Piloting Gradeless Assessment and Inclusive Design Practices for Graduate Programs

Gradeless assessment is not a system, but an extension of an individual’s pedagogy. Gradeless assessment will look different for different types of teaching practices. Going gradeless is a practice of giving away power. 

Gradeless Assessment Pilot Overview

We offer an example of a gradeless assessment process at the graduate level in Parsons piloted in MFA Interior Design’s Representation and Spatial Analysis within the first year curriculum, Fall 2021. Students in this course had the opportunity to model for themselves the type of assessments that best aid their learning and progress. Together, students and faculty determined the importance of creative outcomes. Ultimately, this method set students up for success in individual research trajectories by teaching them how to weigh progress and achievements against course and University expectations. Students did not receive grades for each project, and instead received assessments from the faculty, peers, and self-assessments. In the final assessment, we concluded that the majority of the class would want to continue using gradeless assessment, and the following semester gradeless assessment was incorporated in another required course. As students move through the two year program, the hope is to foster an inclusive academic culture and expectations to support them to freely lead their individual research.

Images from Representation and Spatial Analysis Feedback Sessions

Why gradeless assessment over grades at the graduate level?

At the graduate level, we are interested in working with our students as collaborators, in a spirit of experimentation and opening up new research territories. Grades have been documented as reinforcing hierarchies within the classroom, placing judgment and rating over discussion, meaningful feedback and learning (Ungrading; Blum, 2020). The process of grading in assessment results in students working towards a grade, seeking approval from their professor instead of engaging in the learning process. Instead, focusing on meaningful feedback gives graduate students more agency in guiding their own research. Students are able to take risks and weigh feedback from a number of perspectives, building experience in decision making to build confidence in self-guiding their own research. 

In the graduate space, students have made difficult life choices and sacrifices to be here. They bring a level of seriousness and commitment that does not need grade incentives towards the development of their work.

The objective is to bring more learning than rating.

Students bring life experience and background and are research collaborators in many cases.

How was the gradeless assessment pilot organized?

The MFA Interior Design’s Representation and Spatial Analysis class integrated inclusive feedback practices throughout the 15 week course. At four feedback sessions in the semester, students submitted an assessment portfolio based on the course outcomes. During each feedback session, students assessed themselves based on the collective assessments and decided how to iterate the project. Faculty and students met individually to discuss the assessments, accomplishments, and any discrepancies regarding course outcomes. The feedback sessions were iterative to adapt to the class reactions and specific module learning outcomes.

Timeline of module prompts and feedback points

The course was taught with a hybrid of remote and in person learning. Three instructors and one student teaching assistant guided 28 students through the curriculum. Each instructor was able to focus on a section of the class and the teaching assistant coordinated the feedback sessions. The instructors used the syllabus as a platform for student voices and set an inclusive tone for the class by welcoming comments and feedback on the google document.

Syllabus welcoming collaboration and student input

To track the progress of the class a digital pinup board, Miro, was used for each module. The feedback was collected with specific prompts through google forms. Feedback from both peers and instructors were posted below the student work on the class Miro board. The feedback was given anonymously after the TA went through the feedback to flag for feedback that was not appropriate or had micro aggressions. Self feedback forms were submitted, and we had modules where the self feedback was public for reviewers to reference on Miro and other modules which where self feedback was private.

Screenshot of the Miro board from Module 2

A major pivot point for the class happened when all the students were able to work in person and a pair of dancers performed reacting through interpretive movements to student installations. Seeing the kinesthetic feedback was an energizing way to see how interventions in the built environment can expand conversations beyond language.

Images from the interpretive dance, kinesthetic feedback

For the final module students created a hybrid between drawing and a model at an installation scale. The final review was set up as an exhibition that was open to visitors outside of the classroom. There was time during class to exchanged ideas and feedback conversationally about each of the student’s projects. A sticky note system was set up so written feedback could be captured in a written manner as students were presenting. Seeing the student work come together for an exhibition of their explorations was a rewarding finale to the semester.

A final survey was given after the exhibition and the results concluded that the majority of the students would want to continuing using gradeless assessment. Within the final survey the most appreciated form of feedback was from direct conversation with instructors were the most useful. Most students felt a sense of ownership of their work throughout the course. Having the inclusive forms of feedback and removing the pressure of grades in a first semester course was a step towards encouraging students to lead their explorations within their graduate career.

Survey results final class of 15 week course piloting gradeless assessment

If you would like to know more details about the process and conclusions from the gradeless assessment pilot, feel free to reach out directly to Michele Gorman gormanm@newschool.edu and Research Assistant Katrina Matejcik, matek062@newschool.edu.

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