According to Jesse Stommel (2021), “’Ungrading’ means raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply ‘not grading.’” The COVID-19 pandemic pushed me to consider alternative approaches to assessment to increase flexibility and decrease stress during the crisis. I also wanted my assessment practice to explicitly acknowledge diversity, equity, and inclusion, knowing that students start from different places, represent diverse publics, and bring valuable ways of knowing to the classroom beyond traditional markers of academic “success.” I was already disillusioned with grading and its perpetual power to distract from students’ learning and my teaching. But more than that, I wanted my students to engage more deeply with the pressing public issues of our times (e.g., the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and ensuing unrest). As Susan Blum (2020) writes, “my grading practice was driving a wedge between the teacher I was and the teacher I want to be” (p. 45). When I heard about “ungrading” in the summer of 2021, my interest was piqued. There are many approaches to “ungrading,” with common goals of prioritizing student learning and enhancing intrinsic motivation.
I have now “ungraded” in four courses. For context, I typically teach classes of 40-45 upper division students and assign a combination of low and high stakes analytical and reflection essays. I considered several alternative assessment methods, but ultimately decided on a self-assessment approach. I do not grade individual assignments, but instead provide qualitative feedback to prompt further thought or revision. In three essays throughout the semester, students identify their learning goals and then reflect on the progress they made at the midterm and the end of the course. In the final self-assessment, students reflect on changes in their curiosity about the subject matter, what they learned about how they learn, and how the course format affected their learning. They also propose their final grade and to elaborate the criteria they use to assign it. I include this statement in the syllabus: “I’ll review the grade that you suggest and either accept or revise your grade.” Do all of my students give themselves “As?” They do not. My grade distribution has remained the same and all of the (few) grade modifications I have made have been to adjust grades up, not down.
The benefits of “ungrading” have been twofold. First, students express that the freedom from stress over grades is profound and allows them to focus on their learning, which as one student put it “is why we’re here.” Second, “ungrading” has turned assessment into a conversation with my students about what they’re learning and how they’re learning it instead of a contentious game of points. Through feedback, I can still correct errors and press students to take their thinking further, but without the punitive effects of points. My assessment practices now better reflect the diverse publics my students represent, since students can begin and end at different places but learn and grow at their own pace. As a result, I am able to recognize my students in new ways; as bell hooks (1994) writes, “To hear each other…to listen to one another, is an exercise in recognition.”