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In the Halls of the King Under the Mountain (of Grading)

A very short trip to a time long ago

J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous 1937 fantasy book, The Hobbit, introduces among its heroes a fierce group of dwarves who are descended from noble stock: ancestors who ruled a community that lived and thrived in tunnels and halls they had hewn inside the mountain called Erebor. In the time when the book takes place, a dragon has chased away the dwarves and claimed their halls as its own, occasionally flying out to terrify the inhabitants of the lake town of Esgaroth.

From their town the Lonely Mountain was mostly screened by the low hills at the far end of the lake, through a gap in which the Running River came down from the North. Only its high peak could they see in clear weather, and they looked seldom at it, for it was ominous and drear even in the light of morning. Now it was lost and gone, blotted in the dark.


Suddenly it flickered back to view; a brief glow touched it and faded.

“Look!” said one. “The lights again! Last night the watchmen saw them start and fade from midnight until dawn. Something is happening up there.”

“Perhaps the King under the Mountain is forging gold,” said another. “It is long since he went North. It is time the songs began to prove themselves again.”

“Which king?” said another with a grim voice. “As like as not it is the marauding fire of the Dragon, the only king under the Mountain we have ever known.”

Tolkien, 1937, Ch. 14

More than 80 years later, I found myself buried beneath a mountain of grading that I myself had created by asking my students to demonstrate their skills often, at length, and in detail. Every little discussion post, short-response essay, lab report, knowledge check, exam, annotated bibliography, course project, capstone report, and quiz answer had to be weighed, ranked, and assigned a numerical grade. I was definitely under the mountain, but I felt less like a king and more like a dragon—grouchy, tired, and ready to spit fire.

Why do we do this to ourselves as instructors, creating mountains of grading? Well, most of us have been trained to make sure that we are providing a meaningful and challenging experience for our learners, while we are also asked by our administrators and institutions to show measurable evidence of student performance. And nothing says “measurement” like a steady flow of grades.

Or does it?

I am no longer buried under a mountain of grading. My students and I are a lot happier about how we approach learning and assessment.

How did I go from feeling like a dragon to feeling like a king? I took a metaphorical lesson from the dwarves in Tolkien’s book. To find the gems, I had to cart away the useless rock. I removed grades entirely from my courses. I adopted ungrading.

The rules of the game

My goal with course assessments of all kinds was to re-frame my relationship with my students. Instead of being a grader of their outputs, I wanted to become a reader of their work (Stommel, 2018): a knowledgeable friend who would offer advice and ideas to help my students to strengthen their practices and thinking, rather than a judge who passed sentence on the work they created.

My biggest challenges when I first began thinking about how to move away from grades, though, was that my students and I were so steeped in what Susan Blum calls the “ineffectiveness and inhumanity” of “an industrial model of pre-determined, teacher-centered curriculum, measured by time-in-seat and assessed by high-stakes testing, with sorting (evident in grades and scores) as the principal goal” (Blum, 2016, p 4). Of course, The Hobbit has something to say about this, too:

“What have I got in my pocket?” [Bilbo] said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset. . . “S-s-s-s-s,” hissed Gollum. “It must give us three guesseses, my preciouss, three guesseses.”

“Very well! Guess away!” said Bilbo.

“Handses!” said Gollum.

“Wrong,” said Bilbo, who had luckily just taken his hand out again. “Guess again!” . . .

“Knife!” he said at last.

“Wrong!” said Bilbo, who had lost his some time ago. “Last guess!”  . . .

“String, or nothing!” shrieked Gollum, which was not quite fair—working in two guesses at once.

“Both wrong,” cried Bilbo very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. He knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. . . . And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.

Tolkein, 1937, Ch. 5

In Tolkein’s book, the exchange you just read takes place when Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit hero of the story, falls into a dark cave and encounters Gollum, a fearsome creature who (spoiler alert) used to be a Hobbit a long time ago, but who lives alone and miserable after having found the cursed Ring of Power. The important part of the story for us, though, is that even in the depths of a cave, Bilbo and Gollum adhered to the rules of the riddle-game, which “even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it.” When Bilbo bends the rules of the “ancient laws” with his non-riddle of “what have I got in my pocket,” Gollum gets angry.

Our college and university students know the rules of our game very well, too. For most of them, their K-12 experience was one of learning information and content well enough to be able to earn a passing grade on assessments—trivial, momentous, and everything in between. Students across the entire curriculum have come to expect that their performance will be ranked using a letter or numerical grade of some kind (Scott, 2019). Jesse Stommel asks, “Why do we grade? How does it feel to be graded? What do we want grading to do (or not do) in our classes (whether as students or teachers)?” (2019). Alfie Kohn says that we most often use grading to sort students “like so many potatoes,” to motivate learners to persevere and to provide useful feedback for learners (1994).

But, Kohn argues, grades actually undermine two things that we all tend to think they help us do. The problem is that we often sort learners based on incomplete and misleading evidence (Kohn, 1994; Supiano, 2019), “extrinsic motivators frequently undermine intrinsic motivation” (Butler, 1988) to want to explore learning as opposed to grade-getting, and the grade number or letter itself overshadows students’ receptiveness to our feedback (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

So, when colleagues have told us (since at least the 1990s, if not before) that they have stopped using grades all together, that’s not only bending the rules of the academic riddle-making game, it’s revolutionary.

I can hear some of your challenges. Many of us teach large number of students, have licensing exams for which we must prepare our learners, risk abysmal student ratings when we make any major change, teach in fields where creativity is less important than experimentation, observation, or practice-based protocols. So you might feel that you can’t just follow John Warner in offering to give all of his students A’s on day one and getting grades wholly off the table (Warner, 2013).

Students often rebel or flounder if the markers of achievement with which they are most familiar—grades—are suddenly removed (Nilson, 2016). All of the techniques listed above help us to ask some easier riddles before we get to, “What have I got in my pocket?” so to speak.

In order to begin scooping away gently from my mountain of grading, I followed a path similar to the one that Jesse Stommel advocates for those of us just starting with the idea of ungrading:

And, if you must grade . . .

Refrain from giving a letter or number grade for individual assignments, even if you are compelled to give one at the end of the term. . . . Never grade students while they are still learning something and, even more important, do not reward them for their performance at that point. . . . Never grade on a curve. . . . Never give a separate grade for effort. (Kohn, 1994)

At last, the mountain

Ungrading—in practice, fully implemented and scaffolded so learners understand how and why they are being assessed—is a joyful practice. I came to ungrading through advocacy for universal design for learning (UDL), the framework that asks us to make multiple ways for learners to get engaged with learning, take in information, and express their skills and knowledge (CAST, 2019). This approach of removing barriers to learning was one of my key reasons to adopt ungrading, which does the same kind of barrier-removal in the realm of assessment that UDL does in the domains of information, motivation, and expression—especially since “automated grading mechanisms can be weaponized to undermine student agency in the learning process” (Cohn, 2019).

The research-backed constellation that surrounds my practice of ungrading contains cognitive psychology inquiries about the concepts of authentic assessment (Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, 2017), learner curiosity (Wiggins, 1998), social learning (CASEL, 2019), emotional learning (Healy, 2009), desirable difficulty (Bjork & Bjork, 1994), specifications grading (Nilson, 2014), and iterative practice (comfort with failure) in learning (Stommel, 2017).

Likewise, the characters in The Hobbit are also focused on learning what they need in order to confront pressing problems, and, rather than grades or comparative assessment, the most valuable response from those who have knowledge to those who want it is well-crafted feedback.

In the passage below, there is a dispute among dwarves, elves, and humans, and Bilbo has just given the elves and humans a bargaining chip: the physical symbol of the dwarf king Thorin’s right to rule, the Arkenstone.

As they passed through the camp, an old man, wrapped in a dark cloak, rose from a tent door where he was sitting and came towards them.

“Well done! Mr. Baggins!” he said, clapping Bilbo on the back. “There is always more about you than anyone expects!” It was Gandalf.

For the first time for many a day Bilbo was really delighted. But there was no time for all the questions that he immediately wished to ask.

“All in good time!” said Gandalf. “Things are drawing towards the end now, unless I am mistaken. There is an unpleasant time just in front of you; but keep your heart up! You may come through all right. There is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard. Good night!”

Puzzled but cheered, Bilbo hurried on.

Tolkien, 1937, Ch. 16

Notice how Bilbo’s mentor, the wizard Gandalf, responds: positive feedback, comments about immediate strengths and what might come next, and a promise to keep working together toward their final goal. Bilbo is “puzzled but cheered,” a wonderful state for a learner to be in. Looking ahead in the book, Gandalf doesn’t unwind his full assessment of Bilbo’s approach to diplomacy for another two chapters in the book. Gandalf is an ungrader.

And this is why ungrading works. The feedback that I give my students is short, targeted, and frequent. I spend less time trying to compare their work against each other on a conceptual yardstick and more time trying to start conversations with them that are goal-referenced, tangible/transparent, actionable, user-friendly, timely, ongoing, and consistent (Wiggins, 2012). That feedback takes many forms, and I encourage you to dive in to the resources I cite here to explore further.

Now, as pleasant as my Hobbit metaphor might be, you are not a character in a fantasy book. “Grades have been naturalized in education to the point that new teachers don’t feel they can safely explore alternative approaches to assessment. [They] are rarely told they have to grade, but grading is internalized as an imperative nonetheless” (Stommel, 2017).

So consider this permission, from me. Go ahead and try ungrading.

There is a large and growing community of people who are here to support you, from the Teachers Throwing out Grades group on Facebook to the scholars contributing to the #ungrading hashtag on Twitter.

Ungrading has been around for decades, and it is backed by—yes, mountains of—research on its efficacy and benefits. So, if we are going to be Kings and Queens under the Mountain, we should choose our mountains wisely. “I can show you the way, and look, I’m right beside you” (Blackmore & Dio, 1975).

Join Thomas J. Tobin on September 17 for a live online seminar, Grade Less, Teach Less, Learn More. During the seminar he addresses how adopting elements of a constructivist teaching approach can foster active learners and curious students, while also reducing your workload as an instructor.

References:

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork R. (1994). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. New York: Worth Publisher, pp 56-64. https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/04/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf.

Blackmore, R. & Dio, R. J. (1975). Man on the silver mountain. Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow. New York: Polydor Records. https://youtu.be/p9nfVrusSMg.

Blum, S. (2016). “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58 (1): 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8279.1988.tb00874.x.

CAST. (2019). The UDL Guidelines. http://udlguidelines.cast.org/.

Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (2017). Authentic Assessment. Indiana University. https://citl.indiana.edu/teaching-resources/assessing-student-learning/authentic-assessment/.

Cohn, J. (2019). Inclusive Teaching is About Options: Why Teaching with Tech Needs to Be Paired with Inclusivity Discussions. https://www.jenaecohn.net/2019/07/24/inclusive-teaching-is-about-options-why-teaching-with-tech-needs-to-be-paired-with-inclusivity-discussions/.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2019). What is SEL? https://casel.org/what-is-sel/.

Elbow, P. (1997). Grading student writing: Making it simpler, fairer, clearer. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 1(69): 127-140. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.567.4718&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Healy, M. (2009). Emotional learning. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-development/200902/emotional-learning.

Kohn, A. (1994). Grading: The issue is not how, but why. Educational Leadership 52(2): 38-41. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct94/vol52/num02/Grading@-The-Issue-Is-Not-How-But-Why.aspx.

Nilson, L. B. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Nilson, L. B. (2016, January 19). Yes, Virginia, there’s a better way to grade. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/01/19/new-ways-grade-more-effectively-essay.

Schinske, J. & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE Life Sciences Education 13(2): 159–166. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4041495/.

Scott, M. (2019). Overcoming the F.E.A.R. of no grades. ASCD Express 14(31). http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol14/num31/overcoming-the-fear-of-no-grades.aspx.

Stommel, J. (2017). Why I don’t grade. https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/.

Stommel, J. (2018). How to ungrade. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/.

Stommel, J. (2019). How to ungrade: A workshop. Google Doc handout. Radical Pedagogy and Ungrading session. Toronto, ON: Digital Pedagogy Lab conference. http://bit.ly/ungrading.

Supiano, B. (2019, August 2). Grades can hinder learning. What should professors use instead? Chronicle of Higher Education, 65(38). https://sh.chronicle.com/20190719_ungrading/.

Teachers Throwing out Grades. (2019). Facebook group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/teachersthrowingoutgrades/.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937). The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. New York: Ballantine Books. https://archive.org/stream/TheHobbitByJRRTolkienEBOOK/The Hobbit byJ  RR Tolkien EBOOK_djvu.txt.

Warner, J. (2013, September 3). A’s for everyone. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/everyone.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Ensuring authentic performance. In Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 21-42. Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership 70(1), pp 10-16. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx.

Bio: Thomas J. Tobin, PhD, MSLS, PMP, MOT, CPACC, is the Program Area Director for Distance Teaching & Learning  on the Learning Design, Development, & Innovation (LDDI) team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as an internationally-recognized speaker and author on quality in technology-enhanced education. His books include: