The word “ungrading” means raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply “not grading.” The word is a present participle, an ongoing process, not a static set of practices. Ungrading is a systemic critique, a series of conversations we have about grades, ideally drawing students into those conversations with the goal of engaging them as full agents in their own education. For me, there aren’t a discrete set of best practices for ungrading, because different students learn in different ways at different times with different teachers in different disciplines at different institutions. So, the work of teaching, the work of reimagining assessment, is necessarily idiosyncratic.
Most important to the work of ungrading is that we start by asking hard questions of our traditional approaches to assessment. There is a meaningful distinction to be made between grades and assessment. But at this moment, I’d say our approaches to assessment, our syllabi, the work we ask students to do, the shape of academic labour, is increasingly structured by grades. Rather than wondering at how we fit our pedagogies into systems that have become increasingly standardized and quantitative, we need to look askance at those systems, and find ways to dismantle barriers to teaching and learning.
Grades are inequitable. As they are increasingly centered at our institutions and within our educational technologies (like the learning management system), the inequities of grades are exacerbated, and our most marginalized students are further marginalized. This is one reason it’s imperative that we rethink our approaches to assessment. The work of teaching is also precarious. The majority of teachers in higher education work in contingent, adjunct, or sessional positions, but increasingly the work of all teachers at all levels of education is not adequately supported and is structurally devalued. And so, teachers are rightfully skeptical of approaches to assessment that increase our labor with little benefit to us or students. Teachers are rightfully skeptical of approaches to assessment that create a culture of suspicion and competition, while further fracturing the already strained relationships between students, between teachers, and between students and teachers.
: to turn on or as if on a pivot
In March of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, there was what many people called a “pivot” to online learning. At the time, I immediately bristled at the choice of the word “pivot” to describe what was underway. It implied an easy turn, a shift supported by an already in place mechanism to facilitate it. And the implication was that we could and would just as easily “pivot” back after the pandemic lockdown was over. Many millions of teachers around the world were asked to suddenly reimagine the shape of their teaching, the location of their classrooms, and their approach to assessment. In higher education, especially in the U.S., most teachers have little to no formal preparation for the work of teaching, so the expectation that they would suddenly and implicitly understand how to teach in an online environment was unreasonable, if not absurd.
In April of 2020, I launched (with Sean Michael Morris) a series of open discussions about pedagogy, online learning, open education, and assessment, what we called “Open Online Office Hours.” We invited anyone, working at all levels of education, teaching in any discipline, from anywhere in the world, to join us. Until the end of 2020, we held sessions every week, then every other week, with anywhere between 20 and 150 attendees. These were generative conversations, shaped by participants, without predetermined topics or outcomes. Assessment was often a central focus. There was considerable friction between what institutions were asking of teachers and the support institutions were offering those teachers. When it came to grades and assessment, there was a call for “compassion,” but a simultaneous unwillingness to let go of the bureaucracies that shape what grading looks like at most educational institutions. Certainly, there was flexibility, to differing degrees at different schools, but rarely the necessary deep questioning of our assumptions about what education is for, how we can adequately prepare teachers for the work of teaching, and how we can meaningfully measure learning.
Why Do We grade? Why Should We Stop?
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues against the banking model of education, “an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” In place of the banking model, Freire’s critical pedagogy advocates for “problem-posing education,” in which a classroom or learning environment becomes a space for asking questions — a space of cognition not information. The fundamental inconsistency between critical pedagogy and standardized, quantitative assessment is the germ for much of my own interrogation of grades as a system. Ungrading is not ideologically neutral work; rather, it asks us to examine the structural inequities of education and to revise all our pedagogical approaches.
I start most conversations I have about grades and assessment with a series of big questions, deliberately delaying focus on specific practices:
- Who is assessment for?
- What’s the difference between grading and feedback?
- Why do we grade?
- What would happen if we didn’t grade?
There are no simple answers to these questions. Take the first question, “who is assessment for?” The answer is “for a lot of different people”: accreditors, future employers, parents, graduate school admissions, other teachers, administrators, the teacher doing the grading, and the student. The needs of each of these audiences, and why they might be considering grades to begin with, is varied. (Whatever the needs of the other audiences, I’d say the needs of the student should be the primary focus of assessment.) Similarly, a question like, “what would happen if we didn’t grade?,” means something very different to a white male tenured full professor at an elite university than it does to a black transgender assistant professor at a small state school or to someone teaching in adjunct roles at several community colleges. Examining the structural inequities of grades requires that we also look at how compulsory grading intersects with the deeply problematic labor conditions of teachers. Too often, our educational systems reduce the work of teaching to the act of grading students, which instrumentalizes the work and leads to increased labor precarity.
Grades are the bureaucratic ouroboros of education. They are baked into our practices and reinforced by all our technological and administrative systems. Teachers continue to grade because so much of education is built around grades. But, if we can’t “imagine the world as though it might be otherwise,” as Maxine Greene would say, we are stuck with the bizarre customs and habits our institutions have adopted.
Historically, grades are more of an anomaly than anything else. They are a very recent technology. In North America, letter grades have an approximately 240-year history and weren’t used with any regularity until the last 75 years (Schinske and Tanner). There is nothing normal, and certainly nothing inevitable, about grades. Standardized grades are a crude system invented for ranking students against one another with only a veneer of objectivity. Other technologies have been invented to “manage” the complexity (the fallibility) of grades (and assessment).
I would argue grading, by any of our conventional academic metrics, undermines the work. Research shows grades don’t help learning and actually distract from other feedback/assessment. In “The Case Against Grades,” Alfie Kohn writes, “when students from elementary school to college who are led to focus on grades are compared with those who aren’t, the results support three robust conclusions: Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning …; Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task …; Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” In an educational system that increasingly centers grades and quantifiable outcomes, students work for the grade rather than for learning. Students ask questions like, “what are you looking for,” “how many points is this worth,” not “what will I do,” but “what should I do, and how will it be graded?” The grade takes the complexity of human interaction within a learning environment and makes it machine-readable: A/A-, A-/B+, D+, 97%, 59%, 18/20, 10/20, high first, low 2:1.
Learning, though, is not linear, and meaningful learning resists being quantified. Our assessment approaches should create space for learning, not arbitrarily delimit it. How, for example, can we “test” whether a student has had an epiphany? What standardized mechanism can account for a student learning experience we (and they) couldn’t have anticipated? How can we evaluate (with a percentile) the significance of a student changing their mind about something? How can a letter grade account for the complexities of failure, struggle, or even success? These kinds of questions call for a pedagogy that is less algorithmic and more human, more subjective, more compassionate.
Ultimately, traditional grades are better at measuring and reinforcing compliance than they are at measuring or adequately communicating learning, engagement, or content knowledge.
Start by Trusting Students
An internet search for, “is cheating on the rise?,” finds a half-dozen articles like one from The Washington Post, “Another Problem with Shifting Education Online: Cheating,” which cites data about the rise of online cheating reported by ProctorU, whose revenue model hinges upon creating a culture of suspicion in education. As reported by Vox, the remote proctoring industry “is expected to grow from being a $4 billion market in 2019 to a nearly $21 billion market in 2023.” This multi-billion dollar industry has a vested interest in maintaining a culture of suspicion and advancing a very narrow definition of academic integrity, for which the grade (or supposed “objectivity in grading”) becomes a proxy.
Cheating is not, in fact, on the rise. In 1963, Bowers surveyed roughly 100 institutions and found that “75 percent of the surveyed students admitted to cheating at least once in their college careers.” Rates of cheating have not changed all that much since then. McCabe, et. al.’s 2012 Cheating in College includes findings from 150,000 students recently surveyed, showing that “between 60 to 70 percent of respondents admitted cheating.” (Lang, Cheating Lessons)
And so, cheating rates are flat, or on a slight decline, over the last 50-60 years. Meanwhile, Wiley surveyed 789 instructors for their 2020 report on “Academic Integrity in the Age of Online Learning”: 93% of teachers felt students are more likely to cheat online than in-person. What follows in the report is a guide to discouraging academic misconduct without any sources for an actual rise in cheating beyond the imagination of those surveyed.
I certainly don’t blame individual teachers for their perceptions about cheating. The work of teaching is hard, and educators put so much of ourselves into our work. Of course, we would be susceptible to the efforts of a multi-billion-dollar industry spending huge amounts on marketing to sell us a false narrative about students. As with so much of what we currently face in education, the problem is structural.
Over the last several years, I’ve been disturbed to watch institutions actually cut faculty development budgets while massively increasing spending on LMS contracts, proctoring solutions, plagiarism detection software, cameras in classrooms, and videoconferencing tools. There is no neat and tidy technological solution to the challenges we presently face in education.
Cheating is a pedagogical issue, not a technological one. We can design proactively and together with students, rather than relying on cruel, racist, ableist, surveillance tech that creates a culture of suspicion which interferes with good pedagogies.
Designing for Care
I haven’t put a grade on a single piece of student work in over 20 years. This practice continues to feel like an act of personal, professional, and political resistance.
When I first started pushing back against grades over 20 years ago, I was inspired by one of my teaching mentors, Martin Bickman, who taught a graduate course called “Theory and the Teaching of Literature.” As he writes,
The course was built around a beginning undergraduate course that we all taught together. We met for the hour immediately after each undergraduate class to share our perceptions and analyses of it, to relate it to theories we had read or formulated ourselves, and to plan the upcoming class in the light of all this.
We gave no grades to the undergraduates in our co-taught course, aside from final grades based on their own self-evaluations. During that same semester, I was also teaching freshman composition, the first course I’d taught as instructor of record. I didn’t put grades on student work in that course either. As I wrote in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, I learned, from my first semester of teaching, “to constantly inspect and wonder at even the smallest of choices we make as teachers.”
My assessment approach focuses on self-evaluation and metacognition. I ask students to write process letters about their work, and I ask them to reflect frequently on their own progress and learning. The most authentic assessment approaches, in my view, are ones that engage students directly as experts in their own learning.
I offer feedback with words and sentences and paragraphs, or by just talking to students, rather than using a crude system for quantitative evaluation. I also encourage students to see their peers as a primary audience for their work, rather than just me. Students in my classes give themselves a grade at the end of the term. In an introductory course, like Digital Studies 101 or freshman composition, I begin with more frequent self-reflections and more directive prompts. In advanced courses, I might have students do a midterm self-reflection with directive prompts and an open-ended final self-reflection. I sometimes ask students to blog their way through a course, reflecting constantly (but less formally) on their process.
A midterm self-reflection might begin with questions like,
What aspects of the course have been most successful for you so far? What thing that you’ve learned are you most excited about? What challenges have you encountered?
I usually ask students to quote from or link to examples of their work right within the self-reflection. I don’t necessarily respond to every self-reflection (especially in a large class), so one of the last questions invites students to ask for particular kinds of feedback. A final self-reflection will either include a shorter series of questions that build upon the midterm self-reflection, or it might have a single open-ended prompt, such as:
Write me a short letter that reflects on your work in this class. Consider the work you did on the final project, your work earlier in the term, the feedback you offered your peers on their work, and how you met your own goals. Include links to examples of your work. Did you miss any significant work? Is there anything you are particularly proud of? What letter grade would you give yourself?
Taking grades at least partly off the table means I have a whole different set of conversations with students than I otherwise would. We all (students and teachers) bring anxiety about grades into the classroom with us. Ungrading doesn’t mean we can blink our eyes and those anxieties go away. Instead, we have to do the hard work of reflecting on our own learning, on our own teaching, talking about processes, not just products.
In Education for Critical Consciousness, Paulo Freire describes “an education of ‘I wonder,’ instead of merely ‘I do.’” I’d argue that the kinds of relationships necessary for the work of education are not possible unless we work actively to decenter grades and draw students in as co-authors of our assessment practices.
Small Things We Can Do Tomorrow to Start Ungrading
The notion of best practices does harm. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes about bringing our full selves to the classroom, and creating space for students to bring their full selves. But each teacher, each student, encounters the classroom differently. hooks writes, “any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged” (8). The work of learning is idiosyncratic, embodied. The work of teaching is idiosyncratic, embodied. Power flows in specific and complicated ways in education. Pedagogical practices that work for a disabled, queer white teacher may not work in the same way for an able-bodied, indigenous, woman of color. And “what works” will shift from one year to the next, one institution to the next, one geography to the next, one group of students to the next.
Grading is so ingrained in our educational systems that small acts of pedagogical disobedience can’t do enough to change the larger (and hostile) culture of grading and assessment. The work has to be less about shifting policies and more about building community. We can’t instantly manifest a learning environment entirely free of grades and quantitative assessment, but we can create safe spaces for students to ask critical questions about grades and about how school works. We can create safe spaces for teachers to experiment boldly with their pedagogical approaches in collaboration with students.
How do we begin this work?
Talk with students about grades. Demystifying grades (and the culture around them) helps students develop a sense of ownership over their own education. I spend an entire week of a 15-week course on metacognition, talking with students about how we learn and what shapes that learning takes. We foreground thinking and active discussion of bias and privilege. We connect this to the rest of the course by also discussing ways of knowing in the specific discipline we’re working within.
Ungrading shifts the focus away from purely extrinsic motivation and insidious hierarchical relationships between teachers and students by dismantling structures that pit us against each other and structures that encourage competition over collaboration.
Investigate other approaches to alternative assessment. I don’t use the word “ungrading” as an umbrella term for all alternative approaches to assessment, rather it acts as one possible entry point into a long history of push back on traditional grades. Entire institutions (like Evergreen State College and University of California Santa Cruz) have foregone traditional grades in favor of narrative evaluation. Some of the other alternative approaches I discuss later in this book include:
Minimal Grading: Moving away from 1000- or 100-point scales and toward 3- (done, excellent, needs revision), 2- (done, needs revision), and 1-point scales (done, not done), using fewer demarcations to make grading “simpler, fairer, clearer.” (Elbow)
Contract Grading: Offering clear expectations about what is required for each grade with goalposts that don’t unexpectedly shift. Labor-based contract grading specifically emphasizes process over product, labor over subjective “judgments of quality” (Inoue).
Authentic Assessment: Having students do work for real-world audiences, while focusing more intently on intrinsic motivation, and drawing students into the design of assignments / assessments.
Process Letters and Self-evaluation: Asking students to reflect on their work and offering feedback on those reflections. Students help guide the grading of their own work.
Start with “hello, how are you.” So much of our teaching gets reduced to a stack of bureaucratic documents: lesson plans, syllabi, assignment sheets, course descriptions. Students often encounter those documents before they encounter us or each other. In response, we can literally put the words “hello, how are you” at the top of our syllabi or on the front page of our course site, or we can find other ways to explicitly front our own humanity and the humanity of our students. For example, move statements about basic needs, accessibility, disability accommodation, and mental health from the end of our syllabi to the beginning, and write those statements in the first person. (If our institution requires its own boiler-plate language, we can include that, but not at the expense of our own care and clear expression of how students can ask for help.)
And, finally, don’t replace visible goalposts with invisible ones. To the extent that we can remove (or decenter) grades, we have to be sure we aren’t just shifting the goalposts for students, replacing clear policies with “hidden curriculum.” The problem of removing grades without changing any of our other pedagogies is not that we end up removing the ground underneath students’ feet. Grades are not and have never been a stable or supportive ground beneath students’ feet. But we can’t simply remove grades without actively interrogating our own biases and the structures of privilege that grades enable and reinforce.