The Fairfield Mirror recently published an article which discussed a multitude of points centering on the concept that the traditional conceptualization of the university grading system is harmful to students’ mental health and prevents them from achieving their academic goals.

The argument links to a website created by Jesse Stommel, the progenitor of the term “ungrading,” and proceeds to describe this new system effectively as follows: “students would no longer receive these grades as they are no longer assigned the “common testing protocol.” Rather, the course instructors will give lectures regarding the course topic and assign outside readings for students to complete…they are expected to have taken it upon themselves to digest and understand the information and come to the next class ready to participate in a discussion.” 

Supposedly this system would encourage cooperation between students, reduce stress, and destigmatize poor grades marked by low numerical value. This would contrast the current system which the student author of the article argues “induce[s] stress, rank[s] students against each other competitively, put[s] professors and students in a position against one another and cause[s] students to lack trust in their own academic abilities.” 

While I agree with the argument that the current system of education and grading is imperfect, I strongly disagree with many of the proposed solutions involved with the “ungrading” approach.  

Firstly, what did the student article get right? 

For starters, the student author is spot on that the current system over-idealizes the concept of an “A” grade (93+) at the expense of motivating students to understand the material. Oftentimes, our final grades are based largely on final exams that require us to regurgitate formulas and facts which were memorized the week prior and will be forgotten by the following one. 

The student author also includes the allowance that the memorization of facts and information may be necessitated by heavily quantitative courses but courses involved in the humanities would be better served to follow the “Ungrading” approach. I agree with this point as well, considering the fact that understanding and appreciating a literary work for its commentary and intellectual weight is far more important than memorizing every particular detail about it.  Clearly, both the student author and I agree that a problem exists in the grading and course structures. The area in which we differ, however, is found in our proposed solutions. 

Instead of using the “Ungrading” approach, I believe the best option forward is to more fully embrace the competitive traditional grading system with the slight caveat that follows: any work which receives a grade, whether it be a final exam, midterm test, quiz or homework assignment, should attempt to gauge a student’s understanding of the concept as well as their understanding of the factual information.   

I have two reasons for embracing this approach. The first is straight-forward and is something that the student author alluded to in her article. A student’s understanding of a discipline at an institution of higher education must be measured to some degree. The “Ungrading” approach would do this qualitatively, meaning a student’s grasp of a concept would be done in a non-numeric fashion.

The issue I have with this is that to grade solely off a student’s ability to, say, contribute to a group discussion following a reading of the material in no way, shape or form ensures that the student understands the underpinning logic, formulae or potential application of the material in the real world. There must be some way to quantify a student’s understanding of a discipline relative to every other student. 

If we simply say “both Student A and Student B have demonstrated fluency in discipline X” then we have no tangible way of delineating between each student’s ability. Grading becomes qualitative as opposed to quantitative and the potential for disputes and lack of clarity over what constitutes fluency rises exponentially. Instead, we should keep the current system of assessing point values to certain demonstrated levels of clarity amongst students with the important distinction that examinations test a student’s critical thinking skills and ability to apply the information given, as opposed to incentivizing the simple regurgitation of hastily remembered facts. 

The last point is somewhat more abstract but no less important. The student author is correct when she writes in her article that the “Ungrading” approach will reduce competition between students. The catch, however, is that by and large we should encourage competition between students in the academic setting. 

We should always be mindful of the potential deleterious mental health effects of overly competitive students as is commonly found at universities across the nation. We should also be sure, however, to maintain the goal of aiming for an educational system that prepares and produces the best, brightest and sharpest intellectuals and academics. 

Competition and hard work are two of the defining qualities that make the United States as a nation and system of institutions unique, and it is this combination that has led us to be the dominant educational force on the globe. 

We have the strongest universities, lead the world in technological innovation, and are at the forefront of invention and discovery in nearly every field. It would be foolhardy and naïve to believe that replacing our current competitive educational structure with a qualitative, coddled version would result in the same success we have historically enjoyed.  

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