January 5, 2022

Grade Less to Grade Better: Ungrading

This article is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

Could foregoing the practice of assigning a grade to every assessment be a way of getting our students to focus on learning rather than on performance or fear of failure? This is partly what the proponents of the ungrading approach think.

Does a grade always reflect the attainment of a skill?

It is difficult to design valid assessments every time.

How can we ensure that the final grade a student is awarded for the course truly reflects their attainment of the competency? There is probably no magic formula. Doing authentic assessments is certainly a big step in the right direction. But it may not always be enough…

Grades receive a lot of attention from students. Some students aim for 60% and gear their efforts towards reaching this threshold, without going too far beyond it. Others aim for 100% and use whatever strategies they need to get there, without worrying about their actual learning.

To pass a physics exam (the subject I teach), students can try to understand the concepts that are being studied. But they can also do a lot of practice exercises containing problems similar to those that will be on the exam. In this way, the “patterns” are recognized, and new problems can be solved in an efficient, but robotic way. What does it matter if students forget everything they have “learned” a few weeks after the end of the session? Or if they cannot explain the basic concepts of the course to someone else?

I am in a good position to talk about students who perform without understanding, because I was one of those students during my university studies. I had an average close to A+. But I didn’t understand much about electromagnetism or quantum physics at the time.

I could have focused more on the core concepts of the courses I was taking, but it didn’t “pay off” in the exams. I wanted good grades and I did what I had to do to get them. If exams had been replaced by more authentic assessments (research projects, perhaps), this would probably have pushed me a bit in the right direction. But it’s not easy (and maybe not always possible) for all teachers to replace exams or other more traditional assessments with other activities…

What is ungrading?

One innovative approach to rethinking assessment is to stop giving students grades. This approach is called ungrading.

Teachers who apply ungrading, correct their students’ work and give them a lot of feedback. Feedback on what is done well (and why), feedback on what should be improved. One of the ideas behind ungrading is that students pay more attention to feedback if it is not “summarised” in a grade on the first page. An attractive idea!

Starr Sackstein, an American teacher who was featured in a Cult of Pedagogy podcast in 2015, explains that she records her feedback in audio format so that students can better digest the stream of feedback she gives them. The warmth in her voice ensures that “constructive” feedback is rightly perceived as encouragement, not blame. Students are not overwhelmed by the amount of feedback but give it the attention it deserves.

Of course, most educational institutions require that a grade be assigned to each student at the end of each course. In order to establish this grade, many proponents of ungrading ask students to assign their own grades. The teacher meets with each student at the end of the term to discuss the grade they feel they deserve.

All the accounts I have read to this effect converge: contrary to what one might think, few students give themselves too generous a grade. Rather, students are more likely to underestimate themselves. If teachers feel that a student’s self-grading is incorrect, they can correct it. What is interesting, however, is the discussion between the student and the teacher. This allows the teacher to really know how the student perceives their learning and their learning process.

Many teachers do not wait until the end of the session to have this conversation. Some ask their students to periodically produce written reflections on their learning, to which the teacher responds (individually if the workload allows, or as a group, addressing the trends that have emerged from everyone’s reflections).

Proponents of ungrading say that the approach leads students to:

  • value their learning more; value the mastery of a skill
  • make connections between what they learn in one assignment and the next; value the work they do in class.

For Marcus Schultz-Bergin, a philosophy professor at an American university, one of the great advantages of not grading assignments is that students really try to push themselves, to push their limits. They are not anxious about failing or performing poorly.

Draw inspiration from ungrading

I imagine that the Institutional Student Evaluation Policy (ISEP) of many colleges would prevent teachers from fully implementing ungrading. But reflecting on the virtues that this approach holds, in the view of those who apply it, may prompt a rethinking of some assessment practices that have become entrenched without good reason. For example:

  • Is it necessary for a student’s final grade to be the sum of the grades that the student has achieved in the various assessments of the course?
  • Can a discussion with a student about their learning in the course be part of the grading process?
  • Are there different ways of encouraging students to do work other than awarding grades? After all, a grade is an extrinsic motivator.

To learn more about ungrading, in addition to the accounts by Starr Sackstein and Marcus Schultz-Bergin, which I mentioned earlier, read the accounts of

  • Jesse Stomel, an advocate of ungrading
  • Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, a teacher who has experimented with different forms of ungrading
    • In one of her chemistry courses, she first marked the students’ exams with lots of feedback, but no marks. She did, however, record the grades she would normally give each student in an Excel file.
    • Then she asked each student to give themselves a grade for their exam (without access to the answer key). The students were asked to present their arguments for the grade they had chosen, based on the teacher’s feedback.
    • In most cases, to enter the grade associated with the evaluation into the learning management system, she averaged her grade and the student’s grade.
      Where her grade was higher than the student’s, she entered her own.
      If a student gave themself a grade that was much too high (which did not happen), she planned to enter only her own grade, with a few points deducted. (Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh wrote about this experience as the session progressed in a series of blog posts).

This approach is rather misnamed ungrading and is a significant departure from ‘formal’ ungrading. However, it still has a certain interest in some ways, in my opinion.

Have you tested ungrading or anything close to it? Would you be interested in doing so? Tell us about it in the comments box!

About the author

Catherine Rhéaume

Catherine Rhéaume is an editor and writer for Eductive (previously Profweb) since 2013. She also teaches physics at Cégep Limoilou. Her work for Eductive fosters her interest for technopedagogy and encourages her to try innovative teaching practices.

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