A criminology course at WKU pioneered a new method of assessing student progress and learning.
Brittany Martin, an assistant professor in the sociology and criminology departments, teaches CRIM 432, Sociology of Criminal Law — but doesn’t use the usual numerical grading system.
Martin’s grading system, which she calls “downgrading,” focuses less on working to receive a high numerical grade and more on students truly engaging with the content they’re learning.
“There has been a lot of research in education and sociology that perhaps examines that if we focus less on the numerical outcome and more on the learning process, students can engage more with the material and can find it more exciting, so take the material with them when they leave the classroom, rather than just learning for a test,” Martin said.
Martin used a variety of resources and materials on leveling to implement it in his course. She specifically mentioned the book “Ungrading” by Susan Blum, which gives excerpts from other professors across the country who have implemented downgrading in their own courses.
“I’ve set it up so there’s a lot of self-reflection, peer-to-peer work and brainstorming together and faculty-student discussions — I give a lot of qualitative feedback,” Martin said. “So basically less focused on the quantitative, ‘You get a 100 for that’, and more on the qualitative from start to finish of the class, how much material did you take with you, and how you can grow as a individual learning about the field of criminal law. Since many of our students want to work in the legal field, what I really want is for them to take everything they learned in class with them to their future career.
Although the name may suggest a lack of assessment through a course, it is not true. Downgrading includes assignments and assignments that lack numerical grades, but they are not without the accompanying knowledge. Martin explained that a system like this creates an educational environment tailored to the needs of each student.
“There is assessment throughout the class. We do class discussions, we write assignments, the self-reflection they [the students] actually made for me for a day is an educational autobiography where they discuss their experience in education,” Martin said. “It’s really that starting point for me as a teacher to see where we can build from here, with less emphasis on grades and more on inclusivity in the classroom to create a environment that will benefit every student. There is no one size fits all in education and all students may learn differently. I am able to value this further when students write what their experiences have been and what they hope to get from the course.”
The non-grading system may shock students accustomed to a rigid numerical system, but this other way of evaluating learning may prove beneficial in the long term.
“We’ve been on the same path with education for a long time,” Martin said. “Some of my students, when they first walked in and I talked about this structure, were really uncomfortable because they were used to, ‘A grade of 95 tells me I’m going good’ and ‘Let a teacher discuss with me my progress may be different from that number grade. But really, does that number mean anything to you? Do you take that 95 with you when you go to n any career or graduate school you go to?
Martin compared the system to what she discussed with someone outside of academia, when they compared self-reflection to the end-of-year exams that many workers hold with their bosses. She then explained the actual ending system for assessment, which is similar to a thesis defense, but it’s a lecture on why students decided on a certain grade.
“We all do the same assessments, but from our own angles, it can be the most beneficial for each student individually, and then at the end we get together and talk, ‘Did you achieve those goals? Are you sitting down with the material in a way that will benefit you in the future for your future projects? Said Martin. “We are discussing where your grade should be. I basically let the students decide their grade at the end, but we have a lecture to discuss, and I retain the right to change that grade depending on what essay they give me on why they support getting of this rating.
Martin thinks this specific course is a good fit for the non-grading system because it relies heavily on the application of knowledge rather than learning specific facts from documents.
“The lesson is less lecture and more, ‘You’ve learned a lot of these topics in your previous lessons, let’s apply them and discuss what the research shows and what reforms could be made in the places you choose'” says Martine .
Martin explained the benefits of his ungrading system for student mental health, especially during the pandemic, and how it can be a form of encouragement to let go of digital stressors and truly connect with the material. .
“We have such a fixation on numerical grades in the education system,” Martin said. “To really show that learning can be a fun process and not just a hit or miss with an exam, it breathes new life into the learning experience and students are invigorated by the process. My saying is: “We have to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable, and new things are really beneficial for us.” I hope students in my class will use this for their future careers, but that they will also realize that the education system and learning can be fun.
Amya Montgomery, a psychology and criminology major, said the ungrading system has so far taken the stress out of a grade.
“Since it’s quite early in class, the main thing I’ve noticed is that I’m not stressed out about the class,” Montgomery said. “We’ve had a few assignments so far, but I’m not sitting here trying to perfect it. I’m doing it for me [personal] experience and my own learning experience, as if it were for me and not for a note. So it just helps take a lot of the stress off my shoulders.
She also thinks that this system could be useful in other classes, especially those that particularly interest the students.
“I feel like when people go into college it’s very different from high school, but overall you learn a lot, especially in the categories you’re interested in,” Montgomery said. “A grading system discourages people a bit when they fail or don’t get the grades they want. They feel like what they are studying is not meant for them, rather than learning what they wanted to learn. So I feel like it would help a lot of people actually explore what they want rather than just trying to get good grades.
Trevor Lile, a criminology and psychology student, agreed that CRIM 432’s ungraded system created a much less stressful learning environment.
“So far it has honestly made this class less stressful than other classes,” Lile said. “Every class you face has a certain amount of stress and expectation, but with this class, which is not graded, it kind of takes that stress away and lets you focus more on the class itself. So you don’t really care if you’re going to get an A, it’s more like ‘Oh, what am I going to learn today?’
He explained the benefits he sees from this rating system, but feels that for some classes it may not be suitable. Both Lile and Montgomery said that learning should be the clear goal of courses taken for a major or future career path.
“I don’t think all classes should be ungraded because there needs to be a set standard,” Lile said. “But I think some classes are more geared towards the learning experience rather than the grade itself, so that can benefit. General education courses, such as math or English, should be grade-based. But when you go into the specifics of your major or go deeper into the studies of anything you learn, these should alternate between ungraded and graded, depending on the specificity of the course.
Downgrading is a system that does not only benefit students during the course. It recognizes that student success doesn’t have to be digital, creates a comfortable and inquisitive educational environment, and pushes the application of the material to a real environment.
“Ultimately it’s about learning the material, understanding what it means, and then applying it to your career later in life,” Lile said.
Journalist Alexandria Anderson can be reached at [email protected].