Joy Malak floundered through her freshman year in college.

“I had to learn how to balance my finances. I had to learn how to balance work and school and the relationship I’m in.” The hardest part about being a new college student, Malak said, “is not the coursework. It’s learning how to be an adult.”

That took a toll on her grades. “I didn’t do well,” said Malak, who powered through and is now in her sophomore year as a neuroscience and literature double major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, or UCSC. “It took a while for me to detangle my sense of self-worth from the grades that I was getting. It made me consider switching out of my major a handful of times.”

Experiences like these are among the reasons behind a growing movement to stop assigning conventional A through F letter grades to first-year college students and, sometimes, upperclassmen.

Called “un-grading,” the idea is meant to ease the transition to higher education — especially for freshmen who are the first in their families to go to college or who weren’t well prepared for college-level work in high school and need more time to master it.


But advocates say the most important reason to adopt un-grading is that students have become so preoccupied with grades, they aren’t actually learning.

“Grades are not a representation of student learning, as hard as it is for us to break the mindset that if the student got an A it means they learned,” said Jody Greene, special adviser to the provost for educational equity and academic success at UCSC, where several faculty are experimenting with various forms of un-grading.

If a student already knew the material before taking the class and got that A, “they didn’t learn anything,” said Greene. And “if the student came in and struggled to get a C-plus, they may have learned a lot.”

Some of the momentum behind un-grading is in response to growing concerns about student mental health. The number of college students with one or more mental health problems has doubled since 2013, according to a study by researchers at Boston University and elsewhere. Teenagers said that the pressure to get good grades was their biggest cause of stress, a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found.

“A lot of the time I’m just so stressed in the class that I can barely focus,” said Serena Ramirez, a UCSC freshman. “Now you’re an adult, you’re by yourself, you’re responsible for your grades. The additional stress of grades just sort of undermines the whole learning.”

That was also the case for Tamara Caselin in her freshman year at UCSC. She worked 40 hours a week on top of school and ended up changing her major, which was originally business management economics. “I felt that I was way too focused on my grades, that I wasn’t focused on my personal well-being,” said Caselin, who is now a junior….Read More

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