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.

Trying out some ungrading

Even though we are still in the midst of a raging global pandemic and there’s tons of bad stuff happening, I decided nonetheless to make a substantial overhaul to my fall classes this semester. I guess we will see in time if this was a good decision or not.

I am trying out a variation on ungrading. My version will include additional reflection prompts and discussions with the students, to help them be more cognizant of their individual learning goals and how they are progressing toward them during the semester. We will check in at multiple times to see how they are progressing and see what kinds of additional or alternative supports they might need from me or fellow students. At the end of the semester, each student will make a written case to me about what grade they think they deserve and why and if it diverges greatly from my assessment of their learning, we will discuss it. If they are underselling their achievements, I will give them my higher grade; if they have an overblown idea of what they accomplished, we will have a chat (I don’t expect this to be a big issue, at least not with these students). Most students in these two classes usually get an A or A-, so I’m not overly concerned with this screwing things up too badly. The hope is that it will do two things: 1) reduce student anxiety and 2) have everyone focus more on how and what they are learning.

I got rid of all points associated with assignments in Canvas. This was the most nerve-wracking part for me. It finally felt real, even though I had been talking about it and thinking about it and planning around it for months. No points. The grade tab would be meaningless. 😳

I am teaching two graduate courses this semester, both of which I’ve taught multiple times. If I was teaching undergrads or a brand new course, I doubt I would be trying this out. Too many new things at once could be hard, and I feel like grad students are going to be easier to convince that this approach will work than undergrads (also, the undergrads I typically teach are in a teacher licensure program and they have a lot of specific requirements). This approach will probably end up taking up more time than what I used to do, but I think it will be a lot better. Grading always made me uncomfortable, and I feel like this approach is going to help me give better feedback to students and support them in better, more tailored ways.

I just finished teaching this first week and introducing the students to the concept of ungrading and walking them through the general plan. Some students seemed a bit puzzled when I talked about it and others were visibly excited (those folks seem to have recognized the term and had some familiarity with it). I think a lot of them are cautiously optimistic. For next week, they will each write up a summary of what their learning goals are for the course.

If you’re interested here’s the language I put in my syllabi around this:

I am trying out a non-traditional grading approach this semester, a variation on “Ungrading” (see Blum, 2020 for more on this). This is partly to relieve some anxiety around points and grades and also to help focus our attention on the process of learning rather than a particular letter grade. This might be in flux a little bit and your thoughts during the process would be helpful for tweaking it and making it successful for everyone. It will involve likely more effort on your part, mostly in the form of being more self-reflective about your learning throughout the semester. I will provide feedback on my observations of your learning as well as providing structure and opportunities for this reflection. Sometimes this feedback will be part of whole class discussions and sometimes it will be individualized. At any point during the semester, I would be happy to sit down and talk with you about how you feel you are progressing with the course content.

You are the person most responsible for your learning. My job as an instructor is to create and structure an environment that will facilitate this learning. I can’t do the learning for you and I also am not the person best suited to knowing whether or not you have really learned the material in a way that is consistent with your learning goals. Each of you are in this class for a different reason. The more that you can reflect on your progress toward your particular learning goals and communicate that to me, the more successful this class will be.

Learning will happen through your engagement in the class content, working on the assignments, and discussing the topics with your fellow classmates. Being fully present in class is an essential part of this process. The more you can be honest with yourself and your classmates about what you don’t understand or are struggling with conceptually, the better we will all be in terms of addressing those concerns together. Of course, not everyone will feel comfortable at first sharing with others in the class, but one of my goals is to create a learning environment in which you feel safe in openly talking about what and how you are learning and what you still need to understand.

What this will involve:

  • Reflection activities about your learning goals and progressing towards those (and perhaps editing them) throughout the semester
  • Self-evaluation of your major assignments and final project
  • At the end of the semester you will make a written case to me about what grade you think you deserve and why and I will compare that to my assessment of your learning. If there’s a big disagreement between our assessments, we will meet and discuss.

Finally, I’d like to thank the members of our little ungrading book club in the spring of 2022 for sharing your thoughts and concerns and ideas around this. The few of you who had already tried this gave me hope for trying this out.

Another Year of Pandemic Teaching

Well, we are doing this again. This past June, when we had a few weeks of almost-normalcy (at least for us vaccinated folks), I really didn’t think we’d be back here again facing another semester of masks and testing and uncertainty and worry. But here we are.

I am lucky because my university has been taking this pandemic seriously from the very beginning. I want to mention that specifically because I know that many other colleges and universities have not done this or have really leaned into ignoring the real and serious harms that can occur when this is not taken seriously. We have had on-demand saliva-based PCR testing available to us as often as we’ve wanted it for the past year. I go to campus, spit into a tube, and a few hours later get a result pushed to an app (and email). That alone was a huge help to me during the last year before I got vaccinated in order to give me some relief to my anxiety about covid.

For this fall semester, they have required everyone to be vaccinated, for which I am very grateful. We still have testing available and I will still go get tested every week (and will encourage my students to do the same), especially now that we’ll be back on campus a bit.

I have chosen to teach in person this semester (and yes, it was a choice, and again, I am lucky that I had this as a choice and that it was not forced on me like at other institutions). This was due to the current set of circumstances, which could change throughout the semester. First, I am teaching two graduate-level courses that are relatively small (10-15 students typically). I have taught them both before, both in-person and remote, and I feel strongly that the class is better when it is in person. It is also, frankly, easier for me to teach in person. Because I am vaccinated and everyone else should be vaccinated and we will all have to wear masks the whole time and I am bringing my portable HEPA filter with me, I feel like it is worth trying to doing this in person. (If I had small children at home who are unvaccinated or if it was a larger class of undergrads – like I’ll have in the spring – I might be making a different choice.) But I am also, in the back of my mind, making alternate plans in case things get worse in a few weeks or a month or two and we’ll have to transition back to remote. I think that’s definitely possible and it won’t be awesome and hopefully we won’t have to do that (for multiple reasons), but at least I know I can manage that and it will be fine.

It’s very strange seeing people back on campus. The calendar in my office is still on March 2020. The vibe seems to be hopeful but uncertain. At least, that’s how I feel. My dog is upset that I am not working from home every day anymore. But, like us, she will adapt.

Also, last fall I added a pandemic and coronavirus statement to my syllabi. I’m including it again this year and have copied it here in case you might find it helpful to adapt to your syllabus:

Pandemic and Coronavirus statement

We are attempting to have as normal of a semester as possible during a global pandemic. I think it is important to remember that this is happening in the background of our learning this semester. The pandemic will affect us all in different ways and at different points in time throughout the semester. It is crucial that we are kind and empathetic towards ourselves and each other during this time. We need to be flexible and adaptable and we need to center caring for each other.

I want to be very clear: your health and the health of your family, classmates, and your community is the most important thing. This includes both your physical and mental health. Please keep me updated with how you are doing and if you need extensions on due dates or other support. I don’t need any specifics about what is going on, I just need you to tell me what you need.

Try not to compare yourself to others; you don’t know what others are or are not going through (this is good advice even when we’re not trying to get through a pandemic).

Teaching in the time of Coronavirus

Our spring semester ended a little bit ago and after having taught online for the second half of it and now planning for an online fall semester, I have some thoughts. First, a little bit about me and my position in all of this, so you can understand where my perspective is coming from. I am an assistant professor at a large public Midwestern university. I study learning and educational technologies. I am an old millennial and have seen first-hand how technology has dramatically changed during my schooling career (from early personal computers in elementary school to broadband internet in college to smart phones and social media now). I have a serious underlying medical condition (type 1 diabetes) that affects my everyday life in sometimes unpredictable ways and makes me much more vulnerable to adverse complications with Covid-19 but also has supplied me with coping mechanisms and resilience to deal with this physical distancing1 and uncertainty that we all now face. Alright, here are my thoughts on teaching (and just being in the world) in this time of crisis and how we can adapt and get through it safely.

Guiding principles during an uncertain time

My guiding principles around this transition to online were flexibility and empathy. Being flexible with myself in how I adapted the course and being ok with making changes week to week as we were figuring it out, and being flexible with my students in understanding what their needs were and how they were changing as the pandemic continued. Empathy is equally important because it’s more important than ever to create a supportive and nurturing classroom culture. And that is built on empathy and trust.

Continue reading “Teaching in the time of Coronavirus”