Ungrading

“Why do we grade?” This isn’t just a question grieving faculty ask themselves near the end of each semester, it is an important question to grapple with often. For some, the answer goes little further than, “because that’s just how it works.” But what purpose do grades actually serve? To objectively rank and order students, measure students’ learning, or even motivate students? Yet, decades of research report the use of conventional grading systems do little to effectively evaluate or positively motivate students (Blum, 2020; Brennan & Magness, 2019; Schinske & Tanner, 2014; Supiano, 2019). Grades have problematic performance incentives for learning, are ambiguous and inconsistent, offer little (if any) valuable feedback, promote competitiveness and hinder collaboration, and inaccurately assess actual student learning (Blum, 2020; Brennan & Magness, 2019; Stommel, 2021). Grades neither motivate nor promote learning—they diminish it. Ungrading offers new evaluation practices without degrading students through the use of conventional grading systems.

Why Ungrade?

Ungrading requires leaving grades out of the student evaluation process. Students do not receive grades for assignments or other assessments, rather, they receive helpful, qualitative feedback that spurs further learning instead of halting it. Blum et al. (2020) contend, “When teachers give feedback together with a grade, the students see the feedback as justification for the grade, but if there is feedback without a grade, then students can see the feedback for its own sake and act on it” (p. 96).

Ungrading is not about doing away with the evaluation of students completely. Ungrading gives purpose to feedback by offering a learning environment where students can take risks, fail, and improve upon their work. Ungrading is a classroom paradigm shift that places the focus of education back on what is being learned and why, rather than what is being produced and for whom.

Grading necessitates students prove themselves.

Ungrading emboldens students to improve.

Blum et al. (2020) emphasize that ungrading offers many benefits for students and instructors alike. For students, ungrading reduces stress, helps form new learning habits, makes room for creative work, creates chances for healthy risk taking, promotes better communication, and opens up course design for the creation of more meaningful assignments. For instructors, ungrading removes the hindrance of assessment from actually evaluating student work, allows for the appreciation of students’ work toward the “good,” invalidates the need for justifying grading systems, and promotes what students are doing rather than what they have not done—a forward looking approach rather than a retrospective one. Moreover, real world evaluation in business, industry, and even academia looks more akin to this approach than what current grading systems have to offer.

Ungrading Examples and Practices

There is no single, one-size-fits-all approach to ungrading that works perfectly. The “hows” are secondary to and stem from the “whys”. In fact, Alfie Kohn (2006) writes, “When the how’s of assessment preoccupy us, they tend to chase the why’s back into the shadows.” However, some examples of ungrading practices might be fruitful for spurring the adoption of ungrading in your courses.

Evaluative, Qualitative Feedback. Individual assignment point breakdowns, percentages, and letter grades do not exist in an ungrading environment. Instead, the focus shifts to the learning goals for the student: reading, writing, discussion, research, and projects. Instructors should use language to communicate student learning that bolsters the constructive relationship they have built with their students (e.g., “let’s try it again this way…” or “perhaps you should consider this…”). These thoughts, phrases, and directions do not have to be unique to each student, but they must clearly communicate what learning has and should take place. Evaluative feedback provides new opportunities for students to make advances in a subject area or competency that grades do not.

Contract “Grading.” This form of evaluation allows students to “contract” for a particular grade in a course, completing specific projects and assignments at a reasonable level of proficiency to that end. To get an ‘A’ in a course, a student must complete more assignments than a student contracting for a ‘B’ or ‘C.’ Contract grading places the instructor in the role of facilitator and mentor, a role that asks the question, “How can I help?” rather than “What are you doing?” Contract grading makes room for more creative work by reducing stress and reliance upon grades. It gives students agency over their learning. Consider these three approaches to contract grading offered by Steven Volk, or this helpful list of contract grading resources and readings.

Self-Evaluation. Have students develop a plan for the semester or course, including that of self-evaluation. Blum et al. (2020) argue that involving students in the evaluation processes informs them of what they do and do not know. By including them in the assessment of their own work, students can both appreciate the learning that is taking place and improve upon it. Learners need freedom and autonomy to grow and learn, and constructive feedback and critical reflection is necessary for that growth. When students take time to evaluate their work, they also practice metacognition which gives them an awareness of their own thought processes and understanding. Ungrading turns grading on its head by involving students in the evaluation process (Stommel, 2021).

Portfolios. These forms of assessment allow students and instructors to revisit and assess the entire learning experience throughout the course. As students collect, annotate, and collate their assignments, projects, and exams, they apprehend the whole of the course and topics over merely the parts. This provides a broader, more comprehensive perspective on student learning to both the student and instructor. Students begin at different places in each course. Evaluating their growth throughout is paramount to their comprehension, application, evaluation, and learning success. 

Student Designed Rubrics. Instructors might not always considering student learning needs and helpful language when crafting assignment rubrics. It is only by involving students in the rubric construction process that students can take ownership of the grading process and of their work (Jarvis, 2020). This process also ensures that students have an accurate understanding of what it is they are expecting of themselves. Often, rather than setting low standards or creating ambiguous assignment structures, students set higher standards for themselves by defining assignment requirements more clearly and cogently (Jarvis, 2020). This student buy-in is invaluable because it has the potential to create more intrinsic motivation throughout the course. Try designing courses with students rather than for them.

Collaborative Assessments. A form of alternative assessment to consider is that of collaborative assessments. This takes place by pairing or grouping students together for the purpose of sharing, learning, and benefiting from one another’s knowledge—such as on class quizzes, exams, presentations, or writing projects. Whereas conventional grading discourages and disincentivizes collaboration among students (i.e., the independent nature of earning grades), ungrading offers opportunities for meaningful work with other students. The advantages of this method of assessment include increased conceptual understanding, retention, problem solving, and critical thinking skills (Gilley & Clarkston, 2014). Many faculty report more highly engaged classrooms with concerning the use of collaborative assessments (Blum, 2020).

Ungrading+

More than a shift in course policies, ungrading is a pedagogical paradigm with implications for every classroom process, potentially creating more effective learning environments and freeing instructors to focus more on supporting learning. As Jesse Stommel (2021) observes, the impetus for ungrading arises from such fundamental questions as:

  • Who is assessment for? Assessment is ultimately for the benefit of the student and their education, not the institution or the instructor. Asking this question helps to reframe the true beneficiary of this evaluative work.
  • What's the difference between grading and feedback? Instructors should make an effort to consider themselves readers of student work as opposed to mere evaluators. Feedback offers a path forward while grades communicate deficiency.
  • Why do we grade? Instructors should seek to reflect on how grading makes their students feel and what kind of communication is taking place. Instructors must determine what grading does and does not accomplish for students (and themselves). Ultimately, grading is accomplishing something—it just may not be anything worth accomplishing.
  • What would happen if we didn’t grade? Would students become lazy? Would they read or prepare? Would students even show up for class? Instructors must carefully weigh what they consider to be the benefits and detractors of ungrading—however, it appears grading is so ineffective that a change such as this would be a welcome (even shocking or jarring) prospect for students.

Ungrading is not itself a perfect approach to student evaluation. Ungrading must be accompanied by questions and considerations that address effective learning environments. The questions above are places to begin, but one might also ask “What and why are we teaching?” and “How are we making learning decisions with students rather than for them?”

References

Collaborative online document for ungrading: https://bit.ly/36shcKU

Contract grading resources and readings: https://bit.ly/3OzlbpZ

Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (1st ed.). West Virginia University Press.

*Edited volume, multiple authors

Brennan, J., & Magness, P. W. (2019). Cracks in the ivory tower: The moral mess of higher education. Oxford University Press.

Ferguson, H. J. (2013). Journey into ungrading. In J. Bower & P. L. Thomas (Eds.), De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization (Counterpoints) (pp. 194–209). Peter Lang, Inc.

Gilley, B., and Clarkston, B. (2014). Collaborative testing: Evidence of learning in a controlled in-class study of undergraduate students. Journal Of College Science Teaching 43(3), 83–91.

Jarvis, Claire L. (2020). Testing an ‘ungrading’ approach. C&EN Global Enterprise, 98(16), 20–23.

Kohn, Alfie. 2006. “The Trouble with Rubrics.” English Journal 95(4). https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/trouble-rubrics/

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166.

Stommel, J. (2021). Ungrading: An introduction. https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-introduction/

Supiano, B. (2019). Grades Can Undermine Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead? Chronicle of Higher Education, 65(38), A12-15.

Volk, S. (2018). Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading. After Class. https://steven-volk.blog/2016/03/27/contract-improv-three-approaches-to-contract-grading/