Opinion | Students should grade themselves

By Andrea Pauliuc, For The Pitt News

Colleges almost always pitch themselves as centers of progress, opportunity and radical change.

But the majority of universities still cling to traditional grading schemes where students have little to no autonomy in their final scores. This is despite studies continuously showing that giving students the ability to define their own grades can alleviate student anxiety, reduce incidences of cheating, increase confidence and improve study skills.

Allowing students to decide their own grades helps promote deeper learning, development of judgment skills, critical reflection and the cultivation of academic confidence. When I took a course last semester that graded entirely based off of self-assessment, I benefited much more than I anticipated because I was thinking critically, passionate about the course and less anxious about my final grade.

As students, there’s a debilitating pressure that comes with the potential of a terrible grade. Academic grades are much more than a letter on our transcript. For some students like myself, who are here at Pitt on merit-based scholarships, a lower grade could mean a loss in our financial support. In other cases, a lower grade could mean having to retake a class, which could result in spending another year at Pitt. It is important to recognize that to some extent, college is a transaction — and a very expensive one at that. Receiving an unwarranted low grade can affect students’ futures — it doesn’t simply occur in a vacuum.

Prior to the class in which I graded myself, I believed it was a cop out. But my honest experience in this class proved to be quite the opposite. The way the class structure went was typical — the only difference was that our final grade was determined by us. Our instructor still graded all our assignments and gave us feedback, but students decided the grade in the end. With each assignment, we self-reflected on how we did, what we did well and how we could improve.

This course — out of all the courses I’ve taken at Pitt — was the one I felt like I actually learned the most in largely because I wasn’t focused on the pressure of not knowing my final grade. With each assignment, I felt more confident, more introspective and more eager to learn. Lifting that pressure granted me academic potential that I never experienced beforehand. Almost immediately, I became not just a better writer but a better thinker.

There’s an overwhelming amount of educators who also agree that students deserve to grade themselves. Nelta Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of Alaska, sees one major overarching benefit to student self-grading — it reduces student-teacher conflict by making students feel empowered with their own grades. Edwards isn’t the only proponent of this education style either. Madeline Grimm argues in Inside Higher Ed that instructors should consider restructuring traditional grading schemes, as many universities did during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grimm writes that self-assessment can become more than just an emergency measure adopted during hard times. Rather, it is a chance for universities to reassess how outdated current grading schemes are, and begin moving toward new grading alternatives.

Changing grading policies is not out of the ordinary, as shown during the pandemic. Universities including Pitt changed their previous grading policies, allowing students to receive a “W” grade if their studies were impacted by the pandemic. This is proof in itself that universities are not bound to traditional grading schemes. If Pitt can alter its grading policies for a pandemic, moving toward more progressive, flexible grading is not that much of an ask.

Instead of clinging to traditional grading schemes, universities should empower students by allowing them to grade themselves. They should also recognize that grades are much more than random letters on a transcript — and their policies need to reflect as such. Self-grading comes with an increase in confidence, eagerness and ease in students. More importantly, by alleviating the anxiety that comes with academics, we learn more. Is that not the point of education, after all?

Andrea Pauliuc writes primarily about urban issues, community empowerment and politics. Write to her at [email protected].