Read about how ungrading in a graduate class changed the author’s experience and helped them center their own reasons for taking the course.
The Teaching Innovation Team offered a summer book club for faculty in which we read Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). In its literal sense, ungrading is the practice of not assigning grades. It has been argued that this will decrease competition between students, create a more equitable space for assessment, and prompt learners to focus on learning as a process (Stommel 2021). But I do not think the practice requires that a course be entirely ungraded. Rather, I describe ungrading as the practice of decentering the grade to recenter learning.
For instructors, this means that you might find opportunities to focus on feedback rather than a grade for certain assignments. But it could also mean that you focus on feedback and reflection for all assignments and negotiate a grade at the end of the semester.
If you have any interest in exploring more about ungrading, I encourage you to check out the book to learn more about how ungrading works and why you might choose to adopt it. But for this piece, I wanted to take some time to provide a student-focused reflection on my experience in an ungraded course. I feel that my perspective as a student could be beneficial to many of us as we consider how we might incorporate these strategies into our classrooms.
I think it is useful to start with a short description of the context. I am working on my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition in the English Department at Ball State. My classes have a mixture of MA and PhD students. For this particular course, we were tasked with completing three individual assignments as well as one semester-long collaborative project.
The entire course was ungraded, and we were informed on the first day that the instructor would focus on providing moments of rich feedback and would engage with us in reflection on our learning and labor. At the end of the semester, we each met with the instructor and made a case for the grade we felt we had earned.
We were tasked in the first week with submitting a reflection in which we set our own course goals, our plan to meet those goals, and a set of criteria that would demonstrate that we met those goals.
If you intend to ungrade an entire course, I see a lot of value in this sort of reflection early in the class. I think it helped give each of us some time to think deeply about the course outcomes, assignments, and materials. This also gave us a quick point of early feedback from the instructor.
This was a new experience for me, which made me a little apprehensive initially. I deeply value the guidance from my instructors, and I feared that I would not know whether I had met course objectives without grades. I equated grades with input, and without their input, could I accurately assign myself a grade?
In essence, I found myself less concerned with how I stacked up with the instructor and was more concerned with how I was meeting my own expectations.
My fears were calmed immediately as I worked on my initial reflection and early course assignments. I quickly learned that I was going to receive detailed feedback. For that reason, I was not going to be assigning a grade in a vacuum, as I had spent the semester interacting with my peers, reflecting personally, and reading instructor feedback.
When I completed my final written reflection and individual conference with my instructor, I had never been more confident in the grade that I felt I had earned. I was able to refer back to my initial success criteria and cite examples of growth that I might not have noticed otherwise.
Learning Over Worry
I have taken many graded courses in my time as a student, and while my grades were a motivator, they motivated through anxiety. I knew that I had to achieve high marks so that I could get into grad school and make something of my career. But this worry led me to focus less on what I was learning and more on what I needed to demonstrate.
Don’t get me wrong, demonstrating proficiency was still expected of me even if my instructor was not assigning a grade for each assignment, but I felt more joy and excitement in my learning than I ever have. These motivators helped me to go above and beyond what was expected of me, and I thought more about how the course materials related to my own academic and professional goals.
In essence, I found myself less concerned with how I stacked up with the instructor and was more concerned with how I was meeting my own expectations. When I struggled with motivation, I could refocus on my personal why for taking the course.
As a result of this ungrading practice, I found that I took more ownership of my work in the course. My instructor certainly had her standards, but I was able to infuse my own goals into the process, which made me feel as though I had a larger stake in the game.
Grades never motivated me to reflect on my learning. Grades motivated me to look at assignment descriptions and produce the minimum standard for an A. That is not the educational experience I want nor deserve. For that reason, I am glad that I got to experience the liberation that ungrading can provide for students.
Call to Action
Consider the students in your course who may have similar motivations and emotions to me. How could you support and motivate these learners to think beyond the grade?
Stommel, Jesse. 2021. “Ungrading: An Introduction.” Jesse Stommel (blog). June 11, 2021. https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-introduction/