When talking with other educators, I frequently pose the question, “why do we grade?” The most common answer is, “because we have to.” Nobody has ever told me, “because we want to,” or “because grades are good.” Most teachers seem to implicitly understand that something is wrong with our systems for grades and assessment. But there are lots of obstacles (many systemic, some personal) to changing how we do this work.
Over the years, I’ve gotten lots of questions about the what, why, and how of my own approach. These are some of those questions and my answers.
Have you ever felt pressure from above to grade? If so, how did you overcome this pressure? What if I’m contingent, precarious, sessional, adjunct?
Academic freedom (like the ability to make critical decisions about our teaching practices) must extend to precarious teachers.
Each institution where I’ve worked has had a different set of rules, structures, and norms for assessment. Navigating those hurdles (and institutional cultures) has been a challenge. I’ve been contingent for much of my teaching career, 11 of 23 years. During that time, I never put grades on student work, but it took me over a decade to start talking as openly as I am here about my approach. Some coping strategies that have worked for me: (1) I make sure my pedagogy is well-researched; (2) I bring students into the conversation about my approach; (3) I figure out what the firm rules are and follow them. We usually internalize way more restrictions than are actually there.
In fact, conventional approaches to grading are usually at direct odds with our institutional missions. So I look to those missions when advocating for teachers to have autonomy in their decisions about their approaches to assessment.
Does ungrading make students anxious?
Students sometimes start from a place of anxiety about the removal of grades (because they’ve been conditioned to see them as markers of success, even if other things actually work better as markers of learning). It’s important to acknowledge the real anxiety students feel about grades, about not grades, about performance, and about external perceptions of their performance. We can work to acknowledge, address, and alleviate that anxiety, but it won’t just go away.
The key, I think, is making sure students believe us, that they aren’t worried a rug will be pulled out from under them. This means teachers have to start by cultivating a sense of trust in the classroom. And building trust is hard. What I’ve found is that talking about the anxiety usually alleviates most of it. I used to talk with students about assessment on the first day of a course, but I’ve moved this conversation later into the term, usually when students are working on their first self-reflection. I try to follow the students’ lead. If they need the conversation earlier, individually or as a group, we have it.
As long as I’ve been teaching, I still tweak my approach every single time. And the approach has to emerge from conversation with students about their specific contexts.
Does ungrading affect the scores students give you on course evaluations?
Generally, I think my pedagogical approach has helped my course evaluations (particularly my emphasis on compassionate and flexible pedagogies).
My scores on course evaluation questions specifically about grading have depended on how well the questions were phrased to allow for my approach. At one of my previous institutions, for example, the specific wording was: “The instructor provided clear criteria for grading” and “the instructor returned graded materials within a reasonable amount of time, considering the nature of the assignment.” The words “criteria” and “returned graded materials” are out of sync with my approach. Much of the “criteria” in my courses is determined by students, and I neither “grade” materials, nor “return” them in any conventional way. So, it’s unsurprising to me that I often score below department and college averages for these questions, even though my scores for all other questions is above department and college averages.
Course evaluations are a perfect example of how pedagogical decisions can be baked into administrative structures at an institution. This is, in my view, a direct threat to academic freedom. As we critically examine how we’re grading students, we must also take a hard look at institutional assessment mechanisms for courses and instructors. Ultimately, the problem is the way course evaluations are designed, not ungrading as an approach. But it’s important to acknowledge that course evaluations have a direct impact on the livelihood of teachers, particularly those who are already marginalized or working precariously. And, as problematic as they are, course evaluations are one of the few institutional mechanisms students have for offering feedback on their education. So, we can’t teach (or talk about teaching) as though course evaluations don’t exist.
Do you know if ungrading is sometimes used for STEM courses?
Ungrading and alternative assessment work well across disciplines, age groups, and at all levels of education. Certainly, lots of modifications are necessary depending on the specific context. Different disciplines call for different approaches.
I know quite a few STEM folks who ungrade in various ways. Some specific stuff I’ve seen work in STEM classes: project-based learning with self-assessment, process notebooks (like lab reports but with an emphasis on metacognition), and collaborative exams. Exams, in particular, are at their best when they are formative tools for learning, not just standardized mechanisms for summative (or end-of-learning) assessment. Collaborative exams allow students opportunities to learn from and teach each other. Open-book and self-graded exams are not as good at sorting or ranking students, but they are often better tools for learning.
Some disciplines require students to take a licensure exam or something similar at the end of the program. I’d say the best preparation is not to repeat an identical experience over and over in anticipation, but to help students get under the hood of the exam they’re preparing for. Taking the exam in a low-stakes and low-pressure environment gives students the space they need to think and talk openly about how the exam is structured, what it is attempting to measure, and where it fails to adequately capture what they’re learning. Just because the students will be assessed later in a standardized, quantitative way doesn’t mean we have to replicate that in our courses.
How do you find the time to offer narrative feedback to every single student?
I used to offer tons of feedback in lieu of grades. I realized, though, that this feedback was often presumptuous and still centered my voice as the teacher. I now have students direct my feedback, asking them to tell me specifically when (and on what) they want feedback.
The students’ own questions and perspectives guide my responses. And I leave the students alone when that’s what they need for their process. I think the key is communicating with students and not to them. Even the idea of “feedback” is suspect to me, unless it goes both ways. In place of “feedback,” I rely on Freire’s idea of “dialogue.”
My approach can take more time, especially when I’m planning a new course. But once the term begins, I’d say it takes less time. During the first 11 years that I was questioning traditional grading and assessment, I worked as an adjunct, teaching up to 9 classes each term at 4 institutions, with as many as 1000 students each year. Many of my approaches were developed specifically to address the sense of overwhelm that came with that course load. I wanted to spend less time grading and more time building relationships. I worked to foster a culture of self-reflection and feedback in my courses, so that students were able to support themselves and each other with me as a guide.
The bulk of my “grading” time, over the years, has been spent reading self-reflections, having conversations with students, and adapting our course on the fly as I get to know the students and what they need to be successful.
I teach a class of 50, 100, 400 in a large lecture hall. How can ungrading work in a course like that?
I’ve taught traditional college classes with over 150 students, and I’ve taught non-traditional classes with many many more. What I’ve found is that trust and compassion scale. And allowing space for student agency scales.
Teaching metacognition and having students self-evaluate is just as effective (and more necessary) in large classes, where I can’t possibly see inside the brain/process of each student. Reading students’ self-reflection letters is what helps me “see” student learning in a large class, so that I know when they need support or feedback.
A few things that work well with large groups:
- Have students read about metacognition and invite open discussion about grading
- Incorporate several self-evaluations throughout the term asking students to reflect on and analyze their own work
- Write one letter to the class offering general feedback, noting trends, and responding to common questions
- Invite students to make individual appointments and reach out personally to those who are struggling
- Share (with permission) anonymized highlights from self-reflections, including data re: grade distribution, and encourage conversation
- Adjust grades if necessary (especially to account for internalized bias), but otherwise submit the final grades students give themselves
With a group of 50, 100, or 400, I can’t give the same amount of feedback that I would with a smaller group, so I do more talking and writing to the class as a whole. For me, not grading saves time. It doesn’t mean I do less work. I just put my energy into other work that better supports student learning.
Would you describe ungrading as a decolonizing, radical, progressive, feminist, critical pedagogical practice?
Ungrading is a key part of my critical pedagogical approach, but it only works as a radical, decolonizing, feminist practice, if it’s done carefully and alongside other critical pedagogical practices.
Grades reinforce teacher/student hierarchies (and institution/teacher hierarchies) while exacerbating other problematic power relationships. Women, POC, disabled people, neurodivergent people are all ill-served by a destructive culture of grading and assessment.
Ungrading can unsettle power dynamics in productive ways, but it can also reinforce structural biases if those biases aren’t explicitly acknowledged and accounted for. Toward this end, I share and discuss data about bias in grading with students. I also have a responsibility to spend time actively challenging my biases and reflecting on my own privilege/marginalization.
I believe an actively anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-ableist approach is more effective than supposedly “objective” approaches like blind grading (which just maintain the status quo, rather than accounting for privilege or marginalization).
The biggest problems arise, in my view, when we devise learning outcomes, determine policies, and craft assessments before we’ve even met the specific students we’re working with. Too many of our approaches treat students like they’re interchangeable and fail to recognize their complexity. Not every student begins at the same place, nor is it even reasonable to imagine every student can, or should, end up at the same place. Ultimately, critical pedagogical practice has to acknowledge the background, context, and embodied experience that both teachers and students bring to the classroom. Any predetermined standardized metric will almost necessarily fail at that.
How do you motivate students? If you aren’t grading, but your colleagues are, won’t students de-prioritize the work for your classes?
Students do sometimes prioritize other graded courses over mine (although it is much rarer than people are often worried it would be). And I’m okay with that. Honestly, it seems like good time management for students to prioritize work with a rigid deadline and high stakes. Our education system has trained students very well to work within structures that emphasize grades, points, quantification, and extrinsic motivators.
I’m trying to encourage intrinsic motivation, and it’s difficult for that to compete with extrinsic motivators (for me too). But when students clear the decks of other work and turn to work for my classes, they can do so with gusto. And it is common for students in my classes to work harder for those classes than any others (but in their own time), because they have a reason better than points. (To be clear, a focus on intrinsic motivators doesn’t mean eliminating all extrinsic motivators.)
I also find that it’s easier to have honest conversations with students, where we challenge each other in meaningful ways, if I’m not regularly grading them.
If I’m thinking about ungrading, how should I start?
As I’ve mentioned, ungrading works best when we also rethink due dates, policies, syllabi, and assignments — when we ask students to do work that has intrinsic value and authentic audiences. However, it starts with teachers just talking to students about grades. None of the other techniques described here are necessary beyond that one. Demystifying grades (and the culture around them) helps give students a sense of ownership over their own education. Martin Bickman writes, “We often ignore the best resource for informed change, one that is right in front of our noses every day — our students, for whom the most is at stake.” Even if you change nothing else about how you approach assessment, start simply by having a single conversation with students about grades and let your approach evolve from there.