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.