come up with a list of concepts they want to learn, as well as what they think is important to learn. Their list is combined with McDonald’s list of what must be learned to pass the class.
“They are building the ship they are going to sail on,” McDonald said.
Students give themselves a grade on every assignment they turn in, give themselves a mid-term evaluation, and at the end of the semester they give themselves a final grade. Students meet regularly with McDonald and, at the end of the semester, they talk about their performance and come to an agreement on whether the grade is appropriate.
Sometimes a student will give themselves a better grade than they deserve, she said, but that is not the norm.
“Ninety-five percent of the time they are harder on themselves than I would have been,” McDonald said. “They feel an ownership.”
Bugai is pursuing a general education degree and is in the process of being certified in Unmanned Aerial System (drone) operations at NMC. He is taking business electives as he may want to have his own drone business in the future.
He said he struggles in some academic areas, but earned a 100 percent in McDonald’s class because the focus was not on the grade, but on his performance.
“I feel this was a way for me to work just as hard,” he said, plus get credit for the work and effort he’s putting into the learning.
Nick Roster, science and math instructor and assessment coordinator for NMC, said a group of about 20 faculty and staff members have been meeting regularly to look at how going gradeless might work.
Foregoing grades may be a ways off for the college, Roster said, but he may begin to institute it in his own classes, possibly as early as spring semester.
One of the classes Roster teaches is anatomy and physiology where one of the challenges is in figuring out how to teach the larger ideas rather than system-by-system. There are core concepts and bigger ideas that span a given body system, with all of them following the same basic rules, he said.
Instead of exams, students would do case studies.
“Learning outcomes are bigger picture, rather than do you know the brain and nervous system,” Roster said.
Not giving out a grade puts the onus of assessment on the students, Roster said. In what is known as competency-based education, students are responsible for creating a portfolio for a gradeless class and documenting their mastery of a skill taught in the class. Students are given outcomes and they decide when they’ve met the outcome.
“Typical students get one shot at a class,” Roster said. “If they do poorly on a test, they do poorly in a class.”
Roster said grades are sometimes meaningless. He remembers getting an A in a class and then forgetting everything he learned. He also knows students who get Cs, but have a good understanding of the material.
“What’s the point of education? To show a student what they don’t know, or to allow them to master a subject?”
Ungrading takes more time and a lot of conversation with students, Roster and McDonald agree.
“With a gradeless system there is a constant conversation between students and the instructor,” Roster said. “Those students that just don’t get it will weed themselves out.”
McDonald said not all courses lend themselves to going gradeless, naming math and nursing as two areas that would be harder to ungrade. But with COVID-19 lots of faculty members are trying innovative new things, many of which she thinks will carry over after the pandemic. Ungrading may be one of those things.
“Never say never,” she said.