• Grades are not good incentive or effective feedback
• Grades are not good markers of learning
• Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration
• Grades pit students and teachers against each other
• Grades are mechanisms of institutional control
• Grades aren’t fair
— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) January 1, 2020
Ungrading has long been associated with the idea of purposefully eliminating or minimizing the use of points or letters to assess student work. The focus of ungrading is to provide extensive feedback to students and then jointly (students and instructors) come to a consensus as to what the grade should be. Some ungrading proponents also advocate letting students decide their grade entirely (Blum, 2017; Stommel, 2017).
My definition of ungrading is rather broad and is dependent on context. Mostly ungrading for me requires (at a minimum): 1. ways to give better feedback that encourages and supports mastery levels of learning and 2. methods that enable students to take charge of their own learning (i.e. increase their agency), such that they can continue to excel even after my class ends.
The nature of grades has been debated for more than one hundred years (Schinske & Tanner, 2014; Stommel, 2018). Ungrading has been an ongoing part of that debate. Why would we ungrade? After all, it’s more work for us in that: 1. We essentially need to review exams not once, but twice; 2. Have an ongoing conversation with each student about their learning; and 3. Decide on grading together as a team.
Alfie Kohn (2011) made a case for a modern ungrading by arguing that assessment entails collecting “information about how students are doing, and then [sharing] that information (along with our judgments, perhaps) with the students…[and modern assessment is distracting us from] a pair of remarkable conclusions that emerge from the best theory, practice, and research on the subject: Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades” (Kohn, 2011, p.1, [brackets] are mine). Susan Blum (2017) went on to make a more in-depth argument against grades:
And in my research on learning and education, I had learned a lot about grades, such as:
- Grading requires uniformity. It assumes uniform input, uniform process and uniform output. I stopped believing that was a useful way to approach student learning. Students don’t start out the same. They don’t have the same life experiences -- or even academic experiences -- during our semester together. They don’t go to the same places afterward. They have different goals.
- Grades don’t provide adequate information. If the purpose of grades is to convey a student’s accomplishment, adequacy, excellence, compliance, effort and/or gain in learning, then they fail. Is a student who enters already knowing a lot and continues to demonstrate knowledge at a high level, but then misses an assignment because of a roommate’s attempted suicide and ends up with a B-plus, the same as someone who begins knowing nothing, works really hard, follows all the rules, does quite well and ends up with a B-plus? What information is conveyed? What about someone who loves biology and excels in those classes, but who loathes history, bombs in history classes and ends up with a 3.0 GPA? Compared to someone who muddles through every class and a similar GPA, yet with no passion, excellence or highs or lows? What do we learn from the GPA? What does a course grade mean?
- Grades don’t truly motivate students. Experts [Ryan & Deci, 2000] distinguish different types of motivation: 1) intrinsic, or doing things for their own sake and 2) extrinsic, or doing things for external benefits not inherently part of the activities themselves. I would also add fear and avoidance as big motivators, or doing something to avoid negative consequences. (Blum, 2017, p.1, [brackets] are mine)
Much of the feedback research (Finkenstaedt-Quinn, Snyder-White, Connor, Gere & Shultz, 2019; Tawfik & Kolodner, 2016; Underwood & Tregidgo, 2010; Hattie & Timperley, 2007) negatively correlates written feedback with grades. In other words, if students are given feedback at the same time as their grade for an assignment, the feedback will not be reviewed by the students in the same way. I have found this correlation to be true throughout my tenure as a professor in higher education as I have given feedback and grades at the same time and the feedback has gone virtually unnoticed. Schinske and Tanner (2014) provided “evidence that accuracy-based grading [i.e. grading based on ‘correct’ answers for simple fact-based questions] may, in fact, demotivate students and impede learning” (Schinske & Tanner, 2014, p. 165, [brackets] are mine). I became convinced that I needed to divorce feedback from exam grades while drawing students’ focus toward the feedback.
I wanted to use ungrading because I had already been seeking a way to converse with my students about their performance as opposed to merely assigning some number of points. While I hoped that the point assignment somehow communicated my view of my students’ performance on the material covered, I knew that point totals really did not communicate much effectively. So, my desire to change the rules of grading grew and probably originated from my recent immersion in critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy, which I have discussed elsewhere (Sorensen-Unruh, 2019a & 2019b) is a teaching methodology which emphasizes social justice in the classroom through amplifying equity for oppressed groups (Burbules & Berk, 1999; Freire, 1970/2018). Ungrading - in terms of a conversation between teacher and student - started to emerge for me as a more equitable method of assessment. Ungrading’s emphasis on helping students focus on feedback rather than a ranking system would provide a conversation starting point with my students and me that would hopefully result in a more equitable outcome.
Ungrading also wasn't just a good idea in terms of student agency, but also in terms of social justice. My students, many of whom are from underserved populations (i.e. particularly Latinx and/or Native American), deserve to be included in the discussion of their own grades. I hope by increasing their agency by using ungrading, my students increase their motivation to learn and their mastery of the material. I also hope that perhaps ungrading would help scaffold my students’ learning about their own learning (metacognition).
Therefore ungrading, for me, is a process within my exam grading that I use to focus student attention on individual constructive and specific feedback (with no numbers attached) and that involves a conversation between the student and the instructor. I provide feedback to the students and the students provide feedback to me about their answers and why they might think their answers are still correct, even if I have provided feedback to the contrary. The conversation via written feedback combined with the oral conversation that happens once the written feedback process has ended has been illuminating in terms of what mastery learning entails. In addition, I have learned a lot about how to scaffold my students’ learning in future semesters.
How would I implement ungrading in the classroom?
Preparing to implement ungrading in my classroom, I took to Twitter to discuss implementation strategies with the experts – those folks I knew who had already implemented ungrading in their classrooms. This conversation (Sorensen-Unruh, 2019c) highlighted the difficulty many teachers find in the implementation of ungrading, particularly as it pertained to the tacit knowledge needed to be able to implement ungrading effectively. Tacit knowledge transfers information through “sensed experiences, intuition, and implicit rules of thumb” (Smith, 2015, p. 11) and is not the same as explicit knowledge, which can be shared through spoken and written language. My many Twitter experts, including Jesse Stommel, Maha Bali, Susan Blum, and so many more, volunteered to help guide me through the tacit knowledge needed to implement ungrading.
Considerations from My Implementations (i.e. Prototypes)
Context: Implemented at CNM Community College in an Organic Chemistry II class (n = 30ish students), most students already have a bachelor’s degree and are fulfilling requirements for medical or pharmacy school
Specifics: This ungrading process divorced feedback from grades. It included student assignment of point totals, corrections, reflections on exam performance, and the ability to argue that questions were unfair. Most of the specifics of prototype I have been discussed extensively elsewhere if you’re interested in more information (Sorensen-Unruh, 2019d).
Reflections on Implementation: For the grading of the exams, the most difficult aspect in the entire process was giving thoughtful feedback that was critical, but helpful. Most of the feedback I wrote on exams prior to ungrading was nonspecific positive feedback. To provide specific, positive feedback which the students could understand and interpret into a point total was perhaps the most difficult aspect of ungrading.
Overall, most students graded themselves more harshly than I graded them on the exams. At times, some students decided that I was overly generous and actually argued on their ungrading sheets that I should take off more points because they really didn't know what they were doing. I ended up counting my grade instead of the averaged grade far more often than I intended.
We, as a class, modified the prototype throughout its implementation based on student feedback and our collective conversations. The student feedback both throughout the implementation and at the end of the implementation was mostly positive. The most negative feedback I received clearly explained why the process of assigning point totals was a waste of time, and this feedback was instrumental in the next implementation.
Prototype II (The Ungrading Prototype That Wasn’t)
Context: Implemented at CNM Community College in two General Chemistry II classes – one a face-to-face lecture (n = 48 students) and the other a distance learning lecture with written exams administered in an on-campus testing center (n = 36 students)
Specifics: This “ungrading” process assigned grades, did not focus on feedback, and essentially eliminated the conversation between instructor and student concerning exam grades. It included corrections, reflections on exam performance, and the ability to argue that questions were unfair. Most of the specifics of prototype II have been discussed extensively elsewhere if you’re interested in more information (Sorensen-Unruh, 2020a).
Reflections on Implementation: This implementation allowed students some say over their grades. If ceding to students some measure of agency over their grades is the main point of ungrading, then this implementation did provide for a small measure. When I designed it based on student feedback from the first implementation, I thought this prototype would move towards ungrading. It seemed to fall squarely within my students’ wheelhouse, and they liked this implementation. They did not need to be sold on its virtues. Yet, it was still basically a grading process with some added reflection. It wasn’t an ungrading process at all as the focus was not on direct feedback.
Perhaps it was an implementation of something that squarely fell in between grading and ungrading? Handing back the exams with grades on them and little feedback seems to defy all of the tenets of ungrading. Being unable to significantly converse about grades with my students significantly defied my own definition of ungrading. And, still, my students felt like they had a voice in their own grading outcomes. So, prototype II wasn’t a traditional grading scheme but it wasn’t ungrading either. The reality, though, is that this version of somewhere in between ungrading and grading is the version most STEM folks I know would be willing to implement first. Maybe it is a starting point for those folks in their ungrading journey; an implementation that starts to feel like ungrading but isn’t quite ungrading yet…
Overall, because this “ungrading” process failed to give feedback (and thus divorce feedback from grades) and provided little time for an oral conversation between instructor and student concerning exam grades, I would probably not implement it again (never say never, right?).
Context: Envisioned for implementation at the University of New Mexico in a single General Chemistry I class (n = 400 students) that utilizes PLFs (Peer Learning Facilitators), TAs (Teaching Assistants), and Sis (Supplemental Instructors)
Specifics: This ungrading process divorces feedback from grades. It includes student assignment of point totals, corrections, reflections on exam performance, and the ability to argue that questions were unfair. Most of the specifics of prototype III have been briefly captured elsewhere if you’re interested in more information (Sorensen-Unruh, 2020b).
Reflections on Implementation: This implementation includes peer review and group work, which I really like in the context of ungrading. The peer review aspect is in an elementary stage; for higher level students (in a drastically smaller class), I could see implementing more extensive peer review with an eye towards training our students how to review for journals and such. The group work is implemented for the purpose of doing corrections, but, again, in the higher levels, I could envision a much more extensive implementation of group work within the context of ungrading. Perhaps using ungrading as training ground for debate of scientific issues or problems? Perhaps looking towards group reflections as another method for metacognition analysis?
Because this ungrading implementation is for a large lecture, I think it would need to focus on training a teaching team to implement the process of ungrading. The teaching team would need to learn how to help facilitate the small groups and to help the students with peer review. They would need extensive training on the content of the exams, how to answer questions about that content, and how to ask questions about that content.
My favorite aspect of this implementation, though, is the way groups can argue that questions were unfair. Opening the discussion to the entire class seems like an awesome way to both monitor debate and teach our students that scientific inquiry involves questioning (and that questioning experts (i.e. your instructor) is ok too!).
Ungrading, at its essence, involves ceding power (that has pretty exclusively belonged to us as instructors) to our students in terms of monitoring and assessing their own progress. It allows students to reflect on their learning and to learn what they need to do to enhance their future learning. Ungrading promotes student learning and assessment in ways that are sometimes explicit and sometimes hidden, but it ultimately requires us as instructors to buy into training students skills that are critical within our students’ schooling and within their lives (performance reviews require the exact same skills). Ungrading is an investment – of time, of effort, and of love - in our students’ futures, and, for me, it has been a critical investment that is now an essential part of my pedagogy.
Blum,S.D. (2017). The Significant Learning Benefits of getting rid of grades. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/11/14/significant-learning-benefits-getting-rid-grades-essay
Burbules, N. C., & Berk, R. (1999). Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits. In T.S. Popkewitz & L. Fendler (Eds). Critical Theories in Education. New York City, NY: Routledge.
Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A., Snyder-White, E. P., Connor, M. C., Gere, A. R., & Shultz, G. V. (2019). Characterizing Peer Review Comments and Revision from a Writing-to-Learn Assignment Focused on Lewis Structures. Journal of Chemical Education, 96(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.8b00711
Friere, P. (1970/2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (50th Anniversary Edition). New York City, NY: Continuum.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), pp. 81-112. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4624888
Kohn, A. (November 2011). The case against grades [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/
Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, pp. 54-67. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020 Retrieved (for free) from https://mmrg.pbworks.com/f/Ryan,+Deci+00.pdf
Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054
Smith, G. A. (2015). Why College Faculty Need to Know the Research about Learning. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 10, 9-18. Retrieved from http://insightjournal.park.edu/wp—content/uploads/2015/08/Why-College-Faculty-Need-to-Know-the-Research-about-Learning.pdf
Sorensen-Unruh, C. (September 4, 2019a). Critical Thinking vs. Critical Pedagogy [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.chemedx.org/blog/critical-thinking-vs-critical-pedagogy
Sorensen-Unruh, C. (October 2, 2019b). Practical Classroom Implementations for Critical Pedagogy [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.chemedx.org/blog/practical-classroom-implementations-critical-pedagogy
Sorensen-Unruh, C. (@RissaChem). (January 1, 2019c). Ok — a ? 4 Sara + @Jessifer @slamteacher @OnlineCrsLady @Bali_Maha. Do y’all ever worry about undergrads’ (1st 2 yrs) lack of tolerance for nebulous grades (due to ungrading & feedback oriented practices)? Worried my Ss will balk at not knowing their grades at all times [Twitter post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/RissaChem/status/1080212845558550529
Sorensen-Unruh, C. (February 2, 2019d). Ungrading: A Series [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://clarissasorensenunruh.com/2019/02/10/ungrading-a-series-part-1/
Sorensen-Unruh, C. (January 2, 2020a). Ungrading: Prototype II (General Chemistry II) [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://clarissasorensenunruh.com/2020/01/03/ungrading-prototype-ii-general-chemistry-ii/
Sorensen-Unruh, C. (January 3, 2020b). Ungrading: Prototype III (Envisioned Large Lecture Implementation in General Chemistry I) [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://clarissasorensenunruh.com/2020/01/03/ungrading-prototype-iii-envisioned-large-lecture-implementation-in-general-chemistry-i/
Stommel, J. (October 26, 2017), Why I Don’t Grade [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/
Stommel, J. (March 11, 2018). How to Ungrade [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/
Tawfik, A. A., & Kolodner, J. L. (2016). Systematizing Scaffolding for Problem-Based Learning: A View from Case-Based Reasoning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1608
Underwood, J. S., & Tregidgo, A. P. (2010). Improving student writing through effective feedback: Best practices and recommendations. Journal of Teaching Writing, 22(2), 73-98.