This post is brought to you from two learning developers, Ralitsa Kantcheva (University of Bangor) and Ian Johnson (University of Portsmouth). It seeks to develop arguments about the future of LD and the questionable value of grades in higher education today. It proposes that rather than grading, attaching value to the student’s ability to contribute to their local and global communities could offer a promising alternative.
A decade from now – What does the future of learning development hold?
A recent Take5 blog post by the Bournemouth University Learning Development (LD) team (Bickle et al., 2023) drew together how various LD community members dared to dream that practitioners in our field could influence higher education in the next decade. The post summarised contributions from myriad angles from a group workshop at the 2022 ALDinHE conference.
We contributed a short section on our ideas, which hinged around the role of grades in the HE system. We problematised the ways that grades drive a focus on outcomes over processes, and posed provocations such as ‘what are grades intended to do?’, ‘to what extent do they actually do that?’, and ‘what else might do that better?’. Here, we develop an extended version of our thoughts on moving past grade fixation.
Grades – what are they good for?
Of all concerns, why did we worry about grades? Perhaps because we spend so much time with students who obsess over them: we know grades can seem like ‘all there is’. They stand as the keeper of many gates – from the students’ emotional responses mediating the uptake of feedback, to ‘what is the grade meant to prove, and how?’. Grading student work has been a common practice in multiple university systems for over 200 years (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Some believe that the main purpose of grading was to reduce the variability in lecturers’ views about student achievement both inside and across institutions in the same educational system (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). Others believe that classification of degrees is directly related to the growing numbers of HE students, along with the requests for reliable measures by graduate employers and subject specific accreditation bodies (Gorichanaz, 2022).
Image: Marking student work is a significant part of a lecturer’s job (Link to image)
Individually we now explore two slightly different, but compatible, angles as they occurred to us during our reflections. Ian problematises grades and looks into some of the complexities of ‘ungrading’, while Ralitsa takes up the mantle of ‘what else instead?’ by exploring the potential applicability of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Ian: Grades – what for?
We need to trouble what grades are meant to do, and their fitness for that purpose.
Inside academia, in an era where it is topical to wonder if AI is now almost capable of writing a perfectly decent response to an essay title, do grades really tell academic staff anything much about students now? Extremely well-designed assessments are arguably now needed, for the grades to be worthwhile.
What are we teaching – being or doing?
We also need to kick open the door to wider questions about the purposes of higher education. Like it or not, universities are positioned as conduits for governments’ societal ambitions for young people (Percy, 2015). On this theme, we might compare how those purposes – on paper and in actuality – have shifted as a classical liberal framing of HE has given way to a more neoliberal wraparound.
The classical framing speaks to Robbins’ (1963) axiom that HE should: “promote the general powers of the mind … produce not mere specialists, but rather cultivated men and women” (para.26). A neoliberal framing has been explained as “an input-output system which can be reduced to an economic production function” (Olssen & Peters, 2005, p.324). As the landscape of HE has shifted towards neoliberalism, so more classical purposes such as ethos-formation and moral development (ie. being or becoming) are replaced by a results-orientation dominated by doing. A natural corollary is an increased focus on grades – arbitrated as they are by demonstrations of doing various learning outcomes (Zajda & Rust, 2016).
Image: The powers of the mind: questioning – thinking – creating ideas
‘What it says on the tin…’ – do grades fail the ‘Ronseal test’?
Going further, grades purport to feed into societal ambitions of increasing students’ future employment market productivity. The difference between 41% and 70% grades potentially has much to tell would-be employers about students. But as rampant grade inflation pushes ever more graduates into at least the 2:1 bracket, the material difference between 61% and 69% virtually vanishes on paper at the point of job applications.
We might, then, be wise not to automatically accept that the grade does what it says on the tin.
Another pertinent question is ‘even if it does, then at what cost’? Giroux (2007) highlights that the neoliberal system can easily place universities at odds with their historically-constructed duties to society, such as ethos-forming work and championing civic democracy through education. Cramp (2012), meanwhile, argues that the neoliberal pressures strip out opportunities for students to engage in meaningful dialogues and relationship building activity.
All about the value
As illustrated below, Sheth et al. (1991) classified five kinds of value which ‘consumers’ (their word, and not originally meant by them for application to HE) can experience. We might argue that the more grades squeeze out other focuses within HE, the more the bar moves towards the delivery of one kind of value (functional) at the expense of the values gained through knowledge, relationships and positive emotional experiences.
Figure 1: Five types of consumer value (Sheth et al., 1991). (Link to image)
Learning Developers sit slightly outside the mainstream, in a niche where the other value types feel important, and where their absence rings alarm bells. But we also feel we can make a meaningful difference. Our work prioritises dialogue and collaboration, as instantiated in our values. We also see first-hand the effects of the crippling mental health crisis and the pressure and expectation on students, which we might posit has origins in the relentless quest for grades conditioned into children from the school gates onwards. We ask ourselves – thinking back, perhaps, to classical liberal principles – what we really want university to do for young people instead.
‘Ungrading’ – the removal of grading from assessments – is not a new idea. Jesse Stommel has become the go-to figure, and there are other free online collections of online ungrading resources. Every time a university staff member can, and does, undertake ungrading activity, they could be making a difference. It feels aspirational to think that such activity could yet become mainstream, rather than being an occasional surreptitious experiment. Perhaps it isn’t about removing the grades, just using or expressing them differently – downgrading their priority. Stommel (2021) acknowledges that ungrading involves much more than just arbitrarily removing the grade: it should be done consciously and collaboratively with students, properly explained and reflected upon. It is, then, part of a wider conversation about systemic change. Through those changes, there is the opportunity to dredge different senses of value back to the surface – and not a moment too soon.
Ralitsa: If not grades – then what?
Considering what learning development (LD) could entail in 2030 has led me to the idea of bringing together all country-specific grading systems in higher education (HE) into a single globalised approach. In my view such a global approach should be directly aligned to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2015). Thus, the approach can ensure that students are enabled to develop skills that have a clear and direct impact both on their local and global communities.
Global citizens – Global standards
In order to reduce the inherent variability in grading of student work HE institutions have attempted to use a number of approaches (Streifer & Palmer, 2021). Some of these methods have had temporary success at a departmental or institutional level (Abbas, 2022). In reality many of these strategies have fallen short of achieving the main purpose of HE – guiding the next generation of citizens towards social solidarity and supporting them with acquiring community development skills (Quiroz-Niño & Murga-Menoyo, 2017). Therefore, as part of a global community HE institutions should use the same globally acceptable blueprint to realise the main purpose of university education.
At present in our globalised world numerous students start their studies and citizen development within one educational system with unique localised values and grading strategies. Then they move to a different culture and society where the expectations for a citizen’s development, values and grading strategies are completely different. Hence, this results not only in a lack of consistency of the grading standards of students’ work but also in an inability to enhance and improve students’ community development skills.
Figure 2: Exploring the relationships between all UN SDGs, natural environment, society, and global economy (Link to image).
In my vision for 2030 university students undertake interdisciplinary studies and are evaluated on their contributions to the UN’s SDGs they choose to specialise in rather than being graded on multiple assignments.
The aim is that each interdisciplinary study will contribute to the achievement of each of the three main groups of UN’s SDGs as outlined in Figure 2. For example, an interdisciplinary study can develop a novel water purification system based on used charcoal from small domestic fireplaces. This study will allow families who live in areas without access to clean water to use charcoal initially for cooking and consequently for purifying drinking water. Thus, this study will directly contribute to SDG #6 (‘Clean water and sanitation’), SDG #3 (‘Good health and well-being’), and SDG #12 (‘Responsible consumption and production’). Resulting in a student making contributions to the global biosphere, a specific localised society, and the international economy.
Across the planet
Currently in UK HE institutions, this approach has predominantly been used for enhancing students’ employability, with two well-established programmes recently being championed at a national level (Advance HE, 2023). One of the programmes allows students to engage with different aspects of UN SDGs as part of a 3-tiered voluntary programme as part of their exploration of a socially just future (Lees et al., 2023). The other programme combines mandatory and voluntary activities to enhance graduates’ sustainability literacy and skills considered “relevant to all sectors worldwide” (Winfield & Wood, 2023, p.139).
Despite the above examples one might expect that ungrading and the use of interdisciplinary assignments will prevent studies of the exact sciences where grading seems to be essential at present. In reality, ungrading students’ work has already been explored successfully by a variety of subjects in a range of different educational systems (Annan-Diab & Molinari, 2017; Paskevicius & Irvine, 2019; von Renesse & Wegner, 2022).
Image: Students in Sydney (Australia) supporting the UN SDGs (Link to image)
In some cases, subject mastery is combined with learning objectives instead (Linhart, 2020), while others are approaching ungrading from a self-regulated learning angle (Koehler & Meech, 2022). Furthermore, ungrading can successfully be coupled with a phenomenological approach to enhance student learning (Greenberg et al., 2022).
Thus, in my vision of university education in 2030, upon graduation a student will receive an evaluation of their understanding of the global community that they belong to. Moreover, each student will strive to become a global citizen with a strong appreciation of social and solidarity economy. Hopefully, all students will be able to enhance further their interdisciplinary skills, while becoming successful professionals in their preferred area.
Continuing the conversation
The above propositions might seem like a very radical change of the nature of HE to some, while to others these might suggest a return to the traditional roots and values of HE. Still, faced with the challenges of an ever developing employability market, a more connected global society, and an ever fragile biosphere HE needs to re-evaluate its functional contributions to the globalised effort for guiding and supporting the next generation of sustainability-literate and socially responsible global citizens.
As learning developers, we often enjoy access to, and some influence in, a range of cross-disciplinary contexts of assessment. We therefore end with an invite to all learning developers, to use any such influence to help lecturers think about:
- what they are assessing and how?;
- even if ‘ungrading’ is not an option at present, how could they introduce a more ‘ecologically valid’ route to arriving at grades?; and
- what is the link between their assessments and the development of global citizenship skills?
We’d also love to continue the conversation here, by hearing your responses and ideas as comments below this post.
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Ian is a learning developer of seven years’ experience in the School of Education and Sociology at University of Portsmouth. He is passionate about theorising learning development as a professional field and is in the final throes of his professional doctorate thesis on the framing and the value of learning development work. Outside of work, Ian enjoys nature, travel, good quality coffees, cricket and bad puns.
Image: Ian Johnson
Ralitsa has been a Study Skills Adviser at Bangor University (Wales) since 2016. She has experience supporting students both through subject specific and generic provision of academic literacy and critical thinking skills. Her primary research interest is students’ understanding of threshold concepts embedded in academic writing and in scientific research procedures. Outside of work, Ralitsa enjoys mountaineering, travel, world cuisine, and water sports.