Joy Malak floundered through her freshman year in college.
"I had to learn how to balance my finances. I had to learn how to balance work and school and the relationship I'm in." The hardest part about being a new college student, Malak said, "is not the coursework. It's learning how to be an adult."
That took a toll on her grades. "I didn't do well," said Malak, who powered through and is now in her sophomore year as a neuroscience and literature double major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, or UCSC. "It took a while for me to detangle my sense of self-worth from the grades that I was getting. It made me consider switching out of my major a handful of times."
Experiences like these are among the reasons behind a growing movement to stop assigning conventional A through F letter grades to first-year college students and, sometimes, upperclassmen.
Called "un-grading," the idea is meant to ease the transition to higher education — especially for freshmen who are the first in their families to go to college or who weren't well prepared for college-level work in high school and need more time to master it.
But advocates say the most important reason to adopt un-grading is that students have become so preoccupied with grades, they aren't actually learning.
"Grades are not a representation of student learning, as hard as it is for us to break the mindset that if the student got an A it means they learned," said Jody Greene, special adviser to the provost for educational equity and academic success at UCSC, where several faculty are experimenting with various forms of un-grading.
If a student already knew the material before taking the class and got that A, "they didn't learn anything," said Greene. And "if the student came in and struggled to get a C-plus, they may have learned a lot."
Some of the momentum behind un-grading is in response to growing concerns about student mental health. The number of college students with one or more mental health problems has doubled since 2013, according to a study by researchers at Boston University and elsewhere. Teenagers said that the pressure to get good grades was their biggest cause of stress, a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found.
"A lot of the time I'm just so stressed in the class that I can barely focus," said Serena Ramirez, a UCSC freshman. "Now you're an adult, you're by yourself, you're responsible for your grades. The additional stress of grades just sort of undermines the whole learning."
That was also the case for Tamara Caselin in her freshman year at UCSC. She worked 40 hours a week on top of school and ended up changing her major, which was originally business management economics. "I felt that I was way too focused on my grades, that I wasn't focused on my personal well-being," said Caselin, who is now a junior.
The pandemic era's wide-scale disruption also makes it a good time to consider changing long-held educational practices, said Robert Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, who is co-writing a book about new ways of assessing students and has tried some in his own classes. "Everything seems to be on the table right now. Why not throw in the grading system while we're at it?"
But critics liken replacing traditional A to F grades with new forms of assessments to a college-level version of participation trophies. They say taking away grades is coddling students and treating them like "snowflakes."
"To tell me that these students are too fragile at age 18 or 19 for their educators to actually give them feedback on what they've learned or what they've mastered strikes me as missing a pretty significant element of the purpose of higher education," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Instead of not grading them, Hess said, faculty should work harder to help less well-prepared students succeed.
"Things like grades and clear assignments can be enormously useful handrails to help you make your way," he said.
In addition to the efforts at UCSC, a growing number of faculty and some academic departments at universities and colleges nationwide are experimenting with alternative kinds of assessments. Many started during the pandemic.
Although they're not eliminating grades, some instructors in the mathematics department at the University of California, Davis, are letting students decide between taking verbal and written exams, for instance, and giving them a choice of how much those exams and homework count, said Tim Lewis, the department's vice chair for undergraduate matters.
"These efforts are meant to improve learning outcomes, as well as to be fair and advance equity, especially for new students and transfer students," Lewis said.
The developments in California follow a March report to the University of California Board of Regents' Academic and Student Affairs Committee that said traditional grading methods could perpetuate bias; the report encouraged schools to explore new means of assessment.
Faculty elsewhere who have started to practice some form of un-grading are sharing their feedback in online discussion groups and on websites. These include educators at Texas Christian University, Roger Williams University in Rhode Islanda, Florida Gulf Coast University, Grand Valley State; the universities of New Hampshire and South Alabama; Knox College in Illinois and Colorado College; Prince George's Community College and Howard Community College in Maryland; and Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania.
"I get emails just about weekly from people who are implementing un-grading. Today I had three emails about it," said Susan Blum, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and the editor of a book on the subject: Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).
"Focus on learning, not grades"
Other faculty are trying it at the University of Pittsburgh, Missouri State University, the University of Texas at Austin and Ball State University in Indiana. Barnard College in New York City, Emory University in Georgia and Baylor University in Texas all make information about un-grading available for faculty.
These join several colleges and universities that already practice unconventional forms of grading. At Reed College in Oregon, students aren't shown their grades so that they can "focus on learning, not on grades," the college says. Students at New College of Florida complete contracts establishing their goals, then get written evaluations about how they're doing. And students at Brown University in Rhode Island have a choice among written evaluations that only they see, results of "satisfactory" or "no credit," and letter grades — A, B or C, but no D or F.
MIT has what it calls "ramp-up grading" for first-year students. In their first semesters, they get only a "pass," without a letter; if they don't pass, no grade is recorded at all. In their second semesters, they get letter grades, but grades of D and F are not recorded on their transcripts.
"Starting any university is challenging to get acclimated academically to a new environment and it's a big change for most students because for many of them it's their first time away from home or at a new school," said Ian Waitz, MIT's vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
"There's a desire to have that acclimation to the entire environment happen in a less abrupt way, where people have more of an opportunity to get calibrated."
Many proponents of un-grading say it addresses the unfairness of a system in which some students are better ready for college than others, have to balance school with work or are first generation and feel extra stress to perform well as a result of it.
"That's a lot of pressure, and I hear a lot, like, 'How are your grades?' " said Amaya Rosas, who also attends UCSC and is the first in her family to go to college. She said she feels as if "I need to get good grades because I don't want to let everybody else down."
UCSC's Greene said students who come from lower-income families are the most vulnerable to anxiety from grades. "Let's say they get a slightly failing grade on the first quiz. They are not likely to go and seek help. They're likely to try and disappear."
Some drop out altogether. "One of the things that they say again and again — it's kind of heartbreaking — they say, 'I wasn't satisfied with my academic performance,' " Greene said. "You know, they're not saying, 'I hated the school' or 'My teachers were terrible.' "
When she was a freshman at UCSC, Olivia Disabatino "saw that I didn't necessarily have all the resources that other students had when it came to just being prepared for college."
Disabatino, now a UCSC junior double-majoring in psychology and anthropology and also the first in her low-income family to go to college, said: "I kind of felt like a deer in the headlights."
UCSC, which was opened as an experimental progressive campus built among a dense forest of redwoods, bay laurels and California oaks, previously let students choose whether or not to get letter grades. As the public university grew, it made grades mandatory in 2000. But some of its faculty have continued to promote un-grading.
Instead of grades, for instance, psychology professor Barbara Rogoff's students get narrative evaluations that assess their work as, among other things, "impressive," "extremely well developed" or "uneven." Only at the end of the quarter does she assign required letter grades.
"I can say, 'This student did really well in their contributions to the class, but they struggled with their writing.' If it's a grade, you have to average those two," said Rogoff, who specializes in cultural variations in learning. "It makes the teachers, the professors, look at themselves more as guides rather than evaluators."
As for the students, they learn better if they're not focused on grades, she said. Grades "make students concerned about how they look rather than dealing with the material."
Gaming the system
That's to say nothing of students who can game the system, said Talbert, at Grand Valley State. "When you see a grade on an assignment or report card, it tends not to convey a lot of information about what a student actually has learned. The grade itself has turned into the target. Learning is just a vehicle by which to earn a grade."
But while he likes the idea of un-grading, Talbert's own experience has made him question whether it's necessarily a solution to inequity. Since the students in the algebra class in which he tried it were required to evaluate their own performance, he said, "What I found is that un-grading as a system is exactly as good as my students' ability to self-assess. Those from more privileged backgrounds feel more competent to self-reflect, whereas other students struggle with that."
Other realities also make it hard to change the longstanding tradition of letter grades. It's how faculty themselves were largely judged as they went through college. Parents, high schools and university admissions offices put a premium on grade-point averages — an even greater one as many institutions make the SAT and ACT optional. Even car insurance companies give "good-grades discounts" to student-age drivers.
"It's built into the system," Rogoff said. "These are big forces that are working against getting rid of grades."
But grades may not be the real problem, said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He pointed out that only 25 percent of high school students who took the ACT test last year met all four college-readiness benchmarks, which gauge the likelihood that they'll succeed in first-year college courses; 38 percent met none. The composite score was the lowest in more than a decade.
By getting rid of grades, "I really fear that we're shooting the messenger because we don't like what we're hearing," Poliakoff said. It's just setting up students "to slam into the wall, ultimately," and end up with a "ticket-to-nowhere diploma that doesn't represent the mastery of skills that will equip the person for success."
Some research is emerging about the effectiveness of alternatives to grading. The results are mixed.
At the University of South Alabama, a version called standards-based grading — determining grades based on students mastering a list of clearly defined standards, even if it takes more than one try — resulted in lower stress and anxiety, a survey found.
Scholars at Wellesley College, where first-year students get only pass or fail grades in their first semester but are also assigned letter grades that only they can see, found that this encouraged more of those students to take tougher courses, freed from the worry that it might affect their grade-point average. But this research also found that the students put less effort into the courses than students who were graded.
At least one university, Johns Hopkins, has reversed a policy of giving "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" grades to first-semester freshmen, who also got so-called "covered" letter grades that they could see, but didn't go on their transcripts. It decided "covered grades merely delay development of study skills and adaptation to college-level work," two of the university's deans wrote in an email announcing an end to the practice.
"It matters whether students have actually learned what the course purports to cover. If you would like to go to medical school and you are studying biology or human anatomy, I actually care whether you know which of those things are the kidney," said Hess, at AEI. "Certainly if you're going to be an engineer and you're building bridges that I'm driving my family over, I want to know if you understand material stress."
But UCSC's Greene said that grades "are terrible motivators for doing sustained and deep learning. And so if we were to shift our focus on to learning and away from grades, we would be able to tell whether we were graduating people with the skills that we say we're graduating them with."
Rogoff compares this to her own hobby: dancing.
"I got stiffer when I thought I was being watched and evaluated for how I was dancing," she said. "It's that sort of performance anxiety when you think people are watching you, and especially if you think you're probably going to be judged badly."
She added: "I learned how to get past the self-judgment and the judgment of other people and just enjoy the dancing for the dancing. And I think that's what my students experience in my class, where I'm helping them see that there is something important about what we're learning in this class. And that that's a bigger thing" than grades.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with KQED in San Francisco.