Ungrading Reflection

After trying out ungrading last semester (Fall 2022, read about it here), I wanted to reflect a bit on how it went and what kinds of things I think went well and what I will change for next time. I had three main goals for doing this: (1) to reduce anxiety/stress for the students around grades, (2) to help reinforce ideas about how learning works, and (3) to allow for more flexibility and to prioritize learning goals that the students have for themselves.

Now that the students have submitted their final reflections and grades, I’ve been able to reflect on how well I think we achieved those three goals and plan changes for this semester.

Reducing anxiety and stress

In terms of student anxiety, I do think it helped with that, but it took a bit of convincing. Old habits die hard and over the first few weeks of the semester I had to keep reminding students of the ungrading approach. A few students asked about their grade a few weeks into the course, and I in turn asked them how they thought they were doing in the course. They were not used to this question, and some students needed more reassurance that it was really going to be ok that they didn’t constantly have someone else telling them how well they were doing.

In their final reflections, multiple students reported feeling relieved from the “the stress of getting high grades” and being able to focus on what they’re learning instead.

I do think that my ungrading approach lowered their anxiety and stress for my classes, but I worried that my flexibility would make it so that they de-prioritized my class so much (in order to fulfill the non-flexible standards and meet the stress of their other classes) that they would either not meet the learning goals we set out to achieve or that they would just not do some of their assignments at all. And for sure, some students turned things in late and some decided not to do a few assignments at all. Which is their prerogative. And was the point. It’s up to them if a certain assignment is worth their effort and time. My job is to convince them that it is worth their time and that it will help them understand the material better.

Improved understanding of learning

One student said: “It was nice to see that I was motivated to work on each of the class assignments because I was aware that I was going to get a benefit from the learning process and not because of the pressure of a grade.“

What are assignments for? Why are we doing the things we are doing in class? I wanted to really grapple with these questions myself as I planned for instruction, but also include my students in reflecting on what they were learning and why I had structured things the way I had.

It made me sort-of rethink each assignment and each assigned reading and class activity. Because I had to justify their inclusion to the students differently than before. My argument was that my job as their instructor was to create an environment conducive to learning (including picking out readings, creating assignments to reinforce the content in the readings, structure class activities around that, foster a specific kind of classroom environment, etc.) and their job was to do that learning. But part of that agreement was that I needed to explain (at least explicitly to myself, if not to them) why I chose to structure the class this way and why I asked them to do certain things. I had to be more explicit in my decisions, which was a good thing and will continually improve my design of these courses and my teaching.

Flexibility and individualization

We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and still need to provide flexibility to our students. But, of course, we should be doing this anyway. Things are still going to come up (people getting sick, people dealing with family members getting sick, conference travel, etc.). Allowing students more agency in choosing to do or not do assignments (or to do them late or do them up to the effort level they had available at that time) is a net good, even if it makes things a bit more difficult on my end (i.e., I might have things back-loaded in terms of giving feedback to lots of late assignments). But I also realize that this flexibility on my part is only possible because I have relatively small classes of graduate students who are mostly responsible. This approach would need to be altered quite a bit for a large undergraduate class. There are different challenges with different types of classes, and if you want to adapt some kind of ungrading for your class, you will need to think carefully about what kinds of boundaries you can set up with your time (or your TA’s time) to balance that with the flexibility you can give the students.

Reflections on my teaching

In reading their final reflections, I got a better sense of what they learned than I typically would have just from my observations of them during class and through reading their assignments. It was really nice to see the additional level of understanding about what they did or did not learn and how it has helped them both in and outside of class. So, not only did the reflection help the students (I believe) in being more aware of their own learning, it also brought me into their minds more than normal which allowed me to have new insights into their learning and my teaching.

Ungrading and confronting academic ableism

Ableism is rampant in academia. This post is not set up to fully unpack that or provide full solutions for confronting that. But, I do think that ungrading can be helpful in revealing some of these built-in ableist policies, addressing this ableism in a small way, as well as offer some avenues for reducing the burden that typical course requirements and deadlines pose on disabled students particularly.

Some students gave themselves lower grades solely because of missed deadlines. They are used to being penalized for late assignments because traditionally schooling cares more about deadline adherence than about learning. This is unfortunate.

Through the process of revealing more about why instruction and assignments are organized a certain way, we can also interrogate the reasons behind how things are traditionally done. Being forced to justify these instructional decisions should help instructors (and students, to some extent) understand more about how many of these policies are not for learning reasons but for other purposes. If you haven’t interrogated why you are taking points off for late assignments, it might be a good idea to start thinking about that.

Final thoughts

I guess the main question I have now (and you, dear reader, might have for me) is whether or not I would do this again. And, I’m happy to report, that I am implementing ungrading again this semester with another graduate seminar course. As to whether I will attempt it with an undergraduate course for pre-service teachers at some point in the future, I’m still a bit unsure. But I am convinced at least that this approach has lots of promise for improving teaching and learning.

some thoughts on AERA 2012

I just got back from AERA 2012, which was in Vancouver, British Columbia during the past week. It was my fourth AERA, and I hadn’t attended last year because I had basically sworn off the conference and decided I wasn’t going to go very frequenly anymore. Luckily, I was invited to a session at NCME (the sister conference to AERA that was co-occurring) and decided to go (it also didn’t hurt that the conference was in Vancouver). It turned out to be a great conference all around, and I went to a few good sessions and met with lots of old and new friends and colleagues.

The best thing about AERA usually is that everyone goes to AERA. I heard that this year there were over 13,000 people registered. That’s a bit crazy. This huge zoo is people is usually one of the reasons that I don’t like AERA, but for some reason it didn’t seem so bad this time around. Perhaps it was the way the conference center centre and hotels were located/configured, which forced people to walk around and run into people more than in other places. Or maybe it was that many of us chose not to get international cell/data packages and were reliant on congregating in certain places having wifi (and then consequently spreading around the passwords for the wifi). Whatever it was, I ended up running into lots of people that I wanted to talk to and had lots of interesting discussions.

I think also that one difference this time around was that I felt that for the first time I was able to help start connecting other people together, instead of relying on my advisors and professors to connect me to people they knew. That type of thing still happened, of course, and is an essential part of academic networking, but I was taking on that role for other, younger researchers now. And that felt kind of nice.

One particularly interesting set of conversations centered around using games in classrooms, how students might be viewing educational games within the context of a classroom setting, and how that context might (a) change how the student views the game/simulation and/or (b) change the type and amount of learning that is possible in that game (versus an out-of-school, informal, or student-directed session). This could possibly be highly dependent on what educational value the student might attach to the game outside of the classroom in the first place. For example, a commercial game being used in the classroom might have a larger “learning differential” than a game specifically designed to be used for learning (either informally or in a classroom). Definitely something to think some more about.

Vancouver was also a great city to visit. We had wonderful weather almost the entire time, which just highlighted how beautiful the city is. There was lots of great food to be eaten, especially seafood (yum!).

On my last afternoon, I (along with some others) went to the Vancouver Aquarium. It was a really nice facility and I would totally recommend going there if you are visiting and you like awesome things. Here are a couple pictures of the aquarium and Vancouver. More pictures will be posted soon (somewhere).


Part of the Vancouver skyline, from Stanley Park.


Awesome jellyfish at the Vancouver Aquarium.


Part of the sea lion feeding/training non-show.


Baby clownfish. Awww.


Totem pole exhibit in Stanley Park.


Watching sea planes land from the Convention Centre.

[side note: all of these pictures were taken with my iPhone 4 because (a) it’s what I had with me the entire time and (b) my better camera just broke.]

Don’t believe everything you hear

Yesterday I saw this BBC video about the McGurk effect. Basically, it’s a phenomenon where your brain interprets sounds differently based on what you are seeing. It’s a really amazing and robust effect, especially since it is not dependent on you not knowing about it.

This reminds me a lot of when I was teaching undergraduate physics labs and we would do the famous ball drop experiment where you would release two balls (same size but different mass) from the same height and see which one hits the ground first. The majority of these intro students would usually predict that the more massive ball would hit the ground first (a common intuition to have). The interesting thing was that a few of these students would still think this after we had done the experiment.

I remember asking some of them why they still thought that the more massive ball hit the ground first. And inevitably, some of them would say, “I heard it hit first.” At the time, this seemed kind of crazy to me because I had been there and heard the two balls hit at the same time and other people in their group had also heard them hit together. But they insisted that they heard a separation.

Later when I started studying science education I learned the name for this phenomenon: theory-laden observations. The students thought that the more massive ball would hit first and this influenced how they took in information and therefore their observation confirmed this idea. However, it seems possible that it might be even more complicated than that. Although the McGurk effect seems primarily to be focused on hearing different phonemes and sounds based on lip movements, it’s possible that the parts of the brain being confused in that area are the same as the ball-drop phenomenon. Students *think* they see the massive ball hit first and therefore *hear* it hit first.


(via kottke)