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.
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.