Regarding the grade less/gradeless continuum, I’d view it a bit differently. Gradeless (no grades) and a grading system (one or more grades) are dichotomous, an all-or-nothing proposition — teachers either assign a grade for the class or they do not. A true gradeless scenario (like the U. of Michigan’s Residential College) is a completely different context in my view. Presumably, students receive comments (based on criteria-based evidence) related to their progress and outcomes from a pass/fail perspective and are less inclined to be ranked with their classmates (generally a good thing). Because giving grades is only one form of summative assessment, the question becomes then if this is just doing away with grades only or doing away with all forms of summative assessments like badges, rubrics, etc. Even when assigning a rubric score, students are inclined to rank themselves in order to determine how fair they were evaluated.
Implementing Less Grades
Regarding the implementation of less grades (one or more grades), a continuum does exist. But the difference here is that students are (again presumably) more inclined to rank themselves by comparing their grade(s) with their classmates (generally a bad thing). Even by assigning one grade at the end of the course, I feel students will compare themselves with their classmates, which rarely adds to the educative experience. For me it’s not enough to resign to the idea that assigning only one grade (at the end of the term) is inherently better than assigning more grades throughout or is better than a more “traditional” approach where formative assessment is lacking. 1) There are alternatives to using formative and summative assessments that can address this challenge and 2) most agree to the benefits of frequent and timely doses of formative assessment in terms of their benefits to learning.
Sanchez & Dunworth (2014) found that graduate students receiving written feedback from tutors was oftentimes difficult to understand. In a university where grades were assigned, content from written feedback was hard to interpret for students when trying to align formative assessments (from written comments) with summative assessments (from receiving a grade). In other words, students perceived “a lack of consistency between formative and summative feedback” (p. 9). Even though some of the participants of this study were international students, I believe that these results remain generalizable to most students in high education of all levels. The study also discusses different challenges students face in receiving timely feedback such that changes that affect the final grade can be made before specific due dates.
Personally, negotiating with students at the end of the term their final grades is simply too little, too late. If this type of communication is going to exist, then it should exist throughout the term. Students benefit from receiving provisional grades throughout the course with the understanding that changes to these grades can be made with evidence of higher academic achievement.
It’s not enough to compare gradeless or grading less learning designs with more “traditional” designs of saturated amounts of summative assessments, but to tease out the current complexities of what gradeless and grading less actually mean in a variety of contexts. Nor is simply grading less necessarily optimal over a concerted effort to provide timely feedback throughout the educative experience that includes both formative and summative assessments. Teachers rely on a variety of forms of evidence to make better inferences to students’ understandings.