My Ungrading Experiment

Erica M. Dolson reflects on her old grading practices and how she switched to new ones because of a very human experience: frustration.

September 7, 2022
A black-and-white letter A that looks as if it's been printed by a dot-matrix printer. The top dots are farther apart, as if they have been blown by the wind.
(Zeynep Sezer/stock/getty images plus)

The first time I graded a set of papers, I was a graduate teaching assistant in my M.F.A. program. While my title was teaching assistant, I taught my own classes and was solely responsible for the lesson planning, teaching, assessing and grading.

The first assignment my composition students tackled was a combination narrative-analysis about creativity in their lives. I felt so proud of that assignment, although I cringe now to write that summary. Despite a detailed prompt and rubric, it was unclear exactly what I wanted them to do. Yet they did their best. So many of them excelled at the narrative portion—I read stories about cheerleading and band and Thanksgiving traditions. But they fell short on the analysis of those moments, and, as a result, their grade suffered.

I hadn’t yet begun collecting and returning papers electronically, so I watched as, one by one, my students looked at their graded work. Their faces fell. Some may have cried. At least one hit a desk in frustration.

I hadn’t asked those students about their writing process or about what they learned from the assignment. Even without their reflections, grading their work proved more personal than I had expected. Years later, I still remember the natural voice, the lively writing that sprang from some of the pieces. Shouldn’t a distinct and memorable style count for something? And how much? It felt impossible to quantify. I hope I acknowledged those important elements in my comments, even though I largely ignored them in the final grade.

Now, in my 10th year of teaching, I’ve learned another way to evaluate student work: ungrading. This practice removes traditional grades from a class, instead relying on regular feedback and student reflection. The goal is for students to think less about what they are earning and more about what they are learning.

In the last year, I studied this method more intensely, relying heavily on the work of Susan Blum, Jesse Stommel and others. During the spring 2022 semester, I dived in and, with the support of a teaching and learning design fellowship from my institution, implemented a system of ungrading in my creative writing survey class.

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I designed this somewhat nontraditional grading policy in a pretty traditional way: students received feedback on their work but only earned a complete/incomplete for each assignment. They had opportunities for revision, reflection and self-assessment. During the final exam period, we met in individual conferences to determine their grade in the course, a conversation my students started after completing an in-depth reflection on their growth and learning over the previous weeks.

Throughout the semester, I surveyed my students, posing questions about their relationship to grades and their understanding of ungrading practices. With each survey I administered, I thought about my own responses to those questions and realized how closely intertwined I view my authority in my classroom and my grading practices. As each week of the semester passed, I saw how ungrading brought humanity—both my students’ and my own—to the center of the course.

Why I Chose to Ungrade

I ultimately came to ungrading because of a very human experience: frustration. Early in the fall 2021 semester, I met with a student in one of my classes. When I asked if she had concerns about the upcoming semester, she responded, “How do you grade?” Such questioning irritates me, ignoring, as it does, all the materials—rubrics, assignment prompts, the syllabus—that clearly state the learning objectives and grading criteria. But this time, I felt not only disappointed but disheartened. I had hoped we’d talk about this student’s writing goals and experiences. Or maybe she’d share ideas for her semester-long project. I knew nothing of the pressures, anxieties or past experiences fueling her focus on grades.

This spring, my creative writing students and I started each class with a daily check-in, a practice I learned from Felicia Rose Chavez’s Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. I adapted the practice somewhat and began each class with a guided question, most often about the reading or topic of discussion that day (the zone where I feel most comfortable). Sometimes, however, I’d ask about my students’ lives: What are you looking forward to about the upcoming break? What’s one good thing that happened to you last week? As we circled the room, I’d answer, too.

During one of our final classes, I asked students to share a highlight of their semester. Some talked about their classes—mine and others. But most mentioned the joys of making new friends and getting more involved on campus. Each semester, I fall into a pattern: teaching consumes me, and I see the people in my classes as writing students first. In myriad ways, I’m reminded that in addition to academics, my students have jobs and families and relationships to tend to. It’s humbling to realize that my writing class fills such a small sliver of their lives.

I found this same recognition of my students’ humanity in their reflections. Before this past semester, I’d never thought to ask students outright about their learning. I ‘d assumed they’d demonstrate all they’d gleaned from the course in the work they submitted. Now, in their cover letters accompanying each assignment, I read about their process, their triumphs, their struggles, their effort. In their in-depth midterm and final reflections, which I adapted from Susan Blum’s materials, I saw how my students progressed through each of the course’s learning objectives and their personal goals, which we set during the first weeks of class. I discovered what they learned from each writing assignment, what they enjoyed about the class, where they struggled.

While I know how exasperated I become when a student appears unengaged, I found myself softening each time someone acknowledged this on their own. I could relate to their honest admissions that, sometimes, other priorities took precedence. As I read about the work they put into the course, I empathized. After all, during a semester when I teach between 50 and 60 students, I, too, bump my own writing to the bottom of my to-do list. At the end of each semester, as my students complete the course evaluations, I exit the room and hope they at least acknowledge how hard I’ve worked.

Leaning Into Subjectivity

Despite the experience I now bring to my teaching, I embarked on my ungrading experiment feeling slightly unsteady. By removing grades, would I actually increase the stress of my grade-conscious students? Would they view the course as a free-for-all with a guaranteed A? Was I—an untenured, full-time lecturer—putting my job in jeopardy by trying something new? I felt fortunate to have the support of my institution—and not just collegial enthusiasm from co-workers, which I did receive, but a formal fellowship and course release that provided the time and resources to pursue this new practice.

Luckily, my students were onboard, too. At the start of the semester, I shared my relationship with grades—as a student and a teacher. Together, we read some of Stommel’s discussions on ungrading. Even the more skeptical, uncertain students seemed curious about how it would go.

I practiced ungrading in only one of my classes this spring and couldn’t help but compare the experience to my traditionally graded courses. In those classes, I evaluate assignments with a structured rubric, awarding a final percentage and corresponding letter grade each time. Those grades—89, 77, 97— seemed so arbitrary now, and I thought back to my first full-time teaching job, when I served on a committee tasked with crafting a universal rubric. As we outlined the criteria for each grade, we found ourselves stalled. “How do we describe a B?” we wondered.

“It’s just, it’s fine. It’s a B,” one committee member said, shrugging.

Forget quantifying the criteria. A group of writing instructors couldn’t even articulate it.

At the 2021 Association of Writers & Writing Programs virtual conference and book fair, I watched a session about responding to creative writing. One of the panelists acknowledged her bias—she’s drawn to writing that she finds compelling and to writing styles similar to her own. What a huge relief to hear this dirty little secret spoken aloud: sometimes, grading writing is subjective.

Ungrading allowed me to lean into this subjectivity. This was perhaps the most humanizing element of the practice. I became a reader of my students’ work—not the reader. Free from fears that I would be accused of only appreciating work I agreed with or to which I could relate, and free from the pressure to appear an infallible authority, I could respond more honestly. In the margins, I posed questions and noted emotional responses: where I felt heartbroken, where I was confused or surprised, where I laughed.

Often in my professional life, I remember advice from my internship supervisor when I was a college junior working at a local news station. One of the interns’ responsibilities included following up on promising tips. Because we interned in the investigative reporting unit, we often called people who found themselves in vulnerable situations: a hack veterinarian had hurt their pet; a scammer had stolen their savings; in some painful and humiliating way, they’d been duped.

“Remember, you’re a person first,” my supervisor advised from his corner desk each time one of us picked up the phone, our fingers poised to dial.

When I worked as a news reporter just out of college, this advice served me well. But I wasn’t convinced it was great guidance once I entered the classroom. In my first teaching gig in graduate school, I was in my 20s, barely older than the students assigned to my class. My petite, 5'2" frame didn’t carry a strong physical presence, and I’d been warned—along with the other women in my cohort—that our gender would require that we work harder to establish authority.

With those factors in mind, I vowed that my students would see me as a teacher first, and my approach to the job reflected this. I implemented my own dress code—no jeans. My syllabi included uncompromising policies about attendance, late work and class participation. I left copious comments on student essays, responding to the writer’s ideas yet also defending the ultimate grade I’d award. In my efforts to earn respect from my students, my “teacher-first” methods morphed into a “teacher-only” mentality.

I’d assumed so many of those stringent early policies made a strong statement about my authority in the classroom. “Take writing seriously. Take this class seriously,” they implored.

But in a different way, they also emphasized the person behind the policies. “I’m trying to be a good teacher,” they confided. “Please give me a chance. Please take me seriously.”

In her preface to her 2020 collection, Ungrading, Blum writes about how the COVID-19 pandemic caused faculty members and institutions to review their grading practices. “The deeper question, sometimes raised and often skirted,” she writes, “is of what grades mean at all.”

Even before I began ungrading, the pandemic had brought much more humanity to my teaching. My students and I saw with new clarity how environment and stress levels impact learning and work habits. We also saw into each other’s homes. They watched my dog periodically pop into a frame on Zoom. They know which mugs I use when I drink my morning coffee. After our return to campus, on days when my to-do list seemed overwhelming, I’d dress casually for work, and so now they have also seen me in jeans, my hair pulled into a ponytail. It only seemed natural to extend some of this humanity into my courses.

And I did: when I participated in our daily check-ins; when I offered a sample of my own writing for a mock workshop (a practice I’d read about in several creative writing texts but was always too afraid to try); when, just before my students completed the end-of-semester course evaluations, I shared my own assessment of how I’d done this semester.

If I could revisit that earlier set of essays, I would evaluate them differently. I can’t repair any damage I did to that first class—whether to their GPAs, or worse, to their relationship with writing and their sense of themselves as writers. But that was a formative moment for me as a teacher, and I wonder if my current focus on grades is meant to make up for that mistake of years ago. It’s only now that I feel confident enough to acknowledge it was a mistake. Stripping off the polished veneer I attempted to present at work was a relief—as was reading my students’ work and composing an end note without the expectations and pressures of a rubric.

Valuing the Process

In the spirit of ungrading, I’d give myself a B for this experiment. I had planned and researched ungrading practices well; I checked in with my students often. Above all, I learned a lot.

I assumed the final average would be similar to that of other writing classes I teach, but it was slightly lower. Many of my students used this time without the pressure of grades to take risks and focus on their writing. It surprised me to learn just how often my students check their grades on Canvas, our online course management system, monitoring the fluctuations in their final average each time a new assignment posts. It’s valuable for me—and my students—to realize the extent to which grades motivate.

But as I move forward, I need to revise the semester reflections and provide better guidance as students ponder and discuss their learning. When I met with each student for 15 minutes during finals, I’d already read their last reflections, and I listened while they suggested a grade and defended that suggestion. It struck me how heavily they weighed effort and engagement over any final product, and I discovered, with some surprise, that I, too, value their process and their contributions to the daily work of class just as much as—or maybe more than—any polished composition. I struggled, sometimes, to trust their own assessment of their learning, to not use ungrading as a means to worm my way into the grading process, to make sure every grade landed where I thought it should.

I found enough value in the practice that I will revise and try again—and probably revise and try again after that. There seems something deeply human in this process that’s imperfect, messy, a work in progress. Yet valuable all the same.

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Erica M. Dolson is a lecturer in English at Elizabethtown College.

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