In the 2018-2019 academic year, I did not grade a single assignment or project.
No, I was not on sabbatical. I was ungrading.
what is ungrading?
I’ve struggled to come up with a pithy and accurate definition for myself. Here’s my best shot (for now, at least):
“Ungrading” is an attempt to focus our (both teachers’ and students’) attention on learning, rather than schooling:
- to make process and progress as important as products…
- and to actively involve students in the important task of reflecting on and evaluating their own work…
- so that we can rethink the power hierarchies of the classroom…
- in order to help our learning spaces become more open and equitable.
There are lots of folks out there who have more experience with this process than I do. If you’re not familiar with the basic idea of ungrading, please pause here and go read two blog posts by Jesse Stommel: “Why I Don’t Grade,” and “How to Ungrade.” (You can also check out the resources at the end of this post.)
OK, now that all that wisdom is tucked away inside your head, you’re ready to hear a bit about my experience. It’s a long post, so thanks in advance for your patience and interest! 😉
why did I do it?
There are so many reasons why I decided to make the switch to ungrading. I started my own undergraduate career at Hampshire College and I still believe in their system. Ultimately, it really boils down to this truth:
grades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education … [they] are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction. Grading is a massive co-ordinated effort to take humans out of the educational process.
— Jesse Stommel
In many ways, it wasn’t THAT big of a change for me. I’ve been practicing a lot of the philosophy behind ungrading in my classes for a long time now. I ask everyone to be a full human person in my classroom. I trust my students. I see myself as their co-learner. I encourage them to take as much agency in their learning as they can. I try to make the projects in my classes relevant and useful, rather than just disposable busywork that has no relation to the rest of their life. I don’t take attendance or police their screens or think of my class as the most important space they inhabit. I give lots of written comments on student work and I try to make those comments encouraging, conversational, and growth-oriented, rather than just corrective.
And it felt SO GOOD not to have to put that letter at the end of all of that feedback. I know that students are busy, and I get why they skip over the commentary and just look for the letter that they have been told determines their future and measures their worth. And for the students who do read my comments (oh so carefully!), it was a relief not to field the questions that arise when it seems the comments don’t align with the grade: “But you said all of these great things about my paper – why did it only get a B?” or “If I got an A, why did you have so many suggestions for how I could improve? Wasn’t my paper good?”
Y’all, this is one of the best things I have ever done as a teacher.
how did I do it?
The biggest question people have asked me about all of this (some with real interest, and some with a liberal helping of snark) is how did it work?
Once I made the decision to ungrade, I jumped in with both feet. I implemented this in all four classes I taught last year (because I have administrative responsibilities, I am currently on a reduced teaching load; full-time faculty at Hood teach 21 credits per year, aka a 4-3 load). n.b. This may not be the wisest way to begin ungrading, especially if you are nervous about how it will go or face any kind of precarity in your employment situation. You can always start with a single class or even a single project and scale up from there.
My courses last year were a first-year seminar on fairy tales, an upper-level course primarily for English majors on the history and basic linguistics of the English language, a gen-ed course on medieval romance, and an upper-level English and honors seminar that explores utopia from Plato through the 21st century. So about as diverse a group of students as I ever teach.
On my syllabi, I’ve always had a section called “How do I earn my final grade?” that lists the projects and the grade breakdown and so forth. I added the following caveat at the top of this section:
This course is going to work a little differently than most of the others you’ve taken; you will receive extensive feedback from me on all of your projects, but—because much of the work we do in college (and in life) is invisible to the teachers (and bosses, and coworkers and so on) who only get to see your final product—YOU will be responsible for helping me evaluate your progress before any grades are recorded.
I know that this may feel weird or even a little anxiety-inducing for some of you. That’s OK. We’ll work through it together. As a start, here’s the work you’ll be responsible for completing this semester, and the extent to which each aspect will contribute to your final grade.
I also talked a lot with students about this in the early days of the class (and throughout the semester) and made sure that everyone had all the info they needed to know about how this was going to work before the end of the add/drop period.
projects & evaluations
In my four classes, I had a wide variety of different kinds of projects (I really don’t like the word “assignments,” but that’s a convo for another day) – everything from blog posts to videos, from Old English translations to sentence diagram homework, from essays to exams.
I accept (nearly) all student work electronically through our LMS. I set up every project to be graded “complete/incomplete” (though in Blackboard you are still required to associate point values with each assignment, so I still had to choose a number of points to associate with each project, which feels disingenuous to me).
I read and commented on projects as per usual, but with perhaps a greater freedom and a more conversational tone, as I knew that students would be providing their own commentary on the projects too. I marked all projects “complete” in Blackboard and uploaded my feedback as a PDF as I’ve always done.
At midterm and again at the end of the semester, I asked every student to write a self-evaluation by answering a series of questions. These varied a bit from class to class, but I always asked students to reflect on their greatest strengths and their biggest struggles ,as well as to share a bit about how they were making progress in their own learning and/or had made a contribution to others’ learning. I also asked for them to reflect briefly on their work on each project as well as on their engagement in the class. The questions were more directive for first-year students than for upper-level students, and if anyone would like to see examples of my self-eval questions, I’m very happy to share.
At midterm, I read and responded to their self-evaluations. This response included a note about where I thought they stood in terms of their overall project grade as well as their engagement grade (which is a key component of all of my classes), based on our shared reflections on their work. There was also quite a bit of one-on-one conferencing at this time of the semester, required in the FYS; highly encouraged in the other classes.
At the end of the semester, I asked each student at the end of their self-evaluation what grade they felt their work and engagement had earned in the course overall. These were largely honest and direct, sometimes raw, and occasionally much too self-deprecatory, especially among women and students of color, who are often accustomed to having their work and their voices undervalued. I, like others who practice ungrading, always reserve the privilege of recording an appropriate grade if a student’s self-grading is not spot-on, and that was done more often than when a student had been too harsh with herself and deserved a higher grade than she thought.
what were the results?
Of course we always want the results – did it pay off? I can, of course, compare my grade distribution reports to those from previous semesters, but this is neither the most helpful nor most revealing way of answering this question. Here are some qualitative, anecdotal results that I hope convince you that this was, in fact, super-duper worth it.
- For the first time ever in a gen-ed class, I had not one single “low grade” at midterm – our collective agency and engagement in the process ensured that no one got left behind.
- I saw no more and no fewer late or missing projects in my FYS than in previous semesters. However, the students who struggled with chronic deadline aversion were SO MUCH MORE AWARE of why this was a problem. They understood what opportunities they missed, and reflected on how important it was for them to turn things around in future semesters.
- Students in my History of the English language class were much more confident in their Old English translations, phonetic transcriptions, and other activities that have previously been difficult for the highly-motivated and extremely risk-averse students who tend to enroll in this course. Because there was no risk of failure, they were more willing to tackle the unfamiliar.
- Reading self-evaluations gave me a glimpse into my students’ lives and taught me about the barriers so many of our students face. I learned how to better honor what it means to be a student with a disability, a student who is a non-native English speaker, a first-generation college student, a student who has been told by her teachers that she can’t write, a student with too many family responsibilities, a student who can’t afford to put gas in her car to commute to school if she buys all of her textbooks, and so on. For these students especially, learning about and understanding their process was ESSENTIAL in evaluating their work – these are the students I believe are best-served by ungrading.
- I had amazing conversations with students about the way that school and grades affect their physical and mental health – and was elated to see many of them recognize how much unnecessary power they had allowed grades to hold over their own self-worth and future hopes and dreams.
I could go on, but I’ve been sitting here writing this post for much too long and I need to do some concrete course planning for this fall before I’m allowed to call it a day!
My adventure in ungrading has been phenomenal for me thus far and I can also say with certainty that it has been eye-opening for my students. I absolutely plan to continue the experiment, and to do so with a critical mindset (e.g., I’m not convinced that “ungrading” is actually the best name for this process – I would prefer a positive term to a negative one, for a start!). I expect my process to change. I want my students to help me make it better. I look forward to sharing more with my colleagues and friends and to learning from their questions – both the positive and the skeptical.
To that end, if you’d like to chat about ungrading or teaching in general, please do reach out via email or social media or, if you’re local, over a glass of wine or cup of tea.
Want to keep thinking about the whys of ungrading? Here are the recommended readings from Jesse Stommel’s DPL Toronto track:
- Jesse Stommel, “Why I Don’t Grade” and “How to Ungrade” (both linked above as well)
- Peter Elbow, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment”
- Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades” and “The Trouble with Rubrics”
- Cathy N. Davidson, “How to Crowdsource Grading”
- Soraya Chemaly, “All Teachers Should Be Trained To Overcome Their Hidden Biases”
- Asao Inoue, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, whatever chapters seem useful to you, but definitely “Appendix A: English 160W’s Grading Contract”
And here are some great essays and blog posts where folks talk about their experience ungrading:
- Maha Bali, “Ungrading my class – reflections on a second iteration” and also this blog post on her 4th semester of ungrading
- Clarissa Sorenson-Unruh, “Ungrading: a series (part 1)”
- Colleen Flaherty, “When grading less is more”
- Laura Gibbs, “(Un)grading: it can be done in college”
And of course you can always check out #ungrading on Twitter.