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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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/.