Learn about one instructor’s participation in a Faculty Learning Community and how it led to a positive experience with ungrading in their classroom.
As an educator, I have long struggled with the notion of letter grades and even percentages in the classroom. In this blog, I reflect on my grading practices and student feedback after implementing “ungrading” policies in my course.
A Critical Reflection of My Grading Practices
I find grades to more often be demoralizing rather than encouraging, especially in math classes where students need to make mistakes to better their understanding of concepts. I have never been able to rectify the dissonance I feel when preaching growth mindset yet taking points from students when they make a mistake.
In the past, I made myself (and my students) feel a little better about this by offering assignment corrections and exam retakes, which allowed students to demonstrate their most recent understanding of the material. Still, I felt uneasy about putting a point value to students’ understanding or letter grade that falsely reported their learning when there are so many other factors at play.
Participation in the Equitable Grading Practices in Higher Education Faculty Learning Community at Ball State University offered me the resources and opportunity to critically reflect on this dissonance. This Faculty Learning Community (FLC) was a journey of reflection – on my pedagogical practices, my interactions with students, and my personal perspectives on education and learning—and implementation as I incorporated elements of “ungrading” with my MATH 360 students.
Participation in the FLC provided me the opportunity to pose the questions I had been struggling with for years. These questions include: What is a point? What does it mean to weight our tasks and then assign partial credit? How do we extract student understanding and place a value to it? Over time I was able to decide that points were not the way to measure student learning, and I looked forward to shifting my classroom practices to better measure the growth my students displayed in their learning.
At the end of the semester, my Math 360 students expressed their appreciation for the grading scheme – or lack thereof – that I had established in this course. They explained how they felt they were able to focus more on learning the concepts because they were not worried about earning points or making a certain letter grade on each assignment, which led to an overall lowered sense of anxiety about the class.
Discussions with my FLC colleagues caused me to reflect on my interactions with students. Did my actions match my mantra? Did I truly put students’ needs above all else? For the most part, I found that yes, my care for my students’ mental and physical health and their learning really was apparent in my actions. I frequently encourage students to reach out with questions. I build time into most lessons for students to work with their peers and ask questions if they need to. I work to provide ample feedback on assignments and exams. I approach students with respect and collegiality, and the comments and scores on my course evaluations indicate that my students also felt this to be true.
I strive to increase my efforts to connect with students in meaningful ways. When I leave feedback on their work, I try to write it in supportive ways, using “I/we” language instead of “you” language. I have tried to increase the time students speak in class and decrease the time I speak. If it is something a student can say, I try to let them. Based on the responses I continue to get from students, either directly or via other faculty members, I believe my students feel respected and supported in my classes, and I will strive to continue creating this positive atmosphere through my interactions with students.
Education and Learning
One of my greatest struggles as a teacher has always been assigning grades to students at the end of the semester. While we, as educators, view a students’ grades from previous courses as a measure of their learning, we also acknowledge that more than academic abilities factor into course grades. We acknowledge this in the language we use in our syllabi and in the ways we interact with students (e.g., attendance grades; late assignment penalties; etc.). Many of these non-academic factors are systemic in nature and may not be within our direct control. Our FLC conversations caused me to at least question what all goes into a student’s grade, as well as what message these grades send to my students.
At the end of spring semester, during our final conferences, I asked my “ungraded” MATH 360 students what they liked, disliked, or would change about the way we implemented ungrading in our classroom. An overwhelming majority of my students referenced a lower sense of stress throughout our course, citing the ungrading policies as the primary reason for this. They said they felt like they could focus on their learning instead of worrying about their grade. These revelations helped affirm my/our belief that, while grades can serve as a motivator for some students, they also hinder student learning by introducing a stressor into the mix.
Additionally, the conversations I had with my students cemented my belief that grades are unnecessary in the education system. While they may serve to provide insight into a student’s past, I believe this insight is riddled with misleading information. First, as previously mentioned, they do not speak solely to a students’ academic abilities. Second, they only paint a partial picture of those abilities. Third, and perhaps most insidious of all, they serve only to allow a teacher to develop ill-defined pre-conceptions of the student.
The Journey Continues
This Faculty Learning Community experience helped me grow in many ways as an educator, and based on the feedback I received from my students, I believe this growth helped me to serve my students better. I believe questioning my former grading practices, as well as the structure and purpose of grades, helped me to formalize the policies I have long believed in. Allowing students to have a voice in their grade seems to have had a strong impact on student morale and willingness to try and explore in my class.
While I am thrilled with the journey I have begun, I know that I am nowhere close to the destination yet. I will use the feedback I gathered from my students this past semester to make future ungraded courses even better. Specifically, I will include more frequent conferences/check-ins with my students. Some students also requested letter grades on some assignments, such as exams, and while I am not sure I will acquiesce to this request, it is something I will consider as I am planning for future courses.
Have you implemented equitable or ungrading policies in your course? How did your students respond?
Burkus, David. “If You Want to Be the Boss, Say ‘We’ Not ‘I’”. Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/03/if-you-want-to-be-the-boss-say-we-not-i.
Reinhart, Steven C. “Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say!” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School 5, no. 8 (2000): 478–83. https://doi.org/10.5951/mtms.5.8.0478.