Teaching & Learning


Getting your students to focus on learning, not the mark

Cathy Elliott, Associate Professor (Teaching) and Vice Dean (Education) of the Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences, encourages educators to question the importance of marks over learning.

31 July 2023

Local Media Widget Placeholderhttps://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Play/99121

Challenge the practice of marking

One hundred years of research shows that grading (marking) undermines learning. There are various objections to grading. Grades are often arbitrary and highly inconsistent. They don’t even give us very useful information. As Susan Blum argues, one student may come to class knowing nothing. They put in consistent effort, learn a lot and get a 65. Another student starts out knowing quite a lot, but either coasts or has other things going on in their life, and they also get a 65. The mark tells us nothing about these three very different situations. Grades are also terrible for relationships. They promote competition ahead of collaboration, whether or not that is the disposition we would like our students to develop. And they make every conversation between students and teachers into a conversation about marks. They don’t motivate students to learn, but rather replace the intrinsic motivation of joy, learning and creativity with extrinsic and fearful coercion. And, perhaps worst of all, they lead to students writing work they don’t want to write for teachers who don’t want to read it!

But students come to university because they want to learn. Every time I ask my students to make sure of that fact, they confirm it. Sometimes they cry, because they had forgotten why they were here and needed the reminder.

Prioritise learning

That’s why we have set up a movement to promote the freedom to learn. Freedom to learn is a continuum of practices that centres feedback and decentres marks. There is not one ‘right way’ to challenge practices of marking. You could start out by treating it as a thought experiment. To do this, take a moment whenever you find yourself telling a student that they need to comply with some requirement to get a good mark, rather than helping them learn the things they are interested in. Pause when you are in the middle of an argument with your second marker about whether an essay is ‘worth’ 65 or 68. Ask yourself: how would this conversation be going if marks didn’t matter and learning did?

Open a dialogue with students

Another really useful thing to do is have honest conversations with students about grading and maybe get them to read some of the research on it. You could also be open and honest with them, with yourself, with your colleagues, about how important grades are to you. So many of us have been taught to base all our self-esteem on high marks. Can you see the traces of that in your obsession with publications in ‘top journals’, perhaps?

Be creative with feedback and assessment

When you are ready to take more radical action, you could start by making as much work as possible on your module or programme formative and low-stakes and by giving much more developmental feedback, decentring the importance of the mark. Offering students choice and optionality will also free them to focus on what they care about and work more creatively. You could look into contract grading, which focuses more on effort than the finished product. Or you could do what I do, which is to allow students to negotiate their grade with me on the basis of assessment criteria that they can work with flexibly and even adapt. This negotiation always starts from the premise that there is not an ‘objective correct’ mark that the work deserves and takes the student’s own evaluation seriously whilst engaging in dialogic feedback. No, they don’t all give themselves the highest marks. Yes, I enjoy the process, including reading their work.

There are other universities, such as Brown in the US, where it is possible to offer an entirely ‘ungraded’ path through a degree. UCL could do it too. That is a choice we could make. But we would have to do it together, and it might involve some difficult conversations in our community. If you’d like to work with us on it, please join our movement!

Still, there are lots of things that you could do within UCL’s current regulations to decentre grading, emphasise developmental feedback, and step towards freedom. So, what do you have to lose? Apart from the pain of marking?

Cathy's tip: Start from your conversations with students and others: try to be mindful of when and how you talk about marks, grades and awards, and try to decentre them in favour of learning wherever and whenever you can.

Further resources

Download the video transcript [Word]

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