Teaching and Learning

What Do You Love About Teaching? (I bet it’s not grading.)

The educator Susan Blum likes to begin discussions about teaching and grading with this question: What do you love about teaching? We all have our answers, right? Blum lets her audience share what they love about teaching, but then after a short discussion, she notes that no one seems to teach for the love of grading. Personally, I have found grading demoralizing, and many students agree. My experimentation with ungrading is helping me and the students I teach shift our thinking away from grading toward learning. And I think it’s working.

Let me start by sharing my understanding of ungrading. First, ungrading is not not grading, although it can be. At BMCC, we are required to give at least a final grade, and based on their previous learning experiences, students typically expect grades. They may see them as a type of currency in their education. However, even without taking away grades completely, we can still ungrade.

Ungrading is flexible, varying greatly by instructor, semester, course, class section, and even student. But what is it? Ungrading aims to reduce the use of traditional, quantified letter and number grading in favor of methods such as low-stakes, scaffolded tasks; written and spoken feedback from the instructor and student peers; and quite importantly, various approaches to student reflection, self-assessment, and even self-grading on authentic, student-focused learning experiences. The goal is to increasingly tap into students’ intrinsic motivation through feedback so they feel competent as they gain competence in the material. The process of learning is the focal point, not the grade.

As you might imagine, ungrading actively challenges our traditional beliefs about the effectiveness of grades to communicate to students about their learning or to motivate them to learn. Thinking about ungrading, I’m also confronted with issues of power and agency in teaching and learning, as I continue to shift from teacher-centered to more learner- and learning-centered approaches.

The Structure of English (LIN 110) has been my workshop for ungrading. I’d like to share some of the elements of ungrading in this course. The focus of LIN 110 is on the morphology and syntax (the grammar) of English varieties. The course is writing intensive, so papers are written over time in a scaffolded writing process approach. The course also involves project-based learning. Each week students complete a small piece of their project, which begins with a self-written text on a topic that is important to them. They use their text to apply course concepts, analyzing and playing with the structure of the English represented in their text.

The writing assignments and the course project steps demonstrate one important feature of ungrading in this course: scaffolded, ungraded tasks that lead to a culminating graded assignment. Along the way, students have opportunities to try out what they have learned, receive feedback, review and/or ask questions, revise their work, and then submit it in a final form. This process typically guides them to a satisfying grade because they have had scaffolded support and feedback along the way.

Another important feature of ungrading in LIN 110 is a change in my vocabulary, how I talk about teaching and learning with the students. First, I avoid words like grade or score whenever possible. Instead of talking about grades or credit, I try to talk about community–making the course and learning about them, their interests, their language(s), their communities, and their shared and individual work. The purpose is to take away the idea that they need to secure a grade or compete with others. I also talk openly about the practical value of feedback. I give encouragement and concrete suggestions for next steps. I also create open, low-stakes, ungraded opportunities for them to give and receive peer feedback, if they want it. Many freely engage in peer feedback once they see it as useful and non-threatening.

One final aspect of ungrading that I am trying out is a midterm and end-of-term student self-assessment, including self-grading. With some guidance, I ask them to write about their learning, to give themselves a grade, and to explain that grade. When I told students about this task and that I strongly believe that they should have a voice in their own assessment, I could see faces brighten in realization and agreement.

Ultimately, I want students to walk away from LIN 110 having had a positive experience in which they have learned things that stick with them on some level. If the grade is the only thing that sticks, OK, but then what was it all worth? If I have high standards and if a student tries to meet them, there will likely be some short- or long-term benefit for the student. I don’t necessarily know what that benefit is (who can know?), but I do know that the benefit isn’t going to be quantifiable with a letter or a number.

I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on ungrading. Much of my thinking about ungrading has come from conversations through CETLS and Resilient Teaching and through readings and podcasts about ungrading. Here’s a list of ungrading resources. Please feel free to add your own ungrading resources.

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9 Responses to What Do You Love About Teaching? (I bet it’s not grading.)

  1. Brett Whysel November 29, 2021 at 4:50 pm #

    Excellent points about the change in vocabulary, and generally about a change in focus on learning from grading. I found this change in perspective aligns with trauma-informed pedagogy. As I give students more choices to direct and deepen their own learning, these opportunities are mostly ungraded and low-risk. As a result, I’m getting better take-up without materially increasing my administrative burden (mostly from higher-performers). I am also enjoying teaching better as I get to share more about the subject that I find fascinating.

  2. John Beaumont November 30, 2021 at 8:37 am #

    Thanks for your comments, Brett. Yes, the change in vocabulary can be challenging. Early on I was finding myself using language that quantified learning. It’s an ongoing process. And as you say, the admin end of things also changes. I need to continue find ways being aware of students’ progress and needs that don’t rely on numbers and letters. I look forward to continuing the conversation as we learn more.

  3. Alan Greenhalgh January 24, 2022 at 2:10 pm #

    I like grading. I like seeing how students are learning and it gives me pleasure to see that they actually are following my lectures. It validates my teaching effectiveness. And most importantly the students themselves are doing well and achieving high grades and that gives me the greatest pleasure. I also get to see what they are doing correctly and what they need extra help with, so in that sense, it gives me direction for future focussing on some things more than others.

    • John Beaumont January 27, 2022 at 8:15 am #

      Thanks for your response, Alan. I can relate to that feeling of satisfaction in giving grades. It can feel like we’re charting the progress of students’ learning through grades. Yet the more I think about it and the more I look at the grades that I give, the more subjective I find grading. I see how each student learns/grows differently. Ungrading helps me move toward a more student-centered approach to teaching and learning. One of the purposes of upgrading is to tap into student intrinsic motivations for learning—for them to connect to and explore the content. I’m finding that grades can undermine this goal, while purposeful feedback and opportunities to rethink and revise can help individual students go deeper. It’s a work in progress for me. Thanks again.

  4. Hollis Glaser January 25, 2022 at 11:35 am #

    Sorry I’m so late to this, John. Of course you know I’m a convert to ungrading and I’m now using it in all my classes. Yes, the learning and feedback and self-assessment are the focus. I do still use the word “credit” as each of my assignments are worth one credit–they must meet basic requirements and have the opportunity to rewrite and such. So two students can get the same one credit with very different levels of achievement, but they get very different feedback from me. I’m trying to make it all more meaningful for them and for me. I also feel that ungrading allows me to raise the bar, to ask more of my students, not less. It is a rich and deep pedagogy. (I need to work on getting rid of “credit” in my vocabulary.) Thanks for writing this and for the resources!

    • Hollis Glaser January 27, 2022 at 10:02 am #

      I especially don’t enjoy giving the final grade. Pre-ungrading (and even while practicing ungrading) I have found it to be very messy and arbitrary at times. There are always so many contingencies at the end and gray areas. The ungrading process definitely has decreased that and I have way way fewer grade disputes than I did when I was doing more standard grading.

      • John Beaumont January 27, 2022 at 3:54 pm #

        I hear you, Hollis! One of the final tasks that I have been trying out in all of my classes is for students to review their learning experience in the class (with some guidance from me), suggest a final grade for themselves, and explain that grade. Nine times out of ten, I think they are spot on. It has made giving a final grade a moment of affirmation for them rather than a pronouncement from me.

  5. John Beaumont January 25, 2022 at 2:54 pm #

    Thanks, Hollis! For me, “credit” still sounds like a grade or a chit for doing something. That said, I do think it is important for students to have their efforts and accomplishments acknowledged. For this (in addition to formative feedback) they get a completion check in gradebook. So from that perspective we may do something very similar under a different name. One student’s check on an assignment may look the same as someone else’s (a check is a check), but what it’s based on and the feedback they get will be quite different. As you suggest, the feedback will meet each student where they are and need to go. It’s fun traveling down this ungrading road with you, Hollis!

    • Hollis Glaser January 28, 2022 at 9:56 am #

      Interesting. We need to talk more about that final grade. Ideally for my students and me it’s fairly straightforward based on how many assignments they did. But I would be intrigued to figure out how to have that conversation. I am trying to make that final grade transparent, predictable, and something they can control (to the extent they can control their lives). What do you base your final grades on exactly?

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