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Exploring Ungrading

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TLC
By Heather Fitzgerald

Posted on May 30, 2023 | Updated September 29, 2023, 8:59am

Filed in Faculty

Ungrading Book Cover

My summer challenge this year, apart from just catching up on all the projects that I ran out of time to finish during the academic year, was to read more books about teaching and learning. So I set myself the goal of reading one book a month for the four summer months. My book for May is ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan Blum. This collection of articles from instructors in many different disciplines offers an interesting overview of ungrading as both a philosophy and a practice in post-secondary education.

I have been curious about ungrading for a long time, since grading is far and away my least favourite teaching responsibility. I started this book hoping it would give me some ideas to rethink my own grading practices so I could spend more time on the teaching I value (like building relationships with students) while still holding students accountable for their learning. This book definitely delivered fresh new ideas about assessment, so in the hopes that this might help others looking for alternate ways to assess student work, let me try to summarize some of my takeaways:

The first somewhat surprising thing I learned is that ungrading does not necessarily mean no grades. The majority of contributors to this book use ungrading within systems that still require final course grades, so they have developed ways to assign grades while also de-emphasizing the importance of grades throughout the course. This can look quite different in different contexts: some instructors don't grade “process work” (early versions, plans or drafts) but still assign a grade to final products; others don’t grade individual assignments and instead ask students to assemble a learning portfolio at the end of the term which is graded (see below); others ask students to self-assign grades to individual assignments or course learning as a whole. The key point seems to be that grades are simply one form of assessing learning, not the only form, and that exploring alternatives can give students different information on what and how they are learning.

Second, I learned that ungrading ≠ no assessment. The instructors in this book who “ungrade” spend a lot of time assessing student work because they recognize that feedback on learning is essential to learning and growth. But what “ungraders” do differently is they decouple assessment from ranking, which changes the purpose and audience for feedback. When feedback no longer needs to justify a grade (or worse, withstand a grade appeal), these contributors argue, it becomes instead an extension of your ongoing in-class conversations with students.

Another slightly surprising thing I learned is that ungrading is not a single or unified approach or system – there are as many ways to ungrade as there are people practicing ungrading. Some of the approaches I was most intrigued by include:

  • Feedback-focused assessment, where instructors provide feedback – sometimes even with a rubric – but don’t attach that feedback to a grade; the goal here is to promote revision and continued learning through feedback by separating it from the goal of achieving a grade.
  • Self-assessment, where students assess or even grade their own work against pre-determined learning outcomes (developed by the instructor or in consultation with students); this approach focuses on developing metacognition (or the awareness of how you learn) and self-regulation (learning to identify which practices help you succeed and which get in your way).
  • Portfolio-based assessment, where students assemble a portfolio of materials at the end of a term or unit to demonstrate their learning in a course; this approach is used to allow students to take risks and make mistakes in individual activities or assignments without fear that a single misstep will affect their grade. Assessment or grading of portfolios can be done by instructors, students, or peers (see below).
  • Peer or team assessment where peers work together to determine the outcomes for an assignment, activity or course and then help one another assess how well they are meeting those outcomes and what they need to do to better meet them. Peer assessment can be used for group work as well as individual work and can be separated from or attached to grading.
  • Contract grading (also known as labour-based grading), where students determine the level of work they want to put into a course or assignment (based on their learning priorities) which is then represented in a formal contract that students and the instructor sign. The instructor then assesses students only on whether they met their contractual obligations. This approach, when attached to conventional grades, can allow students to “choose” their grade at the start of the term by determining how many formal assignments to complete and/or how deeply to engage in the course materials. The goal here is to respect students’ autonomy in their own learning and acknowledge that students may choose to engage more or less deeply with curriculum for any number of reasons.

The fourth thing I learned is that ungrading doesn’t need to start with a major overhaul of how you teach or even how you design your assignments. Many of the contributors to this book started their ungrading journeys by removing grades from one small class activity or from one part of a larger assignment. After they saw that student motivation to complete the work was not negatively affected by the elimination of grades, they felt more confident experimenting with wider applications of the approach.

Finally, I learned that alternatives to conventional grading are sometimes a tough sell with students who have been raised in grade-based educational systems. This was not a reason to give up on ungrading for any of the contributors to this book, but many of them did acknowledge that you need to be clear about how and why you are not assigning grades in the expected way. After experiencing a class (or even an assignment) free of grades, many students describe how the consequent reduction in their anxiety really helped them learn more meaningfully. So for some students, initial resistance to an unknown assessment practice is quickly replaced by relief.

What about you? I know many instructors at ECU have experimented with ungrading, and I’d love to know how those experiments went. How do students respond? What have you learned from the experience? I’d also love to learn about other books or articles that have helped you develop your ungrading practices, since I am sure there is a lot more to learn! Email me your thoughts or suggestions: hfitzgerald@ecuad.ca