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.

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