The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

A few months before the pandemic erupted, I agreed to teach a course called Zen. As an anthropologist of Japan, the topic excited me — until an odd thought emerged:

How do you teach a course on Zen and assign grades? Grading is the antithesis of the ideas I wanted to convey in the class, particularly the anti-conformity and anti-authoritarian threads that run through Zen philosophy.

After some pondering, I decided to drop the whole idea of grading assignments. Grades have always seemed to me more a measure of the ability of students to conform to demands of authority than of learning.

I also dropped attendance requirements and reduced the number of assignments, doing away with busywork. Thus began a yearlong, successful experiment in bucking the system.

If you are skeptical of learning conventions and the neoliberal emphasis on quantifying learning, this approach is worth a try.

In my Zen class, assignments receive credit for completion. Essay exams get extensive comments. After each exam, students attend individual conferences, in which we discuss how the semester has been going. They write short self-evaluations assessing their attendance, contribution to class discussions and work on readings.

At the end of the self-evaluation, students assign themselves a score they believe reflects their performance in the class, then justify it in writing.

On anonymous course surveys, comments have been surprisingly uniform and positive: “I believe Professor Traphagan’s experimental grading model in this class was a great boon,” said one student. “I felt like I was actually learning the material rather than just getting a meaningless score on an assignment.”

Students also reacted positively to the lack of attendance mandates. In the past, when I’d taught in a more traditional manner, but not required attendance, there were usually several students who rarely showed up for class after the second week. I expected this to happen with my Zen experiment.

Instead, during the four classes I’ve taught using this new approach, attendance rates have consistently held at between 90 and 95 percent. Our discussions of attendance and involvement in the class during the conferences allow students to talk about problems they are facing at home or issues like anxiety — with an eye toward finding an accommodation, rather than concern over a lower grade being attached to their behavior.

Last fall, one student missed most of the classes during the first half of the term. We discussed this and he indicated that he felt uncomfortable talking in class and had been feeling anxious after missing a few sessions early.

After our conversation, he missed no further classes. By our second meeting, he said that the stress had “melted off.” Clearly, having the opportunity to talk about attendance rather than being punished for missing classes gave him a basis for improving his attendance — and his learning.

Grades have always seemed to me more a measure of the ability of students to conform to demands of authority than of learning.

One downside of my approach: the potential for grade inflation. This has been the main question raised when I talk with colleagues.

I often hear, “So you’re giving out all A’s, right?”

Nope. On their self-evaluations, students often significantly underrate their performance. In one case, a student had missed a few classes early in the semester and was not talkative in class. However, her essay was excellent. She gave herself a D for the first half of the term.

We talked about the balance of different aspects of the class and that she was being hard on herself. I then asked if she would agree to a B+ up to that point, which not only made her happy, but also made sense based on our conversation and her overall class performance.

She responded that she felt encouraged and was looking forward to working on the second exam.

Related: Momentum builds for helping students adapt to college by nixing freshman grades

This experiment has led me to draw some conclusions about education.

First, I often hear that students are apathetic about learning these days. This is inaccurate. Students are, in fact, excited about learning.

However, they’re indifferent to or even bothered by the educational system’s incessant emphasis on quantitative measures and assignments that seem to have little or no value. Most students want to learn, but don’t see the conventional educational approach as providing a particularly good framework for learning.

Second, many students have experienced enormous stress and anxiety. High school can be a pressure cooker focused on grades, test scores, GPAs and getting into the right college. As a result, learning seems like a side effect of education rather than the goal.

My students consistently note that when they don’t have to anticipate the expectations of their professor, they can focus on taking chances in their writing and thinking. And taking chances often leads to true learning and mastery of a topic.

Finally, this experiment has forced me to think about intellectual rigor in the classroom. Is a system designed to generate stress through piling on work and being “hard” — whatever that means — rigorous?

Or is rigor about creating an environment where students enjoy the learning process and, as a result, willingly engage in broadening their horizons and thinking about their lives?

I think it’s the latter.

An ultracompetitive emphasis on grades accomplishes little more than generating high levels of stress, which in turn lowers the quality of education. In traditional classrooms, students are rarely encouraged to think creatively and critically, and good grades are given to those who are experts at conforming to the expectations of those in authority.

In short, the current approach to education is not producing graduates well-prepared for life as citizens in a diverse society. Perhaps one way to change this is to ditch the grades.

J. W. Traphagan is a professor in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. He co-hosts the podcast How To Be Wrong on the New Books Network and his most recent book is “Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures.”

This story about classes with no grades was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Sobre el artículo, me parece que peca de optimismo. En lo personal, he tratado de darle menos importancia a las calificaciones y en muchas casos, los estudiantes asumen esto como un permiso para no comprometerse con su aprendizaje. Sin duda, cuenta mucho el contexto. Ante estudiantes que desean formarse en el aspecto académico, la no evaluación puede funcionar; pero con estudiantes que fueron obligados por sus padres a asistir a una escuela, el enfoque de no evaluación no será valorado de manera positiva.

  2. This instructor’s insights on the psychological impact of grades certainly illuminate an important personality truth about human personality traits. However, a course on “Zen” differs in several important respects from most educational courses: the course seems to offer primarily intangible rewards to students and graduates of the course do not seem to pose an obvious cost or threat to others. In contrast, many course in topics like math, anatomy, science, and political science — as well as plumbing, electrical wiring, nursing, pharmacology and others — confer knowledge that is a tool for building bridges that do not endanger the lives of pedestrians and motorists, or designing electronic devices that do not explode, or calculating dosage of medication that does not poison patients — and, in turn, this knowledge enables those who master it to receive remuneration. Often, a significant amount of work is required to memorize and master the body of knowledge in the discipline. Here, without objective evaluation during the education process, there is a financial incentive to claim one knows the information required — and a significant risk of death or injury to the public when the claims are made fraudulently. It is my understanding that attendance in many courses is factored into the grade in order to attempt to safeguard against essay-buying or cheating on tests and projects, by allowing instructors to informally track the participant’s level of comprehension and compare these informal assessments to results provided on more objective graded work.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *