Adventures in Ungrading

How do you reconcile your role as a teacher with your role as a grader. Giving expert feedback– formative assessment—is not the problem. That’s a part of what good teachers do. Feedback helps students improve their work and enhance their learning. It’s grades that I think are problematic.

Teachers often think that giving grades provides incentives for students to work harder and learn more. But I’ve come to believe that giving grades merely provides incentives for students to get better grades, which is not necessarily the same as learning more. Indeed, I think that grading can be an impediment to learning. Let me explain.

When I was a junior faculty member, I tried to be “rigorous.” A good final grade distribution for me was no more than 10% As, after all, an A was defined as “unusual excellence”), I tried to give 20% Bs, 50% Cs, 15% Ds and no more than 5% Fs. As an economist, I believed that incentives matter. So if I was too easy a grader, students wouldn’t be motivated to study, and so they wouldn’t learn very much.

Over time, I learned that I could raise or lower the grade distribution by changing the proportion of more challenging to less challenging questions.   So the mean grade (and the distribution of grades) was pretty arbitrary. That made me start thinking more carefully about what I wanted students to learn so that I could better align my assessments with my desired outcomes.

I discovered that grades can easily become a disincentive for learning. While countercultural, there is a fair amount of literature on the disincentives of grading, as noted by Jesse Stommel in a recent presentation. Alfie Kohn points out:

“Research shows three reliable effects when students are graded. They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in learning itself.”

Likewise, Peter Elbow observes:

“Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning.”

By contrast, Racheael Kettner-Thompson says,

“In a gradeless classroom, students are expected to be creative, take risks, fail, and learn from their mistakes in the name of improving themselves and gaining knowledge. In my classroom, students assess their own work and one another’s. They receive feedback from me and their peers and they use this feedback to promote self-reflection and analysis of their work.   These are skills successful people use in the real world.”

Even the Chronicle has an example of ungrading.

Grading tends to change student focus from learning to grades. This is true for strong students as well as weaker ones. (Indeed, many strong students are very good at gaming the system for grades.)  Anyone who has taught for any length of time has seen what happens when one returns the first graded assignment. A grade is often treated by students as a moral judgment. After you give a “low” grade, (whatever their standard for low is) they don’t quite trust you anymore that learning is the point of your class.

My goal as a teacher is to help students learn from where they are (however high or low) to the most they can achieve. But how?

One way to do this may be ungrading.  Last semester I may have had my best First Year Seminar ever. The focus of the course was the question: Is economic inequality a problem in the U.S., and if so, what should be done about it. I told students I was interested in helping them learn the most they could about this question, but that I viewed grades as an impediment to deep learning. I told them the course would have a variety of writing, speaking and research assignments, and that I would give them extensive feedback on each, but that I wouldn’t put a grade on any. We spent a class period talking about grades, and what grades mean. I persuaded them that in a course that pursued an open question like ours, grades in the normal sense of showing content learning didn’t really make sense. What I wanted was students who cared about digging into the question and were willing to invest their full selves in the enterprise. I didn’t want merely to sort students on their pre-existing ability as writers, speakers and researchers.

I introduced the schema I have used before that in such a course, one’s grade should depend on two things: the engagement one demonstrates and the insight one contributes. We brainstormed about how one could demonstrate engagement and insight, and we decided that consistently achieving one or the other was “worth” a B, consistently achieving both was worth an A, and achieving neither was worth a C or less.

The course went extraordinarily well.   About a third of the students (5) seemed to totally buy into the program. About a third (5) seemed to act as if they bought into the program, though I think deep down they may not have believed what I was doing. Still they acted as if they did, working to achieve engagement & insight.  I asked students to blog weekly to narrate their learning in the seminar.  Some students blogged about connections they found between the topic of our class and great literature. Several identified relationships between what we discussed and what they were learning in other courses.  Who knew that courses could be related?  Two students seemed to take advantage of the program, doing just enough work to be adequate, and two students seemed totally at sea with what was expected.  They couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around being responsible for their own learning.

While ungrading may not be appropriate for every course, it certainly was for my FSEM.  Seth Godin recently wrote, “Is it foolish to build a school that relies on students to take responsibility, to learn for the sake of learning, to lead–even though we know that this isn’t what they’ve been trained to do since birth?”

He continues, “if we want students to develop a desire to actually learn, we’re going to have stop rewarding them for just what’s on the test.”

HT to Gardner Campbell and Jesse Stommel who independently inspired this post, Gardner who has shared his thoughts on many of the underlying themes with me, and Jesse whose writing and speaking on ungrading gave me the final push at last year’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute.

Image Credit: Robert Hruzek Bad Grade via flickr.

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3 Responses to Adventures in Ungrading

  1. Have you read Drive by Daniel Pink’s?

    If not, here is a video highlighting the premises.

  2. sgreenla says:

    Yes indeed. See here and here.

  3. Shannon says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience. I can’t help but think I would have absolutely enjoyed an ungraded class you taught. Even at the time (wow, almost 13 years ago?) I recall you did not place a great emphasis on grades.
    One of the things that inspires me about you and your teaching is that you continue to try and and find ways to connect to students and show them that they are not their grades and that their is value in deeply engaging in what they are learning. It seemed to work on me all those years ago 🙂

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