on going gradeless

This article is making the rounds, and the comments on the Globe and Mail page are pretty entertaining. Professor Denis Rancourt gave everyone in his fourth year physics class an automatic A+ so they wouldn't be stressed out over grades and could get into some interesting and meaningful stuff in the class.

I'll be clear - I think that's a fantastic idea. I'd maybe pull back a bit and make the course pass/fail rather than automatic A+, but I love the idea of nuking grades and focusing on learning instead.

The problem isn't with Rancourt's actions - with academic freedom, he should be able to do what he wants with his class (and of course students are also free to appeal the grades and actions). The problem is that his is likely the only course in that institution, and probably the continent, that has thrown out grades in such a way. The fact that he got fired for it, and subsequently arrested for trespassing, shows how rare this action is.

Isolated professors willing to risk their tenure by experimenting with gradeless classes will be perceived by the public as being "lesser" classes, not up to "the standards" of measurement. When a society only understands assessment of learning in terms of letter grades and curves, anything else is perceived as meaningless liberal garbage. Even if it is actually a profoundly powerful experiment in meaningful teaching and learning.

What is needed is a larger shift away from grades and numerical metrics of assessment. And that kind of change just isn't possible with a lone professor tilting at that particular windmill. But, maybe, the concept has now gained a bit of public awareness, and subsequent experiments may meet slightly less resistance.

As we continue moving toward a more individual and portfolio-driven assessment of a person's abilities, philosophies, and educational contexts, grades become less meaningful anyway. What may have been lacking in Rancourt's class was some concrete means for students to document and describe their learning, once their A+ grade had been essentially rendered meaningless as an assessment metric.

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