The graded journey – university learning without grades

J’Anne Ellsworth

A proactive journey, professor and students working together could build and strengthen academia. At risk are historic norms supporting college for the elite, and the professor as fountain of wisdom. This article asks us to review those myths, and in the decade ahead, free ourselves to initiate a system that is worthy of our finest minds.


The annual journey is in progress. Like every Odysseus, the unknown stretches before ,students, uncharted waters, perils, and the prize. Not all have the same destination or goals, but each hopes for completion, and many deck themselves in the marks of high GPA’s to show their stout heartedness.

We professors prepare to man the realms of Schylla and Charibdus. It is time honored. Many things in an education resemble the proverbial spot between a rock and a hard place, none any more surely than grades. Who of us, in our historic robes has not faced down the tyranny of the curve and won? So too, must this year’s adventurers. Of course, we all know the inscrutable value of an `A’. In our GPA are those grades that are earned and unearned, those we cheated for and those we got cheated receiving. The B in Chemistry I barely grasped, and the A in Biology, a good joke on the professor–since I knew more than he did. The `A’ in French was a cheat all the way around, since the curve allowed me, a dysfunctional speaker and reader, to surpass other students. It was the worst of times … but I digress.

Must a professor maintain the rocky course where half the class will dash their hopes against the impossibility of the curve? Are we the gate keepers, the St. Peter who knows who may pass? Only a few of the many who will be sucked into the turgid waters. Many professors announce the perils ahead. “Look around you, for the person sitting next to you will be gone by next year. Only half of you will survive and I assure you, half of you will flunk. I will be grading on the curve.” This same sort of professor may visit the faculty senate to shame others for grade inflation, descrying the soft position of educators who care about student ratings. We have the ability to determine the hearing of a newborn with a probe, and cannot yet distinguish course knowledge with any more sophistication than Mendelian math?

Taking a similar sounding position, in the syllabus these like minded `profs’ declare war on tardy students. Attendance is used as a rapier in the battle with those who let life interfere with the Herculean tasks at hand. With a few keystrokes, the wording deftly sucks the pretender into the maelstrom. Few ships will right themselves, once the waves of homesickness or flu weakens resolve. We justly do battle with students who attempt to survive the initiation rights of adulthood at the same time they attempt a formal education. It is not often a professor’s concern that students are bereft on high seas. We can take no thought of how life impacts learning, neither assume blame, for it is time honored, losing half of those who embark on the pilgrimage. Perhaps the mentality of scarcity has its worthy niche in the telling of the tale.

Is it the calling of the best universities to support survival of the fittest? When these first classic tales of mythic proportions, like the Iliad were written, we lost huge forces in battle. Now, with surgical precision, we can wage wars and lose less than a dozen soldiers. Do we, the intelligentsia, care less for the safety of students who embark on the semester with us than a Marine Drill Sergeant cares for his charges?

Some professors choose to be a part of the trek, rather than a spot on the map to be dreaded. They believe in and thrill to the idea that students come to learn with excitement and energy that Can be shared and multiplied as we spend our 15 weeks together. These intellectual guides, describing the perils of the expedition, suggest an alternative, a sensible route to the worded, heightening the potential for learning. They care for students, and stand as beacons, guides, facilitators and mentors, not tormentors (Kohn, 1999).

Yes, it is true that we learn–that some of us learn–through anxiety and high stakes pressures. It is also true that some students do not belong on the journey. We see them every year (Ames, 1990; Raffini, 1993). As professionals, we need not “dash” their hopes, but can steer them to dreams that belong to them, to futures that better fit their strengths. If we do not visualize positive “portents for the future”, we, who can chart the course of a probe to Mars, surely can help students chart ascent toward success rather than failing them. What is the worth of a person’s future? The newspapers splashed cynicism when we lost contact with the Martian probe, but students lose their way and disappear without a byline.

In building relationship, professing, sharing the pilgrimage, professors have all the power and opportunity needed to make a difference in lives, young and old. Some students fail, while some self select and stop coming to class. Some have life crises and personal tragedies that close the door on a semester or academia. Many students knew from the beginning that a course of study was not best, but for some reason, ignored personal passion to pursue another’s vision or were slow to find self. Some begin a career for prestige, for money, to be close to a significant other.

Surely, an advanced society that can produce a device to beam directions to the nearest convenience store, can develop more sophisticated means to help students track a productive course (Brophy, 1999). Surely we are ready to invest in developing tools that will enhance our ability to better direct, support and encourage our brain trust.

What of the cheater? All of us face the dishonorable. Much as we may hope that grades give us the help we need to combat the scoundrel, it is not so. Grading, for a few students, escalates the thrill of cheating, the excitement of pitting self against a person who believes in the system, in honor, in students supporting and obeying the roles. This motivation is a rare exception, however. It is more often the frantic student who wants to succeed, who feels hopeless, or who has failed to fully prepare (Houston, 1978). It is also the student who does not know how to prepare, who turns to cheating. Nearly all of us have cheated one time or another, but most of us do not cheat most of the time. Do we banish the person who errs, or do we use this as an opportunity for growth and change? Is it ever too late to support a life lesson? After all, someone age 24 should have outgrown such behavior…. And if the person has not, what a wonderful opportunity to help them shape a better future, a more productive use of energy.

Mid century, we discovered that children who cheat want to succeed, and the passion for success provides the energy to stack tasks in their favor. Did that research find its way into professional practice? When we discovered the theory of plate tectonics, we radically altered our constructs. How different is the university, now that we realize students have multiple learning styles, that lecture is one of the least effective instructional formats, that the affective milieu dramatically alters our ability to recall (Cowdry & Chambers, 1978; Lepper, 1988). Have our instructional methods altered, or did we just find new gizmos to jazz up our lectures? Did we translate brain research into best practice, or eschew such folly in favor of tradition?

How do students develop passion for learning? Developmental research shows that children have an indefatigable penchant for learning. We know much of what it takes to retain students, and adequate indicators about what great teaching requires (Davies, P, 2001). These are difficult to translate into actions that fit within the limited class time and acceptable enrollments. Who is actively pursuing this area of research? Are students a by-product of the university? Is it more important to slake our own thirst for knowledge than vouchsafe such a mission for our companions, the students who come to us?

Even today, someone professing a change in education is risking the Socratic purge. The university system could become the keystone in the ever-growing arches of imagination. Our vistas are only beginning to unfold. To move forward, we choose to evaluate how we are teaching and supporting our greatest asset–the student. We have a challenge, to move testing, teaching, information sharing, mentoring to more intimate and honest contact with students. We dare not trifle with rigor, with our responsibility to license and prepare fully qualified professionals. We can recognize and maintain the rituals that give comfort, but the practices that endanger students, the learning community, our society and future can give way to best practice. We know so much more than we have the courage to implement … and there is so much more to discover about teaching than we investigate. A proud and honorable past can give impetus to adventure ahead. It can be a foundation rather than an anchor. In the next decade, let us take the challenge to:

1. Assess in a more sophisticated and meaningful manner, reflecting competency, level of expertise, strengths and areas for growth.

2. Provide assessments that reflect the discipline rather than a universal point system.

3. Develop a grading system that is less subject to political sway and affective factors.

4. View each student who matriculates as a person, and provide commitment to support that individual throughout the higher education experience.

5. Develop a better set of admission tools to determine how a student can benefit from time spent in a discipline rather than putting a bar up to admit a select group based on scores and GPA.

6. Rigorously and intentionally support maturing in thought, skills, rigor, emotion and integrity. This is important for all of us.

Let us focus, for a time, on excellence in teaching. It is time to place our funding, support and energy toward this responsibility. In the past decade, offices of teaching effectiveness received funding and attention, but seldom altered the practices of professors. Few professors are monitored for teaching quality and adequate assessments have not yet been developed that would assure quality changes in teaching if the process were mandated. Surely we can draw upon the brilliance in the academy to initiate and develop the tools and systems that could assure success.

Come, let us move beyond the sirens who are holding us captive in this place. We have unseen vistas, uncharted danger, and new questions to ask. Hemlock, anyone?


Ames, C. A. (1990). Motivation: What Teachers Need to Know. Teacher’s College Record, 91 (3) 409-21.

Brophy, J. (1999). Toward a model of the value aspects of motivation in education: Developing appreciation for … Educational Leadership. 34 (2) 75-86.

Cowdry, J. & Chambers, J. (1978). Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning. In The Hidden Costs of Reward, M.R. Lepper & D. Greene (Eds.). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Houston, J. P. (1978). Curvilinear relationships among anticipated success, cheating behavior, temptation to cheat and perceived instrumentality of cheating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70 (5) 758-62.

Kohn, A. (1999). From degrading to de-grading. High school magazine VI (5), 38-43.

Lepper, M. R. (1988). Motivational Considerations in the Study of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction 5, (4) 289-309.

Raffini, J. (1993). Winners without losers: Structures and strategies for increasing student motivation to learn. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993.


Associate Professor, Educational Specialties

Center for Excellence in Education

Northern Arizona University

Flagstaff, AZ 86011

COPYRIGHT 2002 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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