What is ungrading?
Ungrading is loosely defined as purposefully eliminating or minimizing the use of points or letters to assess student work. Some aspects of ungrading might also include letting students decide their grade or eliminating grades entirely in favor of qualitative evaluation only. Moving away from points or letter grading has been shown to reduce anxiety that may negatively affect students’ physical and mental health and educational achievement.
Ungrading asks us to consider the following questions:
- What do we want grading to do (or not do) in our classes (for students and teachers)?
- Do grades have any intrinsic meaning or is their value purely extrinsic? Does assessment have a different meaning when it is formative and not summative?
- What would happen if instructors didn’t grade? What issues would not grading raise for students and instructors? How would institutions be forced to rethink their evaluation systems?
- Can we imagine an assessment that encourages discovery and learning through the assessment process?
What are the benefits of ungrading?
Oftentimes, conventional grading schemes do not provide accurate information about students’ accomplishments, adequacy, or growth in learning. Point and letter grading might also reinforce extrinsic motivation, fear, and avoidance, which negatively affect students’ writing, thinking, and personal and intellectual development. In response, ungrading can help to support a more equitable and engaged classroom. Ungrading’s process-oriented approach and focus on feedback and conversation between instructors and students can be a more equitable type of assessment. Feedback-centered assessment also reduces student anxiety and stress about grades, which has only intensified during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Non-traditional grading practices also offer an opportunity for students to participate and engage collaboratively in their learning experience.
Ungrading works better when an instructor “feels they can fully own their pedagogical approach,” which is contingent on administrators and institutions defending “the academic freedom of teachers, especially adjuncts” (Stommel, 2018). Though there is not one approach that will work well for every instructor, every course, or every institution, the following approaches may be helpful for instructors to consider when thinking about what feels organic to their own pedagogical approach:
Have the first ⅓ of the course ungraded to give students an experimental period before the more formal course activities begin.
Decide to grade only a few major assignments in a course.
Have students create self-assessments.
Encourage process letters in which students describe their learning and how their work has evolved over the semester. Photographs, audio and video can be creative complements to these letters.
Co-create assessments with students that might take the form of organizing a film festival, reading series or exhibition as a way of sharing their work with the class.
Use contract grades, described by Inoue as “calculating course grades by labor completed and [dispensing] almost completely with judgments of quality” (Inoue 2014, see CEP 2-page on Contract Grading).
Use student-created portfolios, allowing them to decide the form and scope of the portfolio.