You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A professor points to a student's textbook while other students around them read.

Students say they work more creatively and collaboratively in courses without a grading scale.

skynesher/E+/Getty Images

The value of grades and assessments in higher education is not a new conversation as educators look to balance student success with learning outcomes, rigor and proper assessments.

One professor is looking to address systemic inequality in grading by “ungrading” her courses—allowing students to determine their own scores.

In a recent episode of the Teaching for Student Success podcast, host Steven Robinow spoke with social work professor Sue Steiner of Chico State about ungrading and how it looks in her classes.

What is ungrading: Ungrading is removing grades from assignments, tests or other forms of assessments to focus on student learning and outcomes.

Steiner, as an educator, has struggled with the subjectivity of grading and the inequality surrounding grades, either because students don’t have the same time to devote to their studies because they are caretakers or are working full-time jobs or maybe because they had unequal skills or knowledge coming into higher education.

“It never felt right, it never felt fair to me,” Steiner explained in the interview.

After listening to Teaching for Student Success interviews with Susan Blum from the University of Notre Dame and Joshua Eyler from the University of Mississippi about grading and ungrading, Steiner decided to try it out for herself.

How it works: Steiner had gotten rid of tests in her courses years ago but, starting in fall 2021, she removed all point values from assignments, attendance and group projects.

At the start of the semester, students listened to the Teaching for Student Success podcast episodes on ungrading to learn about the concept. Then, Steiner would introduce her ideas about ungrading and her expectations for the course about grading in the first class meeting.

“I spent a lot of time talking to them about why I want to do this from a student learning perspective … and we talk about what motivates behavior change,” Steiner said. Instead of having an extrinsic motivation like a letter grade, students have to develop an intrinsic motivation for their learning.

Throughout the course, Steiner gives detailed feedback on assignments and essays but does not provide a letter or point grade.

At the end of the term, students turn in a writing assignment, providing a couple of paragraphs about what they’ve learned, how much effort they put into class and the assignments, what they did well, and what could go better. Then they give themselves a letter grade based on their work.

Steiner’s ungrading, however, came with some caveats. Students had to turn in all assignments to grade themselves. If they didn’t, Steiner would grade them. The other exception came if the students didn’t participate in their groups for collaborative assignments, Steiner would also grade them.

“I also said to them, if anybody wanted me to grade them, I would, and that they didn't need to decide now … I’ve got their papers, and I can keep an easy tally of points as we go along,” Steiner said. “I would be happy to give grades at the end of the semester if anybody wanted.”

The finer points: Steiner has ungraded for two semesters now, teaching two graduate courses each term, with about 20 students in each session.

Teaching graduate students means there is less pressure on grades, period, as master’s grades are rarely taken into account for a Ph.D. program among the few who continue on.

So far, Steiner has given all her students A’s, despite their self-assessment.

Social work, as a field of study, is not one that gives hard grades, Steiner explained. It’s not unusual to give a student all A’s both in graduate and undergraduate studies, so there’s less pressure or discomfort around too many students earning A’s.

The impact: Steiner surveyed her students at the end of the semester to understand the impact ungrading had on their learning and found, across the board, students benefited from the process.

“One hundred percent of them said that they learned more or as much in this class compared to the other classes,” she shared. “One hundred percent said they put in as much effort into the class and into assignments, and 100 percent said they … did as much or more of the reading as they did in other classes.”

Survey feedback also indicated students felt less worried or stressed about their coursework, they took more risks in their assignments, felt like they were more creative in their writing and shared more personal opinions rather than looking to meet a professor’s expectations.

From her perspective, Steiner saw more students submit draft assignments for her to review prior to submitting them formally and saw more revisions from students who wanted to ensure they understood the course material. She has also seen a higher quality of work among the classes she ungraded.

Steiner admits that some of this might be her curriculum and her teaching style, but the quality of work and the personal level of interest were what surprised her.

Looking ahead: After her ungrading experience, Steiner says she will never go back to grading in her courses.

Steiner imagines ungrading can and should be applied to an undergraduate class of any size—the primary consideration would be time and connecting with students about their grades.

“You have less time in bigger classes, so reading through all the things, it feels more complicated to me,” she explains.

Three faculty members in Steiner’s department, including herself, are currently ungrading, and next semester four more will join them.

Do you have an academic success tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

Next Story

Found In

More from Academic Life