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In this cultural moment in higher education, when everything appears to be up for grabs, perhaps it’s time to think more deeply about how grades might hamper holistic student development. Although education scholars have been sounding concerns about the value of grades for almost 100 years, I personally never gave the need for them much thought. They were part and parcel of education, much like whiteboards and PowerPoint slides. In fact, twenty years ago, I doubled down on their importance, fully embracing what I saw as their role in a more student-centered approach to teaching through student assessment and grading – clarifying student expectations and laying them out in detail from the very first day of class. With my syllabi chocked full of measurable learning outcomes matrixed with the assignments that would assess them, grading rubrics associated with those assignments, and overall scores associated with course letter grades mapped out to a hundredth of a decimal, I saw grading as a powerful tool to shape the meta-narrative of my class which in turn was meant to lower the already high anxiety of my students and help them achieve the course learning outcomes.

But two years ago, after I retired from full-time administrative work in 2020, I had the good fortune to return to my first love of teaching as an adjunct professor in Wheaton College’s Litfin School of Mission, Ministry and Leadership, where I teach a graduate course each semester on leadership or character to those in ministry leadership.  As per the School guidelines, I am not required to give letter grades – just “high pass,” “pass,” or “no pass.” That change away from letter grades has made all the difference in how my students and I approach these classes.

But first, it’s important to note two things that didn’t change in the absence of grades. The courses are not dummied down. The students have an extensive reading list and set of assignments. Nor has the quality of work suffered. Students are not blowing off the assignments to settle for a pass. Grades, for them, are neither a carrot nor a stick.

It shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise that my students showed no deficit in learning outcomes without grades. Research on the efficacy of grades for learning is neither good nor new, with scholars in elementary, secondary, and higher education sounding cautionary alarms for almost as long as the modern grading system of the last eighty years has been in place.1 Simply stated, and not too surprisingly, grades don’t tell us anything useful about what students have actually learned in a single class. Extend that across multiple sections, multiple professors, and multiple schools, with all their differences in learning outcomes, participation, and extra credit – and with differential points assigned to each attribute, and, there is simply no way to compare student outcomes in, let’s say, Intro to Psychology, without much more than a broad stroke that some did better than others. The idea that a single letter grade, be it B+ or A-, can tell us anything useful about a student or that there is a valid differentiation between students who get one or the other is clearly ludicrous.

If grades were just a century-old artifact of the wholesale adoption of a mechanistic / factory-line approach to public education, then maybe we could all just roll our eyes, keep coming up with workarounds to keep students from being coerced or demotivated by grades, and get on with our classes. But grades are not just unhelpful. It’s time to acknowledge how they harm both students and us as professors.

If you read the Christian Scholar’s Review blogs, then the chances are fairly high that you teach at a faith-based institution and are aligned with your institution’s mission or vision that states in some way that it exists to provide a holistic education, deepen faith, educate for character, or prepare your students to change the world. In a nutshell, you buy into the deeply held belief that education makes a difference – a difference rendered to the core of students’ embodied souls. Furthermore, you believe that difference will be so remarkable that it will impact others, even changing the world for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When done well, we change students’ identities.2

But by the time students get to us in higher education, too many have absorbed narrow identities firmly rooted in their GPAs at great cost to their flourishing and identity in Christ. How many of us have had students come into our offices incredulous at an unexpectedly low grade because they are an “A” student?  Or fielded calls from their irate parents who want to know where we get off giving their child anything less than that. What about students who don’t want to take an interesting class outside of their major for fear it will lower their GPA? More painful still is watching students who self-harm or become suicidal because they are so anxious about tests and final grades. How do we address students who don’t want to work in groups that have international students for whom English is a second language because they fear getting a lower grade?

I used to see these issues as somehow the fault of immature students. But aren’t students just perpetuating what they have learned over their entire educational career, that the rewards associated with grades, whether it’s personal and familial affirmation, entrée to the right schools, or that “very important” first job, trump any innate love of learning?3 Perhaps the reason for rampant grade inflation lies in the fact that the stakes for good grades are so high, and their meaningfulness is so low. If an A grade is meant to be indicative of excellence, we have bastardized the meaning of that word to the trivial. To the ancient Greeks and the Biblical writers, excellence was arête (Phil. 4:8; II Peter 1:3, 5), what they would have thought of as “virtue” or the fulfillment of life’s purposes. In II Peter 1:3 it is used to describe God. I suspect that even if grades existed in ancient Greece, Plato, ever the curmudgeon, would not have given Aristotle an A; he would have been too focused on developing his excellent character. Likewise, Peter tells us to acquire God’s excellence, arête, but he would know that we always fall short of God’s arête. Learning and self-discovery, as part of our sanctification, never reach 100%. When we evaluate students’ self-reflections of how they understand some topic vis a vis their faith with something so banal as a grade, we come dangerously close to usurping the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.

The hard work of transformational education requires time and space for young adults maturing into adulthood to reflect and safely question what they believe, what they love, and to whom they belong. It requires students to be able to enter into the liminal space between who they are and what they will become, a space that will be full of questions, doubts, fears, and half-cooked ideas.4 Such transitions should be too sacred to be graded. As a bewildered freshman at Wheaton College, I wrote an essay in my winter quarter comp class trying to make sense of a God that had allowed my best friend to be abducted and raped three weeks earlier during Christmas break. I remember little of what I wrote, and I don’t doubt my freshman writing was overwrought in the face of such a monstrous crime. However, there was one thing I do remember. The C+ grade given to me by my professor left me feeling ashamed as if it was me – my questioning faith – and not my writing – that had been evaluated and found wanting. As a young fundamentalist Christian trying to make my faith my own in the face of such tragedy, I threw away thinking it would be safe to wrestle with meaningful questions in my classes, just as I tossed the graded essay in the trash. As for the professor, I hold no grudge, as he was only doing his job.

Forty years later, with no formal evaluation beyond pass / no pass, my current students are freer to write questioning essays about how they have experienced trauma in their ministry leadership over the past four years, as they know my feedback will be more formative than evaluative. However, they are not the only ones benefiting from a lack of grades. Without having to think about whether a paper is worthy of an “89” or “94”, I can hold these writings as a sacred gift as students share with me how they are making sense of their leadership during these times. More importantly, without grades, the power differentiation between me and my students is much lower. I can be more of a coach, mentor, and listening ear. In the past, having to come up with some numerical value put me in the role of sidelined referee, creating distance between me and my students to ensure I was being “objective” in my grading. Without grades, I’m truly more like their sister in Christ as we do life together. My feedback is meant to be useful for their vocational calling, not their papers.

The modern grading system was developed in the early twentieth century as an expedient way to track the performance of the growing number of immigrant students entering public education. Having been brought up in this system, I unthinkingly perpetuated it for thirty years without evaluating its very real costs. If we are truly serious about transformative education, then we must examine not just the content of education but the process by which we achieve it. Grades, I believe, will flunk the test.


  1. James D. Allen, “Grades as Valid Measures of Academic Achievement of Classroom Learning.” Clearing House 78 no. 5 (2005): 218–23.
  2. Perry L. Glanzer, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022).
  3. Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press, 2011).
  4. Jessica Daniels, “Christi Higher Education as Sacred Liminal Space,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 51 no. 2, (2022):189-200.

Margaret Diddams

Dr. Diddams is an Industrial / Organizational Psychologist and Editor of Christian Scholar's Review.


  • Brian Howell says:

    Could. Not. Agree. More! I think Covid shook something loose in me that I can’t just put back in the bottle (to mix metaphors). I find myself constantly trying to find a way to evaluate student work that is more authentic, manageable (for them and me), and not based on the artificial awarding of percentages, that get turned into letters, that get turned into numbers. But, yes, the barrier is a life of socialization which makes our students profoundly uncomfortable outside of a standard system. I’m not going to give up, however, and I’ve turned toward a system of “specifications grading” (specs grading) that involves some points, some Unsatisfactory/Satisfactory/Excellent, some Credit/No Credit (redo). I’m still tweaking the systems, and developing different approaches to different classes, but I do think the it’s worth the effort for all the reasons you enumerate.

  • Ryan Brasher says:

    I’m a little skeptical of this approach. A graduate course at Wheaton College – which presumably has a lot of highly motivated and mature students – would hardly seem to be a representative sample for undergraduate courses across faith-based universities. The GPA of my students tells me a lot about their consistency and hard work, as well as their ability to read and digest difficult texts and analyze them in writing. I don’t see the need to get rid of the grading system – but rather the need to use it more rigorously to avoid grade inflation.

    • Chris Pipkin says:

      I love the idea of this. I mean, who wouldn’t?

      But I teach all undergraduates, mostly first-year compositions and core literature classes, with a few upper-level courses.

      Some of my students would rise to this challenge, but sadly, when the obligations of my class are weighed against other obligations in their lives, including other classes where they are assigned grades, I doubt they would end up doing the work—even my upper-level students.

      I remember my own experience in college, getting my first ever C on an essay in a literature class actually motivated me to work harder and write better. I wasn’t doing it all for the grade (nobody becomes an English major for mercenary reasons, after all), but the grade was an important component, as much as I hate grading.

  • Nicholas Boone says:

    Much in this post recalls Robert Pirsig’s discussion of “Arete” and abolishing grades in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The idealism in both this post and Pirsig’s book is infectious–the practicality is always the problem.

  • Jenell Parisj says:

    At first I despaired, because I finished this article just before going to a final exam that would require me to assign several dozen grades. But then I thought of Socrates – he wouldn’t assign grades, and he also didn’t write books. He believed in direct communication between persons, a communion. Anything less, including writing, is proxy. Grades are proxies that elevate values such as efficiency and expediency, in a high population society comprised of strangers. We just can’t commune with everyone. Alphabets are the same, and words, proxies for vocalizations that carry and share meaning between persons. I admire Brian’s creativity with grading, such efforts are worthwhile. No matter what we do with grades, though, we have to recognize and handle the limitations that come with reliance on proxies. This message I’m writing is proxy, in a sense, for actually talking in person with everyone who is concerned about grading. Makes me treasure the in-person communications I have each day, and makes me treasure the mentoring relationships I have with (just a few) students, with whom I can discuss character formation, writing, reading and ideas that they shape over time.