Monday, July 6, 2020

Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

This past semester, I had the great pleasure to re-design and teach our program’s core PhD course (RES 602; see Intro to this series). I bucked many years of history with my reimagined grading policy for the course, which is to effectively replace grading with  individualized feedback. I told the students that they would all receive ‘A’s if they did the work and put in a genuine effort. Here’s why.

First, some context: in this course on “Interdisciplinary Research Design for Sustainability Impact”, the whole purpose is to coach students to become rigorous, insightful, impactful researchers. Thus, students’ and their own work are at the centre. And these are diverse students: all interdisciplinary to some degree, but in vastly different ways. Some primarily in the physical or natural sciences, some in the social sciences and humanities. Some do largely qualitative work, while most do some quantitative research. They straddle different epistemologies, and they adhere to radically different theories of change.

In a nutshell, there are seven classes of reasons for my grading policy that ‘A’ is the default.

1. The students are all on their own journeys, doing radically different kinds of research in different academic traditions, with different standards of evaluation. Some of these I know well, others I’m still just learning. → I can’t equally judge them all.

2. I have my own positionality in all of this. I’m more excited by some kinds of questions and approaches than others. → It’s therefore key to decouple my feedback from measures of performance that will go on students’ records.

3. The spectre of having to provide defensible grades to all would substantially shift my teaching towards a different set of uniform assignments. By their uniformity, such assignments could never properly equip a diverse class of students to do their own projects. Moreover, assigning (and justifying) numeric grades is time-consuming and detracts from the time I can spend giving tailored feedback. → Freedom from grades enables me to make different contributions to different students.

4. We don’t actually need grades for any real purpose at this stage. They simply serve to let people know that students are on track (or not). Other times, what students really need is a letter of recommendation. I can write a detailed letter for all of the students without needing to rely on grades. → Why perpetuate an ill-fitting tradition?

5. Grades exist partly to motivate students when other motivations aren’t sufficient. This also doesn’t apply here. If I’m not giving students assignments that are clearly meaningful to their programs and later careers, or if those things aren’t sufficiently motivating (I’m sure they are), then we’ve got bigger problems. → Self-determined motivations are superior to externally imposed ones (i.e. grades) (Gagné & Deci 2005).

6. You don’t need grades to provide hard-hitting feedback. Many times, my comments pointed to the lack of some element (e.g. “You’ve specified a great set of real-world implications. But what about the academic ones? How will your project contribute to a broader understanding of similar problems in different contexts?”). Even without grades, comments like this are hard to take, but at least there’s a decent chance students will receive them as purely constructive, a growth area. Accompanied by a 3 / 5 grade, which suggests that students should have already known this, I imagine such comments would feel like a smack-down. Meanwhile, boosting feelings of competence is key for intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci 2000). → Grades add salt to wounds.

7. Grades (or their absence) fundamentally change the relationship between professor and student. From judge and jury, professors without grades can be a source of guidance and assistance on the student’s journey towards being an independent researcher. That’s what I want. → Grades don’t put the relationship first, and the relationship should come first.

Now clearly I didn’t do everything right in this brand new course. I’m sure I bungled all kinds of things (hopefully small). But in the last class, in the feedback session, students said two things that earned many thumbs up on Zoom, and which were music to my ears.

First, students noted how appreciative they were for the opportunity to receive highly tailored and detailed feedback about how their thinking was developing. Providing individualized feedback to students provides a clear roadmap for change in their own context, and without differentiated grades, this is unencumbered by my notion of how much better they could have been. In the words of one student during our in-class debrief, “In the tradeoff between grades and feedback, I’ll take feedback any day! And you provided extensive, thoughtful feedback every single week.”

Students also commented that they appreciated having a safe and honest space to delve into the messy truths of research design. This “safe-to-fail” approach extended to both in-class discussions and weekly assignments. For assignments, I permitted students to re-imagine the instructions in order to suit their own research project. “Because of that [flexibility],” one student commented, “we all got what we really needed out of the assignments, not just what was expected of us”. When coupled with detailed and tailored feedback, this empowered students to imagine and construct robust research plans based on honest feedback from me, and from their peers. Additionally, weekly informal discussions about how the class was going for folks provided an opportunity to be nimble and adapt weekly assignments on the fly based on the actual real-time needs of students. “You made it safe to make mistakes,” one said, “And that’s what we needed.”

Next up: Author Contributions: Epic Fail, or Relational Success? (extra)

Previous: How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

The Intro to this series (with links to the full set): How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps


Gagné, M. and E. L. Deci (2005). "Self-determination theory and work motivation." Journal of Organizational Behavior 26(4): 331-362.

Ryan, R. M. and E. L. Deci (2000). "Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being." American Psychologist 55(1): 68-78. 

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