In this class, everyone gets A+

A controversial scheme that’s more common than universities admit

At first glance, Denis Rancourt is a self-proclaimed anarchist with a history of causing trouble. Over the past five years, the University of Ottawa professor has unsuccessfully sued his employer for millions of dollars over a cancelled course, claimed that the school’s president is part of a continental Zionist conspiracy, taught a controversial activism course, and denied the existence of climate change. But that’s not why the university says it’s firing him.

In a move that’s becoming increasingly popular in post-secondary education, Rancourt decided last year not to grade his students—something that has fuelled a wide-ranging debate not only about his methods but also over academic freedom. And the outcome of his dismissal, which is pending, could change the balance of power between professors and university administrations across the country.

A native of North Bay, Ont., Rancourt has taught at the University of Ottawa for more than 20 years. Colleagues consider him a highly regarded physicist; Rancourt has published more than 100 scientific journal articles. But like a growing number of Canadian university professors, he also believes students learn better when they’re not being graded. In 2008, he was denied permission to make his two fourth-year physics classes “pass-fail,” in which students either get through or they don’t. So he announced that everyone in the classroom was going to get an A+.

According to Rancourt, grades are only a means of exercising power in the classroom. “It’s not about optimizing education,” he says, “it’s about obedience.”

The school promptly suspended him, locked him out of his laboratory, and told his graduate students to find new supervisors. (Three of those students are now suing the university for taking away the professor who they say is the only person qualified to oversee their studies.) The university administration also banned him from campus and, in a rare move toward a tenured professor, recommended his dismissal. Two weeks later, while hosting his monthly radical documentary series at the school, Rancourt was arrested by police and charged with trespassing.

The university’s treatment of Rancourt shocked David Noble, a York University professor who says he hasn’t given grades for more than 35 years. For most of his teaching career he gave out straight As—until, in 2006, the university prevailed on him to switch to pass-fail. For decades, he got letters from the university remarking on his “anomalous” grades. “I would usually just throw the letters away,” Noble says. “Nothing ever happened.” Based on decades of educational research, including some of his own as a graduate student, he says there’s no doubt that grades are counterproductive.

In fact, the practice of not marking students is becoming increasingly popular, says Carl Leggo, an education professor at the University of British Columbia. In recent years there has been some “compelling research” proving that students are more creative and more productive when grades are removed. Leggo says courses for UBC’s bachelor of education degree, in addition to many other courses at the university, are pass-fail for the simple reason that students learn better. “Evaluation keeps people feeling quite conservative, and they want to do things in formulaic, traditional ways,” he says. “When the competition for grades and the tension around grades is removed, students actually start studying, researching and writing in more creative ways.” (According to a 2006 study of medical students at the Mayo Medical School, pass-fail systems reduce stress levels and increase group cohesion when compared with students who were given grades on a five-point scale.)

Not only are undergraduate pass-fail courses becoming more common in the face of extensive educational research, but the Stanford, Yale and Berkeley law schools have all recently moved to pass-fail grading systems. Alverno College, a Catholic women’s school in Milwaukee, Wis., hasn’t used grades since 1973. Kathleen O’Brien, the school’s senior vice-president for academic affairs, says the system has been infinitely better for students’ education, self-esteem and long-term prospects. The school will produce grades for graduate school or scholarship applications, but they are then promptly destroyed.

It’s a trend that others, though, find appalling. The idea that a student in a science faculty could earn an A+ without demonstrating knowledge is shocking to John Jones, associate dean of Simon Fraser University’s faculty of applied science. “Our graduates are going to be going out and doing things that human lives depend on. It’s very important that our grading reflects their abilities,” says Jones. Plus, he adds, it wouldn’t just be unconventional, it would be a danger to the public. Marks are not necessarily the best way to judge the skills and talents of each student, he says, “but we can’t build a system on wishful grading.”

Professor Gary Schajer agrees. He’s been an undergraduate adviser for aspiring mechanical engineers at the University of British Columbia for six years, and says the controversy around marks is an old one. In many cases, grades do impede learning, says Schajer. However, they are also the fastest and most effective way to evaluate students’ skills and knowledge, he says. “This is a tightrope all professors have to walk, but that is the unfortunate reality of the world.”

Rancourt and his supporters have opened up another front in the debate, saying that the University of Ottawa’s actions are as much an attack on academic freedom as teaching methods. That argument was dismissed in the New York Times on Feb. 8 by American education expert and law professor Stanley Fish. Rancourt, Fish wrote, was trying “to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom.” But the Canadian Association of University Teachers has nevertheless struck a committee of inquiry to investigate the case. “Here’s a tenured, full professor, one of the most respected physicists and active researchers at his university, who’s being told he’s not allowed to teach,” says Jim Turk, executive director of the association. “This is an extraordinary situation. The complexity of the issues are so great that we felt we had to set up an independent committee of inquiry to untangle this mess.”

Results from the group, which includes Jeffrey Halpern, one of the leading authorities on academic freedom in North America, are not expected before the end of 2009. But Noble says the real issues behind Rancourt’s dismissal are clear: not just academic freedom but tenure, which is earned after decades of teaching and assessment and provides relatively ironclad job security, are under direct threat. “This has nothing to do with grades,” says Noble. “That’s not why the university is firing Denis Rancourt. They want to see if they can get away with firing tenured professors without cause. For them to send security to escort Rancourt off the campus, as if he were a menace who was running around giving everyone A’s, it’s surreal.”

The University of Ottawa has kept relatively quiet about the case, issuing a press release only after it made headlines. The school’s administration expressed concern that the credibility of marks at the entire institution was being thrown into doubt, which would affect scholarships, admission to graduate programs and ultimately the reputations of both students and the school. The university also said a “significant number of faculty colleagues had voiced concerns” regarding Rancourt’s conduct.

Citing confidentiality and legal obligations, the university has declined further comment. But nearly one-third of Rancourt’s colleagues at the school have signed a petition of complaint against him. For many other professors, including Patrick Deneen, associate professor of government at Washington’s Georgetown University, Rancourt’s actions are nothing more than a blatant abuse of academic freedom. After reading Fish’s article, he was outraged a professor would try to corral students into a movement to undermine the institution and then claim it as an academic right. “It seems to me that what he is doing is actually, ultimately, undermining academic freedom,” says Deneen, adding that he can’t think of any other professions where Rancourt’s actions would be tolerated. “It seems fine to me if you want to denounce the institution, but doing that while taking advantage of all of its rewards seems to me to be a bit of a callous and ungrateful thing.”

The final decision on Rancourt is expected from an executive committee of the university’s board of governors later this month, after one final off-the-record mediation session with the administration on March 17. If he is fired, Leggo says the decision will definitely have a chilling effect on professors who want to try cutting-edge approaches in the classroom. “We have a sense of fear that we can’t actually do what many of us feel we have been called and employed to do, which is to be contemporary professors.” If Rancourt manages to keep his post, radical anarchist professors can breathe a sigh of relief.




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In this class, everyone gets A+

  1. Back in 1969 in a 4 year Hon Geog Program we were allowed one pass/fail course out of a small selection for the 4 year program – one out of 24 full courses. In 69 I was elected as the first student to represent the students from the Geography Department. It was of course the zenith of student radicalism at that time. I recall a tiresome meeting when a student representative from the Sociology Department ranted that all classes should be “an attend only requirement” no grades. After all it was attendance at higher learning that was paramount and how no one could truly grade someones accrued wisdom, blah, blah. I agreed, with the provisio that no degree should be granted either as it was the learning and not the piece of paper that mattered. Hoisted on his own petard he sat down and shut up. I always wondered why those that hired people after graduating never asked for grades or seemed to give them any weight. The “business/professional world” is as blameworthy in this ridiculous charade as some of the universities. If students knew that “grades mattered” this nonsense would go away,

  2. I have a pass/fail course this semester. Since it’s a Master’s class, we’re mature enough to be motivated by learning for the sake of learning. It’s a weight off my back to know that as long as I show up, add something to the discussion and do my work, I’ll pass. The professor is focused on sharing knowledge and encouraging thought, rather than on who is doing their homework. We’re responsible for our learning, not anyone else. In this case, pass/fail works.

    If this was an undergraduate class though, I’d be concerned about how to distinguish myself in order to get into graduate school. There are some times when grades do measure objectively. I’d rather have an objective measure of how well a doctor knows his/her anatomy, for example. I’d also rather have a firm mark to help grad schools decide on my application, rather than relying on subjective letters of recommendation only.

    In my experience, 90% of students get somewhere between 76 and 86 in their upper level seminars. I might support pass/fail in these courses, so long as failing to do the work or comprehend the material actually could allow a student to fail. That is, not doing your readings and wasting everyone else’s time could still be punished.

    We could have some sort of pass/fail, so long as there’s a real threat of actually failing.

  3. Denis Rancourt was my first year Physics professor. Not only was I able to appreciate Physics alot more with his teaching methods but he opened my eyes into seeing the world as it really is and to be critical of the status quo… … which is a work in ”progress” which shouldn’t be accepted blindly (or at all).

    The best coures of my undergraduate experience and I’m doing a Masters in neuroscience (little to do with physics directly)

    Philippe Duquette

  4. I believe that Professor Rancourt presents an interesting argument which the walls of acadamia has gotten wrong for a long time. Any student who comes from within these walls can validate that there is as much subjectivity in a grade as there would be in a pass/fail system of measurement. It is to my belief that Universities have a standardized distribution of how grades should be determined per course (If anyone has any input to this belief I would love to hear it). This would imply that this “Standardization” governs over the laws of how grades are determined and therefore distributed. Is this a fair way of assessing one’s abilities if you have to have so many A+,A,A-,B+…etc???
    In the current letter grade system, a perfect example to consider would be the same student repeating the same course from the same professor; Assume, for the purposes of illustration that the student starts with a clean slate of knowledge when taking the course again. That is the student can’t carry forward what he learned previously.
    In this case, this student will almost surely (assuming the professor is unaware of the student repeating the course) be given a different letter grade. Does this indicate the student has a different level of understanding then previously? It is my argument, that a grade is highly sensitive to subjectivity and that based on grades ONLY is very hard to determine an individual’s ability. This is purely for reasons understood from within the faculty of education. That is that every individual is different and can not be expected to all learn in a uniformed fashion. Therefore, creating a standardize way of teach could be merely favouring one sector of individual. Now, I do not intend to state that implementing a pass/fail system verses a grading system is not standardizing because it almost certainly is. What I want to acknowledge is that the current system puts unecessary stress on students and that this stress can cause unecessary distractions when trying to learn.

    That is why I do find Professor Rancourt’s argument of a pass/fail system appealing, and I argue that it posses no risk to the “abilities” of an individual anymore than the current grading system.
    It is not to say that individuals would not be any less motivated they currently already are, because I would suggest that a pass/fail system does not imply less testing. Students are still tested regularly and whether they pass or not is based soley on whether in the Professor’s professional opinion, the student has acquired enough understanding.

    Lets face it, the grading system is not accurate. An A from one University isn’t the same as an A from a another University, and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.

  5. First of all, the idea that all fields of study in a university should be based on the same pedagogical methods (and yes, grading is part of pedagogy) is ridiculous. Comparing the GPA of people who did different programs at different universities cannot be accurate to one significant digit, let alone two.

    Moreover, some training programs require people to learn technical skills very precisely (say, being a pilot or chirurgian, which is the classic examples people bring on when questioned about grading). But in theoretical physics/mathematics, philosophy or literature, is there really such a justification for grading? Are there some technical skills on which the lives of people will depend? Isn’t scientific research and research in the humanities based on creativity and critical thinking more than anything else? Can you grade that on a 10-point scale?

    Even if you take a class that’s very, very “objective”, like first-year math, I highly doubt that you could grade without some subjectivity. I’ve been a TA many times. Sure, if the person got the problem totally right or totally wrong, that’s easy. But if they made an error in their proof, is that 50% wrong? 70% wrong? etc.

    I would say that for a large number of students, grades don’t predict anything more than the ability to pass exams (and be further graded). I think the word “myth” would not be too strong to qualify the belief in objective grading.

    (And for those who still believe in grading, note that this comment was written by someone who finished a math-physics undergrad with a 9.8/10 GPA.)

  6. I do still believe in grading, Philippe, and your average doesn’t surprise me at all. It is almost invariably very good students who are willing to dispense with grading. Those who are learning on their own anyway, and with enough confidence in their performance, don’t need it. It’s the more average students who rely on grades to tell them which side of average they are on, and to indicate especially they aren’t failing.

    Look, I hate to sound like such a snob about this, but the no grades theory works fine if you presuppose that university is filled with highly motivated and accomplished students. It’s a wonderful vision. But it’s not true. University is filled with many people with varying motives and yes, it even fulfills some functions (rightly or wrongly) that have more to do with only education on the barest level. Yes! It does fulfill an accreditation function too – even for BA degrees. And we have to approach it on that basis.

    Subjectivity on a single data point doesn’t prove anything. I can agree with that. But enough of a pattern in subjective grades becomes an objective trend. Every student I’ve ever met consistently gets similar grades provided they stay in the same subject area – with the rare outlier exception. This suggests that even though you might argue that the grading standard in use is arbitrary (so’s math, if you go far enough) the results are fairly consistent. A room full of English professors will indeed agree on what a good paper looks like, even if you think their criteria are suspect.

    Rancourt runs into problems because his approach to teaching presupposes radical problems with the form of university itself – which he has taken it upon himself to correct. For example, one might argue that university should indeed only be for the highly motivated and accomplished students. Accept that idea and his approach makes far more sense. But frankly, that isn’t his decision to make. Even the freedom of tenure has limits.

    You can’t show up for your job in a bank wearing sandals and shorts (no matter how much you think society would be improved if you could) and you can’t get away with doing your job in a university based on how you think a university should be either. Even a tenured professor has to have some regard for doing his job in a university based on how the university actually is. I respect the man’s convictions. But sometimes convictions can cost you a job for perfectly legitimate reasons. And this was one such case.

  7. Jeff, I don’t think the bank-teacher parallel is accurate. A banker could do objectively measured harm and fairly immediately to the bank by not performing his job properly. (For example giving giving away monies inappropriately.) But where is the measurable harm in not giving grades? Some have argued that it may place a university’s reputation at stake, but that’s conjecture, or simply anxiety over a new approach. It seems Rancourt’s objective was to improve the quality of education. Where’s the harm? Rancourt’s grading approach may not be appropriate for all classes or grade levels, but there’s room for growth and change in our academic systems.

  8. @Annette. Don’t know what to say except I really think the two examples are equivalent, and you just don’t see that because you don’t have the depth of disagreement with our banking system that Rancourt seems to have with our university system. You say a rogue banker might do objective harm by giving away money improperly? Some would argue that your definition of harm is not objective. Some would argue there are fundamental problems with our economic system, and giving away money is in fact exactly what should happen. I’m not one of them, btw, but I know those people do exist and they aren’t all crazy.

    Despite considerable freedom to implement policies and strategies as they see fit, if tenured professors take such a fundamental step outside of institutional assumptions they do risk losing their jobs. They must. We could argue grades aren’t absolutely necessary. There’s a discussion to have there. But I 100% believe that consistency is necessary, and the decision can’t be left in the hands of individual instructors. Rancourt applied through appropriate channels to have the course graded pass/fail. He was turned down by his own colleagues.

    I have some respect for his principles. I really do. But part of living and working in a professional environment is learning that sometimes you do have to take “no” for an answer. I find a grown adult who hasn’t learned this yet to be interesting and even entertaining, but not especially inspiring.

  9. I agree with Jeff- this system is too idealistic to be practical.

  10. I’m currently attending the University of Ottawa, and my grades are important to my continuing my program. To keep my scholarship, I need a GPA of 8.5, to stay in co-op I need to keep a 7.0. When Prof. Rancourt challenged the administration by giving everyone an A+, he was playing with student’s lives. He gave students that may not of deserved the grade an advantage in the competitive co-op program. He could of easily decided to give everyone a C. That would of caused people to lose there funding. Because the university is so heavily based in grades, one professeur going against the stream ruins opportunities for students. I agree that pass/fail could be beneficial, but only if the entire university is pass/fail.

  11. The “In this class, everyone gets A+” has little to do with Denis Rancourt getting fired! He made students think outside the limits and the framework in which we are all taught to think. I should say that he made students who think outside the “box” act outside the “box”. The University of Ottawa has clearly put its foot down and warned anybody who tries to challenge the satus quo in any concrete manner will lose their jobs.

    The title of this article should read: “Its ok to think outside the box, as long as you stay in it!”

  12. Jeff is absolutely right.

    But I have to add that I feel for Rancourt in a way. He sees something that is wrong and thinks he can fix it from inside the system. There’s something to be said for standing up for what you believe in, even if it will get you fired.

    But what I don’t think he realizes, is that the vast majority of people who sign up for a university degree like the system the way it is. Students in his class would be unlikely to challenge him on pass/fail, because he’s in a position of authority over them.

    I think it’s wrong for him to force students to choose pass/fail, when they signed up for a letter grade. I think it’s a breach of contract and that’s not right.

    But pass/fail certainly has some advantages and there would surely be some support for it. Why not let students in the science faculty at Ottawa U vote on whether to switch to pass/fail?

    I’m pretty sure, they’d vote against it. If they did vote in favour of it, there would be a large exodus to other schools. That would be perfectly fine with me.

    If a majority of students support Rancourt’s style of education, they should have it. But for students who are already enrolled at Ottawa U, you need to give them what they signed up for.

  13. As a recent graduate of the University of Ottawa and having taken Prof. Rancourt “controversial activism” class, I can say that he does understand that the “vast majority” of university students want or expect letter grades. However, he also understand exploring different ideas. From a young age (grade 7 in Ontario) we are graded through letter grades, so is it really a huge leap to assume that we are taught that the only manner to be graded is through letter grades?

    Now I do believe that not everything can be assessed through a pass/fail marking scheme but why should be graded through letter grades when some courses in university offer 20% for attendance and/or participation when the participation does not need to be insightful or intelligent?

    Further when does change occur when no one proposes/acts in a radical way? The status quo does not change if is not demanded too.

    Yes there are other schools (as this article highlights) that do use pass/fail methods but I have never heard of them, and I can’t imagine that I am the minority in that. From my experience the only marking scheme exposure and the only “legitimate” deemed marking scheme is letter grading.

  14. I teach middle school in Alberta and I do not use grades. The research is pervasive, and it clearly shows that grades hinder learning.

    I’ve taught middle school for 8 years, and for 5 of those years I have taught in a “non-traditional” manner that assigns no grades, no homework, no punishments and no rewards. The results I have witnessed over those 5 years have been simply remarkable. People are far more willing to take risks to learn more, think more deeply,show a higher level of understanding, exhibit intrinsic motivation and are more creative under this system.

    This whole grading issue can be resolved by asking WHY DO WE GIVE GRADES? Each of the answers below provide inadequate reasons for using grades:

    1)Ranking and Sorting: Educators who are aware of the best-practices revolving around assessment understand that criterion-referenced assessment (assessments that compare students to each other) provides little to no information on the quality of the students learning. Criterion Referenced Assessment is far more informative (students are compared to a standard of education rather than to each other).

    2)Provide Feedback: How informative is an “A”? You might think you know what it means, but it is simply no more informative than a smiley face. They are both symbols, and symbols are only informative if they are symbolic of something, but how effective can a symbol be at describing something as convoluded as learning? Grades also provide absolutely no information about the future – the student is left with no clue how to improve.

    3)Motivation: And this is the BIG one. Most people simply misunderstand motivation. It is a word we throw around far too unintelligently. Too often we ask the question “How motivated are my students”, but we should be asking “How ARE my students motivated?”

    There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Here’s the problem – they are inversely related – if one grows the other will diminish. Studies have shown this time and time again. So as educators, we have to ask ourselves do we care about WHY students are learning? The problem with school isn’t that kids aren’t trying hard enough to get A’s – rather, the problem is that too many students have come to believe the point of school is, in fact, to get an A (the correct answer here would be to learn – that should be the point of school). The best way grow intrinsic motivation is to provide students with an extrinsic free learning environment.

    Because grades can only ever be recieved by students as a reward or a punishment (both are extrinsic), grades need to be abolished. Jerome Bruner said it best: “Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information.”

    For more on this you really need to read Alfie Kohn’s work, including his books “The Schools Our Children Deserve”, “The Homework Myth”, “Punished by Rewards” and “Unconditional Parenting”. His website http://www.alfiekohn.org is also an excellent resource.

    I have taught with this pedagogy for the last five years and parented with it for the last two. My classroom is living proof that this is NOT some idealistic, wishful thinking Utopia. It is real and I invite anyone to contact me to discuss this further or even perhaps visit my classroom.

    jbower@rdpsd.ab.ca

    Joe Bower

  15. I would like to see a university grade report with smiley faces.

    I have managed at a somewhat later age to enter a world that involves guiding university students: most quite bright (most further on in their studies ) and frankly most quite well heeled. University is not particularly easy to access for the poor, despite claims of access to loans and scholarship money. All my students come from fairly well to do families, at the worst from middle class families. As upwards of 50% of young 20 somethings now attend University, is this not just tantamount for many to just purchasing a degree? Put up with the noise for 4 years, walk away with a piece of paper.

    Despite my situation, which is a lucky one,( the students I interact with being pretty sharp and motivated ), I see the flaws in this system.

    I have a great number of friends with no university education whatsoever. They are no fools. They also could run circles intellectually around a number of people who do have university educations. Most, but not all, came from a financially less supportive background. ie: they were poor. Many still are “poor”.
    Not having a degree really messes with your ability to earn money in North America.

    So university degrees are not a signifier of intellectual aptitude and liberal arts thinking so much as a means to an end, for many. A way of parents to buy their kids a similar income bracket as their own. A form of monetary juggling in time and space to ensure the kids will have a 1 1/2 story with a 2 car garage, and 2 weeks vacation in Europe.

    So, why not the degree a piece of paper with the smiley face on it? It means as much. My artist friends can even design the logo for the diploma.

    And let the good professor give out pass/fail. His students then show up because they want to. That’s a way to not worry they are there for the grade, but the there for the experience. I’m not involved in a situation that demands a grade be assigned. The good ones stay, the poor ones leave. It’s really very simple.

    Idealism belongs in a university, one would think.

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