Gradeless learning ‘fails to improve student well-being’

Those who took only pass/fail assignments in first year went on to achieve similar marks as their peers but levels of anxiety remained the same

August 3, 2023
Source: iStock

Introducing “gradeless learning” for students in their first year of undergraduate study does not impact later academic performance, nor does it appear to relieve stress, according to a study.

Two cohorts of students at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) – which has removed grades for first-years on its bachelor’s programme in business and psychology – were tracked throughout their studies and compared against the year group immediately before the changes took place.

The results – published in Studies in Higher Education – found the lack of grades in semesters one and two had no statistically significant effect on the students’ grade point average in the third and fourth semesters or the final marks awarded to their bachelor’s thesis.

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Surveys conducted as part of the study, however, showed “no effect on well-being”, which Annemette Kjaergaard, associate professor in CBS’ department of management, society and communication, said demonstrated how ingrained grading culture was in education.

Students reported a decreased level of stress on the one hand, she explained, because they felt some immediate relief from not being graded at the beginning of their studies. But, over time, they began to fear what detrimental impact this could have later on and became concerned they would not be well prepared for their graded exams.

“They are so, so used to being graded,” said Dr Kjaergaard. “To get into CBS they often have very high grades when they enter, and they are used to getting them. They like being graded because it boosts their identity, so they also feel they are missing out on something when they don’t get the grades.”

CBS introduced gradeless learning in an attempt to get students to focus on collaboration instead of competition and practise deeper learning, as well as a way of boosting well-being.

Instead of marks, first-years take pass/fail assessments and receive written and oral feedback on both their individual assignments and how they are performing against the overall learning objectives.

Dr Kjaergaard said she had hoped to observe a slight increase in later academic performance as evidence of the effect of the deeper learning in year one, but the main purpose was to see if universities can go gradeless without having a detrimental impact, while securing the other benefits.

She said a year ungraded was the maximum allowed in Denmark before coming up against regulatory requirements but did not appear to be enough and instead had proven to be merely “a brief respite from a grade-centric society”.

The findings show that gradeless learning has the potential to change students’ approach to learning, Dr Kjaergaard added, but more thought needs to be given to “how we then prepare students for not having the grades so they do not feel we are taking something away from them and installing new kinds of anxiety in them”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Another reason might be that some employers are indirectly driving an 'ingrained grading psyche' by demanding for high scores (like first class marks) before offering students work experience, internships or event jobs. Yes it is happening in many sectors.