So, you want to take the grades out of teaching? A beginner’s guide to ungrading
Susan D Blum shares her key recommendations for anyone wishing to remove grades from their teaching, in order to focus their students’ energies upon learning
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Ungrading is a set of practices that question the focus on assessment and instead put learning at the centre of higher education.
Although you have come here for practical advice about how to ungrade, I warn you: ungrading is connected with the philosophy of education and with views of schooling in general (and politics and social values). You may not agree with me, or others, about our fundamental principles. There is no way to disconnect practices in classrooms from other ideologies of the person. But if these principles align with yours, read on. I, and many others, have written about these elsewhere.
- The fundamental reason we are in school is to foster learning.
- All students deserve a robust opportunity to learn.
- Coercion is not the best way to facilitate learning.
- Assessment is in service to learning; it is not the central goal of school.
- If all students learn well, they should all be able to be recognised for that learning.
- Learning is multidimensional.
- Compliance and behaviour may or may not facilitate learning, but they are two different things.
- Fear is a poor dimension of communities of learners.
- Perfectionism is often an outcome of our conventional grading practices and is harmful.
Because grading, conventionally done, does not facilitate intrinsic motivation and flattens communication, and because it leads to cheating, superficial appearance of learning and deep anxiety, I and many others have moved our practices away from grading. Ungrading comes in many flavours, some of which resemble, to varying extents, dimensions of familiar grading (contract grading, labour-based grading, specifications grading, mastery-based grading).
Whichever version of ungrading you use, most of us recommend the following:
- Focus on active, involved, ungraded learning: Early in the semester, from the first day, facilitate students’ active participation in the learning of the entire class. They can learn comfortably and it can be deep, fun and not stressful. And it need not be graded; it’s just the activity of the class.
- Make room for imperfection and mistakes: Learning is imperfect and often requires mistakes. It’s OK if the students don’t already know how to do everything perfectly before they learn. These should never be averaged in.
- Create spaces and reasons for social groupings:
- Small groups: Put students in groups of three or four so they can get to know each other. Later in the semester they can workshop draft assignments, respond to one another’s writing, work through problems together and give each other feedback. If they are absent, they can ask each other what they have missed.
- Mix it up: Sometimes have students draw numbers or just form different groups to focus on a certain activity or task.
- Give choices whenever possible: There are always multiple ways to learn anything so allow diverse readings, a selection of different approaches to demonstrating learning, and sometimes even a choice of topics for the course. No course is ever complete.
- Employ authentic genres: As much as possible, ensure that all activities contribute to learning, not just to demonstrating learning. Instead of conventional term papers or tests, allow students to create infographics, podcasts, websites, graphic novels or other commonly encountered ways of conveying knowledge to engaged audiences.
- Build in reflection: With every major project or assignment, students may include a reflection. You might call this “self-assessment” or “self-evaluation”. They can explain their aims and how they did what they did, what was successful, what was less successful, in what way, what they might do differently in the future, what they might need help with.
- Conduct very short portfolio conferences and portfolio reflections: At mid-semester and during the final exam period, hold very brief (five-minute) conferences with every student. The focus is really on the students’ own written reflections on the arc of their learning. The principal question is “How do you feel about your learning? What are the ways you’ve demonstrated that learning? What did you do?” If you have huge classes, you can make the meeting optional.
- Aim to foster honest communication.
Even if you retain some dimensions of grading, it is important never to grade on mistakes; compliance with rules, such as attendance or tardiness; speaking up in class. While these are all associated with learning, they are not learning. Unless you are absolutely required to do so, never grade on a curve.
Key terms to remember and encourage among students:
If the aim is confident, independent learners who internalise a sense of quality and are fearless at trying to learn something new, even if it’s hard, then ungrading can help.
If this seems impossible to you because you inherit a syllabus, or because your students have to take common exams, or because you have institutional or social vulnerability, or because…or because…Yes, the system is indeed challenging. But there are hundreds of educators at all levels who are creating learning opportunities without a focus on grades. People are questioning the familiar practices. Find a buddy and a champion and get started. You and your students will find it a refreshing change. As my students often say: “For the first time, I focused on learning for myself, not learning for a grade.” Surely that’s change in the right direction.
Susan D Blum is a professor of anthropology and a fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is the editor of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (West Virginia University Press, 2020).
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