In recent years the term ungrading has been circulating in various educational circles. But what does it mean? Is there an opposite to grading and, if so, how can ungrading be used in the classroom? Does ungrading mean students don’t receive a final grade? In this blog post we’ll break down what ungrading is and offer some suggestions as to how you might practice it in your classroom.
The Problem with Grades
Grades are a quantitative, objective proxy for the qualitative, subjective student experience of learning. In theory, grades tell us whether or not students are learning. In theory, the prospect of getting better grades helps to motivate students to do the coursework prerequisite to learning. In theory, grades provide the administration a snapshot of how things are going in our classroom. But how successful are grades at doing that?
The short answer to that question seems to be that the efficacy of grading can vary wildly. Ken Bain, in his seminal work What the Best College Teachers Do, reports how students in a physics class could achieve A’s in the course without fundamentally shifting how they thought about mass, energy, and motion. Any instructor who has taught the second or third course in a sequence knows the frustration of needing to reteach concepts from previous semesters despite students getting A’s or B’s on their finals just weeks before.
Furthermore, Alfie Kohn, in his work Punished by Rewards, documents the extensive research demonstrating that attaching an extrinsic reward to a classroom assignment actually undermines intrinsic student motivation. It seems that if we tell students that a task is worth ten points in the imaginary economy of our course, then they will never value the task itself, only the ten points. That puts us in the precarious position of sending mixed messages about the intrinsic value of learning itself. If, as seems to be the case, our grades can never be more than proximate (even inaccurate) indicators of some student learning AND grading every task can have the effect of demotivating students then how valuable can collecting numerous grades really be?
Decoupling Grades from Assessment
Although much work has been in terms of developing better assessments, communicating priorities to students via rubrics, and other attempts to refine our grading practices, those involved in the ungrading movement attack the problem by assuming that grading itself is the problem. From this perspective grading is a largely unnecessary appendage to the practices we need to focus on with our students: feedback and assessment. We, like most educators, are professionally obliged to report final grades and to communicate to our students at the start of the semester how we will arrive at those grades. Although there are many ways to implement ungrading, the basic approach seeks to shift student attention from grades to learning by deferring (for as long as possible) that final moment of collapsing the student learning experience–in all its complicated, messy, nonlinear multidimensionality–into a quantitative approximation such as a single letter or number.
Instead, that messiness, the student learning itself, becomes a core component of the course content. Through ungrading students are challenged to directly interrogate their learning as well as respond to feedback from the instructor. Here are a few examples of ungrading practices:
- Grade-Free Zones – Designate an early portion or experimental unit of your course as entirely grade free.
- Self-Assessment – A few times during the semester students assign their own grades, providing evidence in a separate document they write and/or filling out a rubric. You accept or veto their assessment in dialogue with the student.
- Process Letters – Students write directly about their learning process. The instructor provides feedback focused on meeting the course learning goals.
- Minimal Grading – Instead of the usual percentage and letter schemes, assign one or more assessments complete/incomplete, pass/fail, or another simplified schema.
- Authentic Assessment – Students are assigned a relevant real-world task that serves as their primary or sole graded activity, such as a cinema class organizing a film festival.
- Contract Grading – Students are given “to-do” lists for achieving an A, a B, and a C in the course. At the start of the semester they choose which list they complete for the assigned final grade.
- Portfolios – Students build portfolios over the course of the semester, which serves as the sole object of assessment for the course. The portfolio must supply evidence of having achieved the learning goals of the course.
- Peer Assessment – Similar to self-assessment (which it can be paired with) students work in small groups to discuss and evaluate each others’ contribution to the learning in the course.
- Student-Made Rubrics – A few times during the semester you devote a day of class time to collaborate on building a rubric which the students will then use to self- or peer-assess their progress in the course.
(Adapted from Stommel, “How to Ungrade” in Blum 36-8.)
Moving away from a constant stream of grading and points to a minimal number of graded objects does not mean you stop giving feedback! In fact, you will probably find yourself giving more feedback to students and having more conversations with them regarding their progress in the course. It is critically important to approach these interactions with respect for the student and a firm belief that they will want to learn if provided the right support.
Another important thing to keep in mind is the fact that ungrading is slower than many traditional assessment methods. Meeting with students to discuss their progress towards the course goals, reading reflective essays, writing specific feedback, etc. all takes time. You may find it necessary to pare back the total number of assessments you offer, especially if you normally use tools like auto-graded quizzes on Canvas.
However, this slowing down is a feature, not a bug. Learning requires time to process and reflect. Guiding that learning also necessitates extra time. Resist the ever-present urge to rush through the semester. Accept the invitation to slow down and linger over what really matters in the classroom: our students and their learning.
If ungrading interests you but you find the prospect of revising your course overwhelming, please know that you don’t have to ‘ungrade’ your whole course! You can try it for just one week or just one unit without upsetting the apple cart for the rest of the semester. If you try ungrading at a small scale, it will be important to clearly communicate that you are trying something new for a portion of the course and to unambiguously identify what portion of the course will be ungraded.
Messaging is always important when introducing an innovation of any sort to your learning environment. Remember, your students have years of experience informing their idea of what teaching and learning is “supposed” to look like! As Stephen Brookfield notes in The Skillful Teacher, student resistance in the face of change is “normal, natural, and inevitable” (238). Expect it and plan a response to it.
Temple faculty wanting support in implementing ungrading in their own courses can book an appointment for a one-on-one consultation with a pedagogy specialist. For any other teaching-related needs you can email the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at email@example.com.
- Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.
- Blum, Susan D., ed. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia UP, 2020.
- Brookfield, Stephen. The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993.
- Sackstein, Starr. Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. Times 10 Publications, 2015.
Jeff Rients serves as Associate Director of Teaching and Learning Innovation at Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching.