When Grading Less Is More

Professors' reflections on their experiences with 'ungrading' spark renewed interest in the student-centered assessment practice.

April 2, 2019
 

When it comes to grading, less is more. So say a number of scholars who have shared their recent experiments with “ungrading” in blog posts and on other social media, sparking renewed discussions about the practice.

“My core hypothesis was that student learning would actually be improved by eliminating instructor grading from the course,” Marcus Schultz-Bergin, assistant lecturer of philosophy at Cleveland State University, wrote of going gradeless this semester in a personal blog post that has since been shared on the popular philosophy site Daily Nous.

“My hope” for students, Schultz-Bergin continued, “is that the reflection they engaged in, and the discussions we had, will lead to a significant commitment in the second half of the course to really achieve what they set out for themselves so that when they tell me they earned an A they can really mean it.”

Thus far, he added, the experiment in his undergraduate philosophy of law course "has had its ups and downs. There are definitely some things I will change going forward, but I do think the gradeless approach can work well in a course like this.”

Experts in ungrading say it’s still relatively rare in higher education, due in part to inertia with respect to pedagogical innovation, the culture of assessment and professors’ anxieties about going gradeless. How will students respond? What will colleagues say? What will administrators think?

Still, ungrading is more common than one might think. And there are sound pedagogical reasons to do it, given the litany of research finding that grades play to extrinsic (not intrinsic) motivation, decrease enjoyment of learning and increase fears of failure. More than that, grades aren’t necessarily a good measure of student learning. And, based on additional research, we know they're subject to rampant inflation.

“There are a surprising number of faculty questioning grades in productive ways, and experimenting with alternative modes of assessment,” said Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, and an early evangelist of ungrading. “If, as teachers, we just ask students why, when and how they learn, what we can get back is way more valuable than any standardized assessment mechanism can reveal.”

Ungrading “creates space for that kind of honest reflection and dialogue,” he said.

As Schultz-Bergin’s post indicates, going gradeless doesn’t mean that students won’t end up with a final grade. Most institutions require that students receive formal marks, after all. But the process typically means that students semiregularly reflect independently, with their peers and with their professors on their learning and performance in a given a course. Those reflections -- which experts say are important to metacognition -- all help students to eventually grade themselves.

Professors who have gone gradeless say that students sometimes give themselves higher grades than they deserve. But they report that it’s uncommon, and that they talk with the student about it when it does happen.

Maha Bali, associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, shared her experience with ungrading for the fourth time on her blog last month. An ongoing challenge is making sure that her grades aren’t inflated. While most students are “honest” and give themselves grades commensurate with their effort, she said, “there are always a few who give themselves A and don’t deserve it and we need to negotiate.”

Elaborating on that process in an email interview, Bali said that midsemester grades are “easy to negotiate via email with specific suggestions for improvement.” By the end of the semester, she said, it’s harder, as one final reflection is due only a few days before grades are filed.

Even so, Bali said, “I only ever had one student argue back and forth with me demanding a numerical breakdown of their grade.”

In general, Bali talks to students about grades being a combination of three things: a single standard -- which she describes as unfair because students arrive with different readiness levels, interests and strengths -- and against a curve or class norm and by growth or effort.

Bali wrote that she started talking about her ungrading approach with students early on in the semester. Unlike Schultz-Bergin, who is doing away with all numeric and letter grades all semester long, Bali gives students numeric and verbal feedback on small assignments. The numbers are “very insignificant in the large scheme of things,” she wrote in her post, “but I don’t want to ignore them completely, so students don’t get a huge cultural shock.”

Susan D. Blum, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame who hasn’t given grades in several years and doesn’t plan to again, is currently editing a book on ungradingStommel has contributed, as has Cathy Davidson, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, whose reflection on her own ungrading experiment at Duke University, her former institution, caught much attention in 2009. (“I can't think of a more meaningless, superficial, cynical way to evaluate learning than by assigning a grade,” Davidson said at the time.)

It was easier for Blum to solicit chapters from those in the humanities and social sciences than in the natural sciences, technology, engineering and math, as the former broad fields more obviously lend themselves to ungrading (in Schultz-Bergin’s case, for example, a philosopher is doing what is arguably a philosophical exercise). But Blum’s book includes contributions from those in STEM and she believes that ungrading lends itself to any environment.

“It certainly fits well with writing, where revision is one of the primary techniques people use and all of the feedback tends to be formative, not summative -- writing and rhetoric people have done a lot of work on this,” she said. “And I know there are people who are working in, let's say, a science course with a common syllabus [across sections], and that would be an obstacle.”

But, in general, Blum said, in any context or discipline, the process is “so much more information than a simple grade could ever be.”

Reflections Across Classrooms

Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, a chemistry instructor at Central New Mexico Community College, has written about her current ungrading effort in her organic chemistry class. Like many other professors who forgo grading students, Sorensen-Unruh offered students a sense of how they should assess themselves and their learning in her syllabus. Most ungrading processes are highly structured. And in Sorensen-Unruh's case, she wanted to make sure that her classes would be counted as prerequisites for students continuing their studies.

So far, she said last week, things are going well. Students are sometimes “thrown off” by being told to lead their own assessment processes, she said, since they're not used to it. But they "seem to realize that the agency I'm trying to encourage them to use regarding their grades is an opportunity to think about their assessment differently.”

As for teaching chemistry in particular, Sorensen-Unruh said she was “required to be a bit more creative when integrating this strategy." Her classroom already centers on active learning, she said, so making time to address individual student concerns in class isn't an issue. But her class is small -- 28 students. Doing this in class of 300 would be impossible without help, she said.

In STEM, she added, “I think ungrading requires a willingness to treat our classrooms as an experimental space where things might not go completely according to plan.” So mentoring, especially for newer professors, would be ideal.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, has previously gone gradeless in a graduate seminar. But she said that she's currently ungrading with undergraduates because her research demonstrates that "a culture of caring matters” to student success, "and it’s time to apply my research to my teaching.”

In her current general education course on caring about college, Goldrick-Rab has 70 students and three teaching assistants. The TAs had to learn the process and the class was "frankly shocked I wasn’t grading. It took them awhile to trust it.”

Then, she said, students "started to come to me, and write to me in self-reflections, things like 'I am so glad I can finally focus on learning rather than wondering if I’m hitting some specific mark. This is what I had hoped college would be.' Others have said it’s 'the first time I felt like a professor really cared about her class.’”

Students still get anxiety surrounding tests, which are scored but not graded, Goldrick-Rab said. "Some can’t quite let go of the idea that there will eventually be a final grade. And there will be -- I have to give one -- but it will be based on their review of their performance across the term, and unless we see something terribly off about their assessment we will use their recommendation.”

Another key concern among professors about ungrading is attendance, though many professors report it doesn’t make much of a difference, either way. Goldrick-Rab said that attendance remains a challenge, but that attendance lags as the term goes on "in every undergrad class every year.”

The key difference now, she said, is that "I know more about why they aren’t there. I get info from the reflections about their serious struggles to juggle the time required for heavy course loads, their work schedules, and their honest struggles to remain focused and committed when they are still sorting out why they are in college.”

Goldrick-Rab, who attributed her teaching shift to Stommel, has no plans to return to grading. "This has been the best semester I’ve had since I started teaching in 2004," she said. "I feel more connected to and motivated by my students, and am convinced I am finally becoming an effective teacher." 

Ungrading isn’t for everyone, however. Ken Bauer, associate professor of computing science at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, recently tweeted that he was returning to something like traditional grading. 

In a blog post Bauer wrote in response to questions about that tweet, he said he believes that he “perhaps went ‘too far’ in giving the freedom and putting my role as 99.9 percent ‘the guide and mentor.’” Bauer said he gave his students some direct guidance and a list of topics to research” with the “intent to give them the freedom to explore.”

But during the first partial grading period, “I simply asked students on the exam to write about a selection of topics in the course so far and to give themselves a numeric grade on a scale of 1-100 (our official grading system).” And they “freaked out. Well, most of them.”

Bauer worked with his students after that to create a loose rubric, which he said seemed to relieve their stress. The results were great. 

“But then came pushback,” he said. “Some students expressed that ‘Hey, you can just do pretty much “nothing” and pass the course,’ or, ‘We students can't be trusted, we need to be monitored and graded.’” Subsequent discussions with students ended in Bauer adopting what he described as a more traditional class structure with ongoing deadlines. 

Bauer said he’s still flexible with students who want to resubmit work and that it’s all part of his learning process. But he’s still searching for what feels “right,” he said.

Schultz-Bergin said last week that he's received a good amount of feedback about his post -- most of it "positive but with a healthy and reasonable dose of skepticism." And "lots of good questions about execution."

Students have responded positively, too, he said, "but of course some more than others." A few have had issues with the "lack of assignment structure, but most have used it as an opportunity to practice important skills a lot without fear of poor grades." 

Schultz-Bergin made three main changes to his course for his experiment. He offered students what he called a "buffet" of learning opportunities which they could complete at their discretion, but required only three reflection essays on their learning, progress and goals. Students also meet with him for two learning conferences, to discuss their portfolio of work and, ultimately, report their grade for the course.

"For me, this is really just a further evolution of various ways I've been working to improve the teaching and learning experience," he said. "Before, I've used alternative grade systems that aim to be responsive to similar concerns that the gradeless classroom responds to. In all these cases it helps me better help students learn and help them reflect on their own learning." 

Blum said that ungrading has been part of the K-12 conversation for some time, in part because these educators tend to talk more with each other about their teaching. By contrast, college and university professors are doing ungrading -- and in similar ways -- but all tend to think they're on their own, she said.

If ungraders need better networks and professional development opportunities, Stommel also said that for ungrading and other novel assessment practices to “flourish, we need to push hard on the culture of assessment -- the reduction of students and their work to data points -- that has taken root across so much of education.”

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