Gradeless eLearning

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elearning-gradeA couple of weeks ago I found myself musing over the theories behind gradeless colleges. What could I as a corporate instructional designer learn from their rationale and their alternative methods?

I searched around several colleges’ websites to learn more; I think Evergreen College’s website offers the most succinct statement about why it doesn’t use a grading system and how it functions without one:

“Evaluations serve as an alternative to grades. As narrative documents, they are far more descriptive. While a grade can reveal nothing about the thinking that went into a student’s work or what work the student completed, evaluations express the reactions of both students and faculty members to that particular student’s work.”

Descriptive, detailed evaluation—sounds ideal. But this type of evaluation is unlikely in eLearning, and I have never had a client who has this sort of bandwidth. Have you? No, I didn’t think so. But there must be something we can learn from gradeless assessment.

If the belief is that grades—or a percentage of right or wrong answers on a 10-question assessment at the end of a course—can’t show thought processes, then we need to incorporate activities that get us closer to seeing these though processes. An effective online course’s genius lies within being able to approximate real life decision making within the medium’s inherent constraints.

Of course, you can incorporate such application activities and still maintain a “grading” system. But maybe rather than labeling decisions right or wrong, we can create feedback that reflects back to learners what their thinking may have been in choosing a given option and that shows them the consequences of that option. That may mean that we say goodbye to the green check and the red ex the way that some colleges have said goodbye to A, B, C, D, and F.

But what about our clients’ needs to see how their employees are doing? Nontraditional assessment doesn’t mean no assessment. I highlight a couple more features from colleges with nontraditional grading systems that may make sense in a corporate learning situation:
Harvey Mudd is not a fully gradeless college, but it doesn’t give letter grades in the first semester of freshman year. Following such a model, perhaps initial courses could focus on safe practice and exploration, and then formal assessment with percentages and right/wrong answers comes in subsequent courses or levels within a course.

At Reed College, they record letter grades but they don’t provide them to students unless they fall below the C level. In this model, company management could track scores, but they could decide a certain point at which learners will require remediation. If the company has the bandwidth, perhaps learners who fall below a given level actually could have more personalized remediation either within a course or even face to face.

A “gradeless” approach may not always be possible or even preferable. But we shouldn’t be afraid to step outside traditional assessment practices.
What methods of assessment have worked well for you?

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  1. Jen Milner

    Nice post! I got my BA from Evergreen after I got frustrated by the focus on grades and busy work I encountered in my freshman year of college. I wanted to focus on learning for the sake of learning. Evergreen gives students a lot of independence and freedom to learn the way they want to learn and to pursue big projects, but they also have a 50% attrition rate because a lot of students can’t deal with that freedom. In the corporate world, there’s certainly a focus on scores and quizzes because that’s easy and quantifiable, but sometimes the more intensive training programs like mentoring are more successful and keep employees more engaged. Unfortunately, those sorts of training initiatives are expensive and hard to roll out to all employees.

    We’ve tried to create a middle ground for some clients like RMA. We have open entry responses that are exported at the end of the course in a document that is meant to be reviewed with a manager or mentor, but if that doesn’t happen, we still have an exam score.

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