Also, Not Instead Of: Providing Students Opportunities for Alternative Modes of Assessment

The literature classes we teach in the English department have the student learning outcome that students successfully completing our courses will be able to “Effectively communicate analytical arguments and comprehension of course content through responses to, interpretations of, and arguments about [insert course focus here] literature in essays, written exams, class discussion, and other methods of evaluation using appropriate citation form.” The conventions of our discipline, our own course outlines of record, and our articulation agreements all require that in our literature courses, students demonstrate their interpretive and analytical skills in the form of written essays. We teach and evaluate student ideas and writing in these assignments. But we are not bound to evaluate students’ analytical arguments about and interpretations of literature exclusively through written essays and exams.

Wanting to push our students past summary and into interpretation and argument, but with some freedom from the essay form, we started to explore alternative modes of assessment that would allow our students to demonstrate interpretation and argument outside of more traditional writing assignments. As is typically the case for our literature classes that meet the Humanities General Education requirement, we were thinking about how this could benefit both our non-English majors as well as English majors; for the non-English majors we hoped these “Un-Essays” could address their feelings of being overwhelmed or intimidated by multiple essay assignments, and for the English majors, often enrolled in multiple literature courses per semester, we thought this could offer an alternative way of thinking about literature, a chance to be creative, to think in new ways about expressing an argument. The un-essay can also give students a chance to work with and hone their skills using the platforms and tools and/or materials of their future careers or workplaces, practicing how to communicate complex ideas and information clearly and creatively in another form.

Over the last few semesters, we’ve been experimenting with this assignment; it is often assigned as optional or with some student choice and control embedded (the students can still write a traditional essay if they want in some cases, or perhaps they can choose which of the assignments they can respond to with an un-essay), and the students are given the following guidance on how their productions will be evaluated and what writing elements are still required. Like an essay, these requirements are typically meant to be fulfilled in response to a specific prompt about specific literary works.

Un-Essay Project:

This project allows you to construct a multi-modal interpretation of the text(s) in response to the prompt you select. Your project should include thoughtful and thought-provoking interpretation of one or more significant aspects of the text in light of the prompt. 

Along with the artifact that you create (which may or may not have written material) you will also submit a written document, five numbered responses to the five components below (not written as an essay; written as five answers).

  1. A strong thesis statement that interprets the meaning of your creation as a response to the prompt. You can include a paragraph or so of further explanation to support that thesis about the works, your artifact, and the prompt, as needed.
  2. Specific examples (quotes and interpretations of those quotes) from the text that you collect and cite and provide commentary on, indicating how they are reflected, echoed, or somehow represented by your project.
  3. Specific examples (quotes and interpretations of those quotes) from the historical/cultural/theoretical literary contexts that relate. (These can be any of the editorial/historical essays from your Norton including the author biographies, or any outside research articles you want to use; all sources, including those in the Norton must be cited.)
  4. A reflective statement about what you were trying to do and assessing whether or not you were able to achieve your goal in this mode.
  5. A reflective statement about what you learned or realized or deepened your understanding of regarding the literature that this multi-modal way of thinking about produced.

“Okay, but what does un-essay ‘multi-modal’ mean?”

It means incorporating an analytical project or creation that is not primarily a written interpretation and that is not at all an essay.

Samples of what this could be that you can use but that you are not limited to:

  • Artistic response: a visual, digital, or creative writing response to the prompt (a painting, drawing, digital art, poem, song, play-scene (written, not performed) etc.)
  • Interpretive guide: you could create a guide for readers that incorporates visual and written elements; a playbill or museum guide are good examples that you could model.
  • Social media style response (none of which has to actually be posted, but it should be created in the format of one of these styles): a meme collection, a tweet-thread or un-threaded set of tweets, an Instagram story or set of posts, a tiktok, etc. This can include video submissions.
  • An academic version of familiar children’s crafts: a lego response, a pasta mosaic, etc.
  • A crafted response in general: Knitting? Embroidery? Baking? I’m less sure about what this might be or how it might work, and you *really* have to keep in mind your time constraints… but maybe?

So far, though we have tinkered with the directions each semester, we have been impressed and invigorated by the student work and their discussion about the literature and the interpretation and argumentation they present. Further, many of the students have also been deeply engaged with the assignment.

  • “By doing this multi-modal way of thinking, it opened my eyes to how magical literary work can be. This gave me an opportunity to visually see my imagination in a more tangible way. It deepened my understanding of the author’s intentions … Writing in a less restricted form also made it less painful and I did not feel trapped. … It also gave me some of the passion I had for writing back, which I thought I would never feel again.”
  • “Understanding the poems was the hardest task for me because it was so difficult to find the embedded meanings behind the text. However, through this project, I learned the joy of discovering the meanings, and I enjoyed the process of visualizing the meanings with the tools of my choice.”
  • “This Un-Essay gave me a deeper understanding of the novel that I otherwise wouldn’t have with just a regular essay. It required me to go beyond just reading and writing about the book and required me to form not only a connection with the words but read more about how the author relates to her own narrative and how she sees her own writing.”
  • The multi-modal way of interpreting and analyzing the text has allowed a greater understanding of how a text can be viewed and interpreted. In analyzing a text for an essay, it is only the thesis, evidence, and overall structuring of a paper that needs to be accounted for when writing an essay. However, this format requires the argument to be turned into something less structured but still efficient in communicating the overall argument. The artifact we had to create needed to be experimental and creative yet relevant to the idea and to make sense. I found that the project pushed me to go outside my element with my argument, yet I also found it easier to focus on the motifs, themes, and symbols of the text. With the visual aspect of the project, it made it easier to make connections to outside sources in an analogous sense as well as to directly visualize the argument I was making.

The students here remind us that content need not be at odds with creativity. While we need students to meet the SLOs for a class, we can also give them the space to express them in ways that are personal and meaningful and joyful to them. In our Community of Practice over the years, our colleagues have in various ways emphasized the importance of recognizing and honoring who our students are outside of the classroom and outside of their role as students. Through this work, our students get to showcase themselves and their learning. They are skilled and artistic, inspiring and inspired, scholars and more – also, not instead of!

We would like to share with you an informal gallery of our students’ work and invite you to a brief discussion about alternative modes of assessment across and beyond our discipline of English. Join us May 4 to see student work from our classes and chat about ways to encourage students to find their creativity and deepen their thinking in our disciplines.

Dr. Jan Andres
Dr. Kelly Douglass
Dr. Kathleen Sell

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.


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?


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,

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,