Many college educators argue that fairness and objectivity in grading never truly existed. While this has been a point of debate for some time, the push for new approaches is gaining fresh momentum. With the impact of COVID-19 reverberating across campuses, sticking to traditional grading practices seems increasingly out of step with the unique situations students and instructors now find themselves.

Many educators argue that the work of teaching shouldn’t be reduced to grading or marking. Others view traditional grading as an obstacle to building authentic relationships in the classroom because it can decrease the motivation to learn or take risks. According to a study by Ruth Butler and Mordechai Nisan, “Grades may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, but depress creativity, foster fear of failure and undermine interest.”1 De-emphasizing the focus on grades as the central metric of success may be one of the most important steps in fostering a lifelong love of learning.

Enter ungrading—an education model that focuses on giving feedback and encouraging learning through self-reflection instead of a letter grade.

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Why are some instructors considering not grading?

Alfie Kohn argues that grades cannot objectively assess a student’s work. Even when calculated down to the hundredth of a percentage point, a “B+” on an English paper doesn’t paint a complete picture about what a student can do, what they understand or where they need help. Kohn says that the basis for a grade is often subjective and the result uninformative. Even the score on an assignment in a STEM discipline is largely a reflection of how the test or assignment was written, Kohn believes. Which skills were assessed, what kinds of questions were asked and how many points each section was “worth” are all chosen by the instructor.2

Grades, it turns out, may also encourage cheating. Researchers have found that the more emphasis students place on getting good grades, the more likely they are to cheat, even if they regard cheating as wrong.3

Negative feelings, suspicion and resentment caused in part by the pursuit of an ‘A’ are more than just a distraction. They may actually interfere with learning.4 Without grades on the table, ungrading enthusiasts argue it is easier to have genuine interactions with students. But to do this means offering greater opportunities for reflection, critical thinking and collaboration. The research appears to back this up. The quality of students’ thinking has been shown to depend partly on the extent to which they are permitted to learn cooperatively.

So what are educators who have adopted ungrading actually doing? Here we lay out some practices and strategies that decentralize the role of assessments in the higher ed classroom.

They emphasize feedback

Instead of a final exam or paper, some instructors have their students write process letters as a way to reflect on their progress and learning throughout the term. Students are encouraged to reflect on and learn from both their successes and their failures, both individually and with their peers. In this way conversations and commentary become the primary form of feedback, rather than a letter grade. This also encourages students to see the whole classroom community, including their peers, as the audience for their assignments rather than just their instructor. This is particularly beneficial in remote learning environments, where students are more likely to experience feelings of isolation. Promoting reflection and interactions between peers has been shown to strengthen the sense of community in the classroom.5

They create frequent opportunities for self-reflection

Structured opportunities for self-reflection at regular intervals ensure students are aware of their standing in the course. For freshmen or general education classes, it’s important to build this muscle by providing frequent opportunities for students to consider their progress . These should include clear direction to help students adjust to self- and peer-reviewed assessments.

For upper-level courses, open-ended questions can be used for students to think critically about their own learning experiences. What aspects of the course have been most successful for you so far? What’s one thing you’ve learned are you most excited about? What challenges have you encountered? Simple questions like these help guide students towards a more insightful understanding of themselves and their progress in the course.

At the end of the semester, Jesse Stommel asks his students to write a short letter that reflects on their work in his class. He encourages them to consider their final project, work earlier in the term and the feedback they offered to their peers and how they met their own goals. He asks them to include links to examples of their work from the term. To wrap up the final reflection, Stommel asks his students if there’s anything they are particularly proud of and what letter grade they would give themselves.

They take a look at what their institution requires

Instructors may face pressure to assess and grade students in a more traditional way. However, having open conversations with fellow instructors and your students is a great way to help manage expectations and keep processes transparent. One of the main selling points of this approach is the opportunity to assess students more holistically, including the quality of their thinking and progress over the term.

They are transparent with their students

Navigating a new style of teaching and learning can be anxiety-inducing for students. The ungrading process has to begin from a place of transparency and openness in order to build trust. Some instructors may choose to offer online office hours or other informal drop-in sessions to answer student questions and listen to their concerns. Listening to and responding to student concerns is vital to getting students on board. But just as important is the quality of feedback provided, ensuring both instructors and students remain on the same page.

They keep their class size in mind

Ungrading can work in classes of all sizes. But it can be particularly beneficial in large classes where it is more difficult to assess student metacognition on an individual basis.Reading student self-reflections throughout the term can provide powerful insights into student learning and where they may need further clarification or feedback.

Ungrading works best when it’s part of a holistic pedagogical practice that emphasizes more flexible and empathetic teaching. It starts with teachers just talking to students about grades. Demystifying grades and what success truly looks like helps give students a greater sense of ownership, while making learning more meaningful.

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References

  1. Butler, R. & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance. Journal of Educational Psychology. 78. 210-216. 10.1037/0022-0663.78.3.210.
  2. Kohn, A. From Degrading to De-Grading. (2016, February 23). https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/degrading-de-grading/
  3. Milton, O., H. R. Pollio, and J. A. Eison. Making Sense of College Grades. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.
  4. Johnson, D. W., and R. T. Johnson. Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Co., 1989.
  5. Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton & Marcus Grant (2010) Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space, Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 5:1, 27-64, DOI: 10.11120/jebe.2010.05010027
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