Rethinking How Students Meet Course Outcomes – Part 2

Ungrading: What It Is and What It Does

Susan D. Blum, editor of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), describes ungrading as a movement, part of “an effort to make education more genuine, authentic, effective, engaging, and meaningful” (3). Sounds great, right? But what exactly is it? It’s not lost on me that two years ago on this same site I wrote in earnest about “how to manage the grading caseload” and today I’m writing about “ungrading.” Umm, exsqueeze me? Doesn’t that etymological 180° from grading to ungrading seem like a bit much? How can we just “undo” that? How else can we make sure students know what they need to know? What about the very real and specific requirements of our CORs? Hold up: don’t we still need to do grades?

It’s easy to react to the term all by itself. First, it’s intriguing. It sounds great, too good to be true, and then, kind of scary. So, a definition from Jesse Stommel’s blog: “’Ungrading’ means raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply ‘not grading’”; ungrading, in other words, doesn’t get rid of the very important work of assessment, but rather “asks us to question our assumptions about what assessment looks like, how we do it, and who it is for” (Stommel 36). 

On this blog, those are questions that we keep returning to. You might recall that in Spring 2020, we had a lot going on. While thinking about how to triage our work to be kind to ourselves and our students in a tumultuous time, we asked the following: “Do I have any assignments lined up that are performance-based, and what can I do to make them more learning-based? What assignments would best serve the goals of the class and my students’ learning, right now? What assignments will give me the best opportunities to communicate with my students about how to move forward?”

Two years later, I find myself thinking about these same questions but through a different lens. It’s less about survival, more about living – thriving! It’s not about triage, but about focusing on what really matters: the students, their learning, their lives.

One of the mantras we adopted as a department over these last couple of years is patience and grace, and that’s one thing I won’t ever let myself pivot away from. Our students are human beings who deserve kindness always (not just when the world is in crisis), whose learning needs to be prioritized over their performance, and who ought to have learning experiences that are responsive to their needs and their whole human selves. 

One of the main underlying arguments for ungrading is to recover the humanness that once was and still should be at the heart of assessment. Stommel writes how one-room schoolhouses demanded “an incredibly subjective, peer-driven, nontransactional approach to assessment” (25). By contrast, our modern, systematized schools with their “numerical and standardized” grading schema not only reinforce historic and continuing inequities in education but also move us “away from human relationships and care” (Stommel 26). Ungrading, then, is a move to refocus our care and attention on the complex humans with complex contexts that we teach.

Ungrading Practices

What follows is a partial list of ways to ungrade, including some grappling with how we might begin to fold this idea into our more traditional current practices. It’s easy to get stuck wondering how to actually “do” ungrading, but if our goal is equity, we have to consider it. Alfie Kohn writes, “When the how’s of assessment preoccupy us, they tend to chase the why’s back into the shadows” (qtd. In Stommel 36). Remember the why’s, and let’s start with what we know, and go from there.

Peer-Assessment

Hey, colleagues, in English especially, we do this already! When we do peer reviews of essay drafts in my classes, I always try to tell my students how their honest engagement in peer review works on multiple levels: they can demonstrate and practice their knowledge of course concepts, they can help their peers, and through the process, they can also self-assess (another practice of ungrading which Stommel writes about extensively) to know what they need to keep working on in their own assignments. In my classes, this has traditionally been for points, but as Stommel reminds us, peer-assessment doesn’t have to be formal (39). One small way of ungrading could be to allow ourselves to stop assigning points for peer reviews or related assignments. I don’t know about you, but I have done graded peer reviews because there’s that part in my brain that says that students won’t do drafts if they’re not for points, or that students won’t comment seriously on peer reviews unless they are made to. Trust the students to prove you wrong! I have students this semester who want to meet to discuss their drafts even after they got all the points; I have students leaving really detailed and insightful comments on peer drafts because they can; I also know students can come away from peer review with something if they don’t have a draft with them that day. There’s learning happening, and I’m going to get out of their way.

Grade-Free Zones

Stommel writes, “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine diving right into the deep end of ungrading, so try having the first third of the term be ungraded, a sandbox for students to experiment inside before moving on to the more formal activities of a course. Or decide to grade only a few major assignments” (36). Removing grades from peer-assessment could be one way of doing that. Joe Feldman in Grading for Equity also details a couple of examples of how this might work in a traditional grades school. One teacher, Cathy, after carefully developing rubrics and norming grades with her fellow humanities teachers, changed her grade book so that any assignments, whether homework or an essay, are scored according to the rubric, but in the end are weighted at 0 percent. Instead, in Cathy’s class, only “standards” matter in the calculation of the final grade; “Cathy enters scores for each standard as students demonstrate their knowledge on assessments, and she updates those scores manually when more current assessments give her more up-to-date information about a student’s level of content mastery” (Feldman 234-6). The use of rubrics and norming feels familiar and do-able, but it’s also an example of standards-based grading that I think allows for “grade-free zones” that allow our students and us to focus on feedback, communication, and learning.

Another teacher from Feldman’s book, Nick, began by weighting summative assessments more, and followed with replacing grades on assessments with simple feedback about standards mastered and standards that have not yet been met (Feldman 229-30). For Nick, “There’s no calculation of points at all….Nick’s only goal in assigning grades is to correctly indicate a student’s level of understanding” (Feldman 230). Nick and Cathy’s approaches both help us rethink assessment, and, as Feldman reminds us, help us towards a more equitable practice because of the ways that they support hope and a growth mindset and value knowledge over behavior.

“Format Freedom”

Nick’s practice opens up another way of rethinking how students meet outcomes: “if a student doesn’t perform well on an assessment he can look for alternate assessment strategies….In fact, this new insight into the purpose of assessment and grades has given him the freedom to evaluate student understanding using any evidence that the student has presented,” including tests and quizzes, but also comments and questions in class and work and thought witnessed during one-on-one sessions (Feldman 231). If we accept and acknowledge that our students are complex humans with complex contexts, then it naturally follows that teaching and assessments shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. That’s rooted in good ol’ universal design for learning. Does understanding have to be shown through a test or a written response? Could it be expressed through a discussion, a comment, a video, or something else?

Unessays

The “unessay” is another kind of “format freedom” assessment that Susan Blum discussed during her talk on “Ungrading for Equity” earlier this year. Jodie Mader describes the unessay as “a form of self-expression and a way to demonstrate learning in a hands-on and visual way [that]… cater[s] to students of different learning styles and expressions.” There are variations on unessays, but usually: the student chooses a topic related to the course theme and/or concepts, chooses the format to best convey their understanding and intervention, and produces and presents it (and writes about it to explain it). Because unessays can take very different forms, instructors will often collaborate with students to generate rubrics for assessing them. And student-made rubrics are another form of assessment that Stommel mentions: “the making of a rubric becomes an act of learning itself rather than a device (or set of assumptions) created entirely in advance of students arriving to a course” (39).

Last semester, when I was teaching Children’s Literature, I assigned an unessay as the final project, and while I’m still working out the kinks, I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as exciting as Blum, Mader, and others have described it. One student, after reading Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, decided to create a punch needle image of the main character, with deliberate artistic choices informed both by her assessment of the film adaptation and her reading of Freud’s uncanny in the story. In order to create it, she had a very clear thesis about the literature and very specific examples from her primary and secondary texts to support it; she also wrote very lucidly and passionately about it. And most importantly, the assessment allowed space for the whole human – the punch needle taught to her by her grandmother, something she did in her spare time already, a melding of her real life with her intellectual work inside the classroom.

Authentic Assessment

This is a kind of assessment that comes from doing something in the context of a community. Stommel’s example is a student-organized festival to showcase and premiere student films, complete with talk-backs with the audience. Similarly, Paul Handstedt in the book Creating Wicked Students details a project in which students had to prepare and deliver a poster presentation during lunchtime near the campus cafeteria (77). In both of these examples, the assessment comes from having to interact with the community, a live audience. It’s “not a drill, not some meaningless exercise” (Handstedt 77) but an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning and knowledge and get feedback in real-time. In reading about this, I thought of events like the Honors Research Conference, where students have already met outcomes by producing their research, but through the practice of revising, refining, presenting, and engaging with others over their work participate in an authentic feedback loop that results in learning beyond the content they write about. “[H]ow [else] can we create reasons more meaningful than points for students to do the work of a course?” (Stommel 38).

There are lots of choices when it comes to ungrading, and it can be a lot to think about, but Stommel reminds us that “any assessment strategy demands us to adapt, in the moment, as we encounter each new group of students” (Stommel 39). Conscientious educators always adapt – we make adjustments when assignments or lessons don’t seem to be working; we change a day’s lesson plans to address what students need in the moment. And we accept that as a given of our work. We can do the same with assessments, and we owe it to our students to keep an open mind, focus on their learning, and try.

Some Questions

  • Think about a memorable or impactful assignment you did as a student. What made it memorable?
  • What can the best assessments and assignments do (for students or teachers)?
  • What’s one way of ungrading that you might integrate into your practice?

We look forward to discussing this (and more!) with you during our Zoom workshop on March 25, from 1-2pm.


Works Cited

Blum, Susan D.. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia UP, 2020.

Feldman, Joe.  Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 2019.

Handstedt, Paul. Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. Stylus Publishing, 2018.

Mader, Jodie. “The Unessay Experiment: Moving Beyond the Traditional Paper.” Faculty Focus, 22 July 2020, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/the-unessay-experiment-moving-beyond-the-traditional-paper/.

Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. 25-41.

—. “Ungrading: An Introduction.” Jesse Stommel, 11 June 2021, https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-introduction/.

Rethinking How Students Meet Course Outcomes – Part 1

In our January community of practice, our colleagues gave us so much to think about in terms of grading for equity that here we are, still thinking about it. In fact, we take as a starting point an idea that Kathleen highlighted at the end of her post: “All too often our grading practices…‘inadvertently [pull] students (and their teachers) farther away from a focus on learning. Rather than teach students to be curious about the academic content, to care about their progress as a learner to invest in the health of the classroom community, and to co-construct productive relationships with their peers or teacher, we teach [students] to care about points” or grades, and we perpetuate inequities (Feldman 35). While we have been asked to consider different ways that students can meet course outcomes, we can’t separate that conversation from grading. Alfie Kohn emphasizes, “We need to grapple with assessment” and find “more authentic and informative” ways of evaluating students. “Why bother,” he asks, to rethink and reimagine our grading practices “if we’re still using…defective method[s] of assessing achievement?” (xviii). 

Welcome, friends. The blog path ahead is full of grappling.

“Are we here to teach or are we here to judge?”: A Sociological Perspective

Someone asked that question during a recent online workshop on ungrading. When thinking about how we have historically taught classes and used assignments with traditional grading practices and this idea of teaching vs. judging, a quote comes to mind: 

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” 

Paulo Freire

We need to ask ourselves what purpose do our grades serve? Are they for assessment of actual knowledge or are we marking down students for grammar, punctuation, lateness and other factors that insinuate non-compliance (aka not following the prompt)? In other words, are the grades we give on assignments an indication of conformity to our standards or is the grade a reflection of the learning experience of the student? Also, does the prompt allow for flexibility and freedom of thought and exploration, or is there a right and wrong way to do the assignment?

When asked to look at our assignments and grading practices oftentimes we as educators are reluctant in our willingness to change our policies and practices. I’m sure many of you reading this blog may have been challenged recently to move away from giving zeros to our students. I have to admit, I grappled with this idea myself: “How can I give points for a missing assignment? There is nothing there to grade.” Hence the zero. As I reflected on my reluctance to change my own ideas, it dawned on me that my ideas and beliefs regarding the zero and the types of assignments I dish out to my students are the exact things that are perpetuating the inequalities that Feldman (2019) refers to when he states, “we teach [students] to care about points” or grades (35). A student is going to care if they get a zero; it’s punitive and it sends a message: you need to follow directions and turn your work in on time. Points and grades are a measurement of conformity, as well as a message to students. This is the structural barrier that is baked right into our cultural ideas, norms, language, attitudes, and beliefs centered on the “A student.”

Recognizing structural barriers that are in our control and understanding how our beliefs, ideas and norms are the mechanisms that perpetuate inequalities is an important step in freeing our students from the constraints of points and grades. Oftentimes we place focus on support programs as being the solution to inequities on campus, but then we fail to acknowledge that our classroom policies contribute to the inequalities felt by our students. We as educators need to challenge and interrogate our assignments and assessments and ask ourselves: how can we reimagine our assignments and go about assessing the learning experience of our students differently so that we can free and empower the students?

A place where we might begin to think about assignments and grades, is simply asking what is the function of the assignment and grade. Most would agree that the function of an assignment is to determine what the student knows about subject matter; has the student mastered the materials? Depending on the level of their understanding, we assign a grade, either by point system or letter grade. With this we can determine who is proficient, approaching proficiency, or who is below proficiency. In essence, we rank students by performance. We might ask ourselves, how does this ranking of abilities relate to tracking students by ability? Tracking was/is a process that is often experienced in middle and high schools where students are set on an academic path that ultimately impacts social economic status, career choice (or lack of choice) and their overall quality of life. If we are still ranking our students based on ability indicated by grades, then are we doing what tracking was designed to do in American educational systems: placing students on a track and thus recreating social class, forcing conformity and assimilating students into dominant culture where they will become workers. Are we creating a learning environment that allows for flexibility, creativity, and are we freeing our students in order for them to become leaders?

Ungrading, which we’ll dive into more in another post next week, is an idea and a practice that is a departure from the old ways of doing things. Those who entertain the idea and practice of ungrading are the deviants of our campus. Be careful of the crowd you run with – you don’t want to be labeled as a deviant professor! The horror!! But if we consider deviants of the past then we find that social and cultural change often begins with those who depart from the cultural norms. They share new ideas and have the capacity to imagine that there are other ways of doing things. They challenge the naysayers and the status quo and ultimately create cultural change. Our goal is to create cultural change that eliminates structural barriers that exist in our assignments and grading practices.

As you read “How to Ungrade” by Jesse Stommel, think about these questions:

  • What assignments have you utilized in your class that you consider a staple assignment? And why is that assignment and the way you grade it so comfortable for you?
  • What are some of your fears and/or anxieties when you consider the notion of ungrading and changing the way you conduct your assignments and assessments?
  • What are some of the take aways you would love to see your students get from assignments in your courses?  

Works Cited

Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 2019.

Kohn, Alfie. Foreword. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. xiii-xx.

Zeroing Out Inequity

by Kirsten Gerdes

During my second year at RCC, I ran into a student on campus I’d had my first year. He asked whether I was offering the class again he’d had with me the previous year since he’d failed the course. After confirming that I was offering the class again the next semester, he commented, “I really enjoyed your class and was surprised when I realized I wasn’t gonna pass simply because I’d missed some of the weekly assignments.” This was a student who’d done well on the midterm and had been an active participant in class discussion, but lost motivation post-midterm when he saw the impact of his missing assignments that had left him with a non-passing grade. In the year after I had him in class, I changed my grading schema to minimum grading—and had I employed this system when he was my student, he would’ve passed my class initially.

Among things considered sacred cows to teachers, grading practices seems to rank high on the list. In Chapter 1 of Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman links teachers’ grading practices with their sense of identity:

Because each teacher’s grading system is virtually unregulated and unconstrained, a teacher’s grading policies and practices reveal how she defines and envisions her relationship to students, what she predicts best prepares them for success, her beliefs about students, and her self-concept as a teacher. That’s why challenges to our grading practices don’t just offend our professional judgment; they can invoke an emotional and psychological threat.

(Feldman 6)

It isn’t surprising that in a system like the American academy, which has played education like a zero-sum game of funding and prestige, faculty believe their grading practices reflect both the difficulty of the subject matter and their own rigor. This is compounded by the ways the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has shaped this system that has helped shape us as educators. However, Feldman’s challenge to teachers to reflect on the purpose and effectiveness of grades actually leads to greater rigor and accuracy. Central to this discussion is the pushback against giving zeros for non-completion of work.

Minimum grading is not ‘credit for nothing’

I was first introduced to the concept of minimum grading by my partner, who was working as a high school math educator at the time in a school district that used minimum grading, a system in which the lowest grade entered in the gradebook must be 50%. I distinctly remember that before he’d even finished explaining how he wasn’t allowed to enter anything lower than 50%, I cut him off to exclaim, “But that’s not fair! It’s giving credit to people for doing nothing!” This is perhaps the most common response from those who, like me, had only ever known, used, and been assessed by a conventional grading system.

In the intervening years since I was first introduced to this concept, I read more and had lengthy discussions with my partner (who now works on math curriculum in a district K-12 office) about how to structure my grading schema to both accurately reflect students’ acquisition of learning outcomes and to efficiently streamline my process for grading. Initially, I transitioned to minimum grading, but in the last year have moved away from using the 100-point scale almost entirely.

So why is giving a zero for non-completion so inequitable?

I think the answer is twofold. Let’s start with the math of it: while GPAs are calculated on a 4-point scale corresponding to letter grades, most course grades are calculated as a percentage on a 100-point scale corresponding to letter grades. This necessitates a conversion of percentage to grade point, but the ratio represented between each letter grade in the grade point system is not equal to the ratio between each letter grade in the percentage-based system. As a result, the conversion process disproportionately weights the F for non-completion (i.e., the zero) compared to every other letter grade.

Consequently, a student who misses an assignment and receives a zero in the conventional percentage-based system has not earned a zero on the grade point scale; mathematically, it is more like they landed on -6.0 in the 4-point GPA scale.[1] [The 1.0 difference between 4.0 and 3.0 translates to 10 percentage points between A and B in the conventional system; if the difference between A and F in the conventional system is 100 percentage points, then on the GPA scale, the F would translate to 10.0 points away from 4.0, or -6.0.] Minimum grading, on the other hand, issues 50% as the failing grade, which puts it at the same relative distance to a D as a D is to a C, a C is to a B, and so on.

Take a look at this graph that shows how disproportionately weighted the F is compared to the other letter grades in a conventional system. The GPA scale is written across the top of the graph with the corresponding percentage point range across the bottom (where each 5×5 square is 10 percentage points). The F area of the graph is the largest, and earning a zero (on the far left of the graph) puts you at a greater distance to the next grade up than at any other grade in the graph:

To demonstrate how (unintuitively) detrimental a zero is to the student’s grade, let me give a very simple example. Rosie is a student in your class in which there are 11 assignments total, and for which you grade using the 100-point conventional grading scale on each assignment. She receives a 95 and a 95 on the first two assignments but misses the third assignment. Her average is now 190/300 = 63% (D). If she receives 100 on the next eight assignments, she’s brought her average up to an A, but if she scores below a 100 on any assignment, she remains below an A despite earning a high A on 10 out of 11 assignments.

This scenario raises a couple initial questions here. First, how many near-perfect As does it take to bounce back from a zero in the conventional system? In Rosie’s case, it took eight perfect 100s to earn an A after just one zero. Second, if someone doesn’t score the number of near-perfect As needed to earn an A average after just one zero, does the lower grade accurately reflect her level of proficiency on student learning outcomes? In contrast, minimum grading accurately translates the ratio of the 4-point grading scale into the percentage-based grading scale by eliminating the disproportionate weight on zeros compared to every other grade earned. In Rosie’s example, her average after three assignments would’ve been 80% (95+95+50/300), and it would’ve taken half the number of As to raise her average to an A.

Once we consider the mathematical reason the zero is inequitable, the second reason becomes obvious. The students most affected by this disproportionate grading scale are those who are already disadvantaged: students whose work schedules shift, or whose caretaking responsibilities suddenly change, or who don’t have easy access to the technology needed to complete assignments, or whose neurodiversity is unmanaged due to poor access to affordable mental healthcare, or whose housing situation is unstable. Seeing the distance one must cover to make up for one zero does not foster motivation in that student. Feldman writes, “There’s no research that finds that failing grades motivate students, and plenty of research that has found the opposite—that a student who receives 0s and Fs becomes less motivated, not more motivated” (76).  So not only does the zero not make mathematical sense, but it does not have the effect on our most vulnerable students that we want grades to have.

Alternatives to minimum grading

Once I implemented minimum grading, I saw a significant change in student success among those who’d have failed under the conventional grading system I’d used in the past. In the past year, I’ve been experimenting with translating the 4.0 GPA scale to an equitable distribution across a 100-percentage-point scale, attempting to assess each assignment on a 4-3-2-1-0 scale. Thus, I do give out zeros, but there are an equal number of percentage points between each letter grade from 0 to 100. (E.g., this makes 50% in my system a C.)

There are other options that emerge once we seriously reflect on what we see as the purpose of grades. If they’re meant as markers of a student’s proficiency or mastery of student learning outcomes, Feldman suggests that averaging a student’s performances may not accurately reflect the level of proficiency gained over the course through the student’s work. Weaker performance at the beginning of a course reflects the student’s relative privilege in preparedness for the course; averaging their performance over time codifies that privilege into a grade. A more equitable method would be to weight the most recent assignment(s) in the final grade to more accurately reflect the student’s knowledge and mastery of learning outcomes.[2]

One final alternative to minimum grading that I’ll briefly pose is specifications (“specs”) grading, in which the professor creates “bundles” of assignments that outline the minimum work needed to earn the letter grade the student wants. Each assignment must meet all requirements set out by the professor in order to receive credit, so each assignment is graded as P/NP. While this requires both significant and timely feedback to students, and careful and thoughtful preparation in creating each grade’s bundle, it likewise empowers students to work toward the grade they want and motivates them to meet the standards of each assignment in order to receive credit.[3]

The journey to equity in grading must include thoughtful and honest reflection on what grades are supposed to communicate, why we have chosen our particular grading methods, and whether we find these methods effective at fulfilling the purpose of grades in the first place. It is from this place of active self-reflection that we can hopefully begin to envision new tools to use in our efforts to eradicate inequity in our teaching.

Works Cited

Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2019.

Nilson, Linda B. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2015.

Reeves, Douglas. “The Case Against the Zero.” Phi Delta Kappan,vol. 86, no. 4, 2004, pp. 324-325.


[1] For more discussion on the math of the zero, see Douglas Reeves, “The Case Against the Zero.”

[2] For a more detailed discussion of this, see Feldman p. 97-99.

[3] For more on specs grading, see Linda B. Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time.


Is It Worth It?

Last spring, one of my high performing students protested the “extreme workload” in my English 1B class. We were already several terms into pandemic teaching, and I had assiduously scaled down, lowered stakes, and increased flexibility. Taken aback, I tried explaining the purpose of the assignments, their sequencing, and their relative weight, but he was more concerned about numbers than about pedagogy. “Bottom line, is it worth it for me to do these assignments?” he asked pointedly.

As teaching professionals, our answer to this type of question is likely to be an automatic “Of course it is!” Every activity has a purpose. Every assignment and every assessment is part of a larger plan.

I understand this student’s concern, though, and he is not the only one expressing it. Dr. Betsy Barre, Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, addresses students’ perceptions of workload in a recent podcast: “…This is a pandemic; our students are struggling; let’s lower the stakes on things; let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, ‘more work,’ because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work.” According to Barre, a “too much busywork” perception has surfaced in survey results across her institution, from the law school to the divinity college to the general education classes.

At Riverside City College, we have all likely witnessed similar student perceptions of excessive workload expressed anecdotally, in student surveys, and during IOIs, especially recently. I know I have.

And it is easy to see why. Watching today’s college students navigate through their classes reminds me of the way I used to approach short-answer exams. If there were a lot of questions and a strict time-limit, I would answer the ones worth the most points first and save the ones worth the fewest points for last. That way, if the clock ran out, only the questions with the lowest stakes would remain unanswered. With so much competing for our students’ time and attention, we should acknowledge that no matter how beneficial low-stakes assignments and assessments might be, many of our students will prioritize the activities they perceive as having the highest stakes.

Am I suggesting, then, that students are too busy to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, so we should move away from this approach? Of course not. Decades of research have shown positive correlations between low-stakes activities and faculty-student interaction, student attention and motivation, student self-efficacy, and deep learning. Frequent low-stakes activities might even make our classes more inclusive. In chapter 7 of his book Small Teaching, James M. Lang, Director of the D ’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, argues that such activities—especially when they are highly structured—offer affirmation to those students who already feel adequately prepared and reassurance to those students who do not: “[T]hat extra work ensures that fewer students are left behind in the classroom, and more students feel like they belong” (183). The merit of frequent low-stakes activities is clear—at least to us.  

What I am suggesting is that we assist our students in shifting their emphasis from stakes to value. As Lang points out, “If we really want to inspire students to learn in our courses, we need to focus more of our attention on building up intrinsic motivators, leading them to learning with the same wellsprings of desire and interest that drove us into our disciplines and teaching careers” (196).

Of course, proselyting the merits of low-stakes activities is probably not going to change student perception of their relative worth, as I learned last spring. Small pedagogical changes, however, could make a difference, and if they are strategic, students might stop counting the number of assignments they are being asked to complete and look instead at what those assignments accomplish.

Lang’s book houses these small changes within a larger framework of cognitive activities that foster student knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. He asserts that students place more value on activities that repeatedly tap into prior and recently acquired knowledge because they feel that the work of gaining that knowledge has been acknowledged and appreciated. He suggests making small adjustments to our predicting, retrieving, and interleaving (reinforcement) activities accordingly. “Such activities, leveraged into the first and final minutes of a class session, can provide a powerful boost to student mastery of knowledge; so, too, can simple tweaks to the organization of your course and the order in which you introduce new material and review older material” (18).

Lang also claims that in order for students to value their understanding of subject matter, they have to form “meaningful and effective” connections to it themselves: “Your task [as an instructor] is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections rather than simply lecturing them about connections” (98). He proposes that making small changes to—and allowing more time for—connecting, practicing, and explaining activities will make the class concepts more relevant, practical, and applicable for students, thereby making them more worthwhile.              

Finally, Lang points out that students tend to place a higher value on activities that inspire them: “Classrooms are thoroughly social settings, and our connection to the people around us—or lack of connection—can have a significant impact on the quality of our learning” (159), and making small adjustments to activities that foster belonging, are motivating, and help students understand their own learning process will lead to inspiration. If we are bonded with our students, they might react more positively to the enthusiasm we have for our subject matter and trust our teaching expertise, which in turn could make those frequent low-stakes assignments more acceptable.

Lang’s book lists dozens of specific teaching strategies that I am not sharing here for two reasons, the most obvious one being the current length of this blog. The other reason is applicability: not every strategy works in every situation, for example, classroom vs. online or English 1A vs. English 1B. Furthermore, a strategy that works for one class might not work for another, for example an 8 AM class vs. a 6 PM class or a multi-day lecture vs. a once-a-week flipped format.

What I want to share instead is a suggestion and some thought-starters: If we would like our students to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, we should look closely at our own classes and ensure these activities are truly worthwhile.

For instance, Barre brings up how much more labor intensive discussion board postings are than the in-class conversations they are intended to mimic because students will worry more about wording and grammar both in their initial post and in their replies to peers. So is it really necessary to have multiple discussions each week? (This is a question I am asking myself right now.) Or, as Barre suggests, could students record their spoken answers instead of writing them down?

What about the way we approach assessment? For example, is there a way to make reading quizzes more about retrieving learned information and less about demonstrating that they have read the assigned literature? Could students take turns writing and administering their own quizzes instead and then have those quizzes lead the discussion of that day’s stories?

And on the subject of grading, are we indeed differentiating between low-stakes and high-stakes activities in our syllabi and gradebooks? Evaluating our assignments’ relative worth might help us better explain that worth to our students the next time they express concern about workload.

—Brit Osgood-Treston, Ed.D., Associate Professor of English, Riverside City College Department of English and Media Studies     

Managing the Grading Caseload…During a Pandemic

Would you be surprised if I told you I had a hard time sitting down to write this blog post? Grading, or even just talking about grading, is not really at the top of my list right now. But, even in the best of scenarios – wearing real pants, drinking nice coffee, in a clean and dedicated workspace, and all caught up on grading except for those fresh stacks of essays – I would likely still procrasti-do-all-the-laundry-and-hey-might-as-well-darn-these-socks-while-I’m-at-it-amirite before I spilt ink on that first paper. Now, it’s an even greater struggle as we manage the changes in our own home lives while troubleshooting technology for ourselves and with our classes, trying to keep and motivate our students, and worrying how everyone is dealing with everything outside of the classroom, too.

The Rock carrying a comically large bag: "Moving out? Nope...Just a teacher taking home some papers to grade.

And yet, as ever, the work of grading essays looms. But as much as I have to cajole myself into diving into a new pile of papers, I’d be lying if I said it was all drudgery. I have definitely silently or not-so-silently raised the roof at my desk when I read a student’s insightful observation about an enjambed line, when I could tell in a final draft that the student was really paying attention to that lesson on quotation sandwiches, when the parenthetical citations were pristine and even that hanging indent was on point! In these best, quiet grading moments, we see our students, and we get a chance to tell them what we saw – the work that still remains, sure, but also the work they did to understand that difficult concept, the effort they put in to make sure that everything looked just right, the thinking and growing and learning that is still in progress. While grading may literally be putting grades on papers and in gradebooks, the process is and means more than that. Ken Bain in What the Best College Teachers Do puts it this way: “[G]rading becomes not a means to rank but a way to communicate with students” (153). Many things have changed very quickly this term, but the grading, more or less as we have always known it (give or take a learning management system), is still there, both as a means of touching base with our students and communicating our reactions and expectations, and as very real labor.

Grading Yoda sez, "Grading papers I am. Grading machine I have become."

Corresponding with the team about how to handle this topic, it became clear that we needed and wanted to explore not just ways of managing the important work of grading generally, but ways of thinking about how to handle our grading load in this strange and stressful time specifically. First, how can we more efficiently do the grading that we need and often actually want to do? What tips, what strategies, what grading hacks? And, looking at the last half of the semester, what can we do to rethink or reconfigure our plans to make the space to be more kind and forgiving to ourselves? As we’re working so hard to be flexible with our students, are we also being flexible with ourselves, our plans, our expectations?

Grading Hacks

The Internet is full of articles about how to grade more efficiently – “Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half”! “How to Escape Grading Jail”! Let me summarize the literature for you – you can do lots of different things, some things with technology or some things without technology, and not all of these things will work for all of us, but there are many things to try. The advice is diverse and general, and while I will offer some suggestions and direct you to some sites below, what really interests me is what you all are doing to adapt your grading practice to this particular moment (leave your best grading tips for us below in the comment section!).

One author, Nicki Litherland Baker, has an interesting take if only because it helps us see our grading work in another light. In an article titled “‘Get it off my stack’: Teachers’ Tools for Grading Papers,” Baker uses something called activity theory to observe that “teachers’ comments follow predictable conventions, making feedback a specific genre” (40). In this formulation, the work of grading is essentially writing, so as grader-writers we need to approach it in the same ways we encourage our students through their own processes – by breaking it up into manageable chunks, by forcing ourselves to begin and put time in even on days we’re not feeling particularly inspired, and by motivating ourselves with intrinsic and extrinsic rewards (43). Sometimes we can forget how much like our students we are! Especially now, when there are lots of other important things on our minds, we have to think about how we can scaffold our process to set ourselves up for success. So what can we do?

Embrace what technology can do. Technology is hard. A couple of times a day, any given day, I get an email from a student about a link that’s not working, an assignment that is locked, or a slow ConferZoom connection. But for all the tech issues we have to navigate, there are unique things that we can do online. In my discussion boards, I ask my students to respond to a prompt and then ask them to reply to one of their classmates’ insights, and I often give them the choice of responding with text, or with a meme or GIF (one of many great ideas from Flower Darby, co-author of Small Teaching Online). I miss seeing my students’ facial expressions and reactions in the classroom, but a well-chosen GIF or meme is worth a thousand words. It’s also really easy to grade — if they left a meme, I know they’ve been back to the discussion board and are keeping an eye on the conversation.

Canvas has a lot of time-saving and grading-specific capabilities already built in, too. You can, for instance, set up your gradebook to drop the lowest quiz score, leave audio feedback in the same place you leave a written comment, and, when you’re grading an assignment, you can directly message students who haven’t submitted without leaving your gradebook. It also has a rubric feature to help you grade assignments more efficiently. I started using Canvas rubrics more this year and though it takes time to set them up, they do help me stay focused while grading. I like that I can put my own words into them so the comments really sound like me and that I can still add comments if I need to/cannot help it, but if I set up my rubric well enough in the beginning, I often don’t need to add anything else. I also like that students can use the same rubric to evaluate each other’s work during peer review so there are no surprises about what we’re looking for. Being really clear with myself and students about expectations also cuts down on the grading time.

This is a sample peer review rubric that both I and the students used to evaluate an essay draft. There are rubric categories with comments with frequent comments/areas of concern, and there is also space for additional comments from me. This student had a solid draft, and so all of the required elements are in green, but if they were missing parts or needed to work on different areas, they would be in red, so it can also be pretty useful visual tool for what students need to work on.
This is a sample peer review rubric that both I and the students used to evaluate an essay draft. There are rubric categories with comments with frequent comments/areas of concern, and there is also space for additional comments from me. This student had a solid draft, and so all of the required elements are in green, but if they were missing parts or needed to work on different areas, they would be in red, so it can also be pretty useful visual tool for what students need to work on.

And no matter what you’re using to provide feedback on essays (Canvas, Turnitin, Word, GoogleDocs), you can create a “commenting library” where you can save time by keeping your most common notes to copy and paste alongside helpful links/resources you can connect your students to directly. At the end of this post, you’ll find a few links about these Canvas grading options that you might try out to make your grading more efficient.

Get by with a little help from your friends. One colleague, now retired, used to email gems she found while grading – fun and funny sentences that she encountered in student work. These emails made the often very solitary work of grading feel a little less so, and put a little pep in my grading step. Email/text/zoom (if you aren’t zoomed out) your teacher and writer and grammar friends when you’re making your way through a stack. Better yet, treat it like an extrinsic reward – grade 5 papers, and then take a break and have a 2-minute virtual dance party with your work besties.

And you know who else you can share this work with? Your students. Bain writes that “some of the best professors ask students to assess themselves. One frequently used model requests that they provide evidence and conclusion about the nature of their learning” (163). While it is not feasible for every assignment, I think this type of reflective assignment could be especially valuable in this context, a space for students to think about what they have overcome and what they have accomplished under extraordinary circumstances.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. We’re living and working through a pandemic. Give everyone some slack, including yourself. This can take on different forms. It might mean prioritizing some grading over others. In her comment to this post, for instance, Janelle shares how she gives automatic points for a draft turned in, but also gives constant feedback throughout the writing process – assigning points quickly to be able to spend more time commenting and communicating meaningfully. For me, not sweating the small things means adopting “Okay” as a mantra. You need an extension? Okay. You forgot to document that required source and want to fix it now? Okay. You mean, dear student, that you recognized the work that needed to be done and are actually trying to do it and turn it in to me? Okay! At the end of the day, especially if the assignment is still in my grading queue or in progress, especially during a pandemic, I say “okay,” and move on to the eleventy billion other things I have to do without agonizing over it. Bain observes that flexing “power over grades” through deadlines might just be counterproductive to learning (154). He isn’t saying to get rid of deadlines altogether, but rather to evaluate whether our attitudes and policies and practices actually facilitate learning.

Grading Flexibility: “Triage”

At Academic Senate this week, during a roundtable on the college’s approach to COVID-19, one word that came up often was “triage.” The college has been sorting through the problems and concerns and addressing the most pressing needs first. In the week we shifted to teaching online, I know that many of us triaged our own work. We stopped what we were doing to learn the technology, help situate our students, and put together a module or two before even thinking about grading again. Now that we’re at mid-term, maybe it’s worth pausing to take stock, to see if there are any adjustments we might make to give us a little more space to breathe.

Cover of Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do

Bain gives us what I think is some good criteria for grading triage in a chapter looking at how the best college professors approach grading, or assessment, and evaluation. The most outstanding teachers, Bain tells us, take a “learning-based approach” instead of a “performance-based” one. In the latter, “students’ grades come primarily from their ability to comply with the dictates of the course,” but in the former, the professor asks a fundamental question: “What kind of intellectual and personal development do I want my students to enjoy in this class, and what evidence might I collect about the nature and progress of their development?” (152-53). For triage, while keeping CORs and SLOs in mind, we might ask questions like: Do I have any assignments lined up that are performance-based, and what can I do to make them more learning-based? Where are my students now in terms of SLOs? What assignments would best serve the goals of the class and my students’ learning, right now? How can I make assignments that are high value for student learning but easier on the grading? What assignments will give me the best opportunities to communicate with my students about how to move forward?

Discussion Questions

  • How do you communicate with your students through grading? How can you make sure you’re being compassionate and constructive while being efficient?
  • What are your best grading strategies? What are your grading hacks? What keeps you motivated through those stacks of essays?
  • What grading triage, if any, have you done, or thinking of doing?
  • How have you been flexible with yourself in terms of your plans or expectations for the semester? Where might you be more flexible?
  • What are your best examples of learning-based assessments?

Thoughts? Join the discussion below. And we hope you’ll join us for a virtual meeting during college hour on April 30!

Some Helpful Resources

Resources from the Workshop on Zoom

Here’s the article we mentioned at the beginning: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/dont-care-about-work-coronavirus_l_5ea0aa73c5b69150246ce525