Why there isn’t one ‘right way’ to practise ungrading

Extricating ourselves from A-F grading scales requires an inclusive, big tent approach in which we de-emphasise grades in a way that best fits our individual contexts

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2 Dec 2022
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There is no right and wrong way to do ungrading in higher education

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A recent online op-ed claimed that the problem with ungrading is that the majority of us are “doing it wrong”. This misconception has harmed the ungrading community. As a reflective and reflexive group of educators, we recognise the need to respond to misguided criticism to strengthen and build the ungrading praxis. In writing this response, we aim to reflect the principles and philosophies of our community, which embraces the diverse methods and approaches scholars have been utilising for decades (if not centuries).

Ungrading principles and philosophies centre on inclusivity, grace and care, not just for students but also for educators. Ungrading is fundamentally about trust between students and educators: students must trust their instructors to support their learning, while educators must trust their students to engage with their learning. We must also trust our colleagues and community members to do whatever they can to de-emphasise grades.

We agree with the op-ed’s claim that systems of extrinsic punishment and reward enacted by grading, and the process of ranking and categorising students, are deeply detrimental to learning and would not exist in an ideal educational system. Removing grades has the potential to “turn education on its head” by promoting equity in learning and feeding learners’ intrinsic motivation. Most central to the work of teaching, removing or minimising the presence of grades helps humanise and centre students in their learning. It’s true: “what matters most is people”.

Various critical pedagogical approaches (for example, feminist, decolonial and many others without an academic label) resist the assumption that there is one “right” way to teach and learn. Ungrading is another example of this resistance. Indeed, “ungrading” is simply the academic label many of us have given diverse pedagogical approaches that scholars across disciplines (for example, hooks, Freire, Muhammad) have employed long before it had this name. All these approaches aim to extricate us from A-F grading scales, which were created to rank, sort, and stratify students to uphold elitist and supremacist educational systems.

It is precisely because of this history of resisting supremacist systems that we encourage our readers to seek examples beyond a handful of white-presenting scholars. Keeping too narrow a focus, intentional or not, upholds racist, patriarchal, ableist and wealth-based systems and structures. It minimises, and even erases, the contributions of educators who have engaged in ungrading praxis for years. It also harms those who wish to try ungrading but are afraid to because they are already marginalised, disrespected and/or lack the privilege to dispense with grades entirely.

As Paulo Freire argues, educators and learners must work together to dismantle old systems that no longer serve the people. We challenge these systems through constant dialogue and conversation, including finding ways to deemphasise grades within systems and structures that actively work against ungraded classes. We seek new and better ways to serve our institutions and the people in them, working toward real systemic transformation.

Changing these systems requires taking a “big tent” approach to ungrading. This means philosophy and pedagogy are already at the heart of our practices. Such an inclusive, big tent approach allows us to de-emphasise grades in a way that best fits our individual contexts. Thus, it is antithetical to conclude that most people engaging in liberatory practices are “doing it wrong”. Educators do not need to adopt a “purest” or idealised version to begin ungrading. Working on our pedagogy through trial and error not only embraces the goals of an ungraded approach but also models for our students that failure and growth are part of the learning process.

It is not at all surprising to witness an increase in ungrading at a time when multiple traumas have disrupted teaching and learning: a long history of systemic violence against marginalised peoples and communities, unpredictable natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes and the Covid-19 pandemic, to name a few. While grades remain deeply entrenched in our educational systems, more educators are choosing to reduce the harm caused by traditional grading within their individual teaching. This movement is much more than a mindless bandwagoning of the latest “in vogue” practice.

The ungrading community continues to grow. There are more schools removing grades, new books being written, emerging centres for learning resources such as HRP and TG2, and lively discussions in digital spaces such as Twitter and Discord. With a diversity of approaches we are centring learners and de-emphasising grades. Let’s continue to support each other through discussion, sharing and knowledge creation rather than issuing judgements related to “purest and rarest” practices.

Like Susan D. Blum, we invite you to gather under the ungrading umbrella: “Come on in. There’s room. The umbrella, which is, after all, only metaphoric, can grow infinitely large. Or maybe the rains will clear, and we’ll just emerge and scatter under sunny skies.”

Here’s to more sunny skies.

Authors (all contributed equally):

Heather Miceli, lecturer, Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, US

Rita Shah, associate professor, Eastern Michigan University, US

Firas Moosvi, lecturer, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Canada

Lisa Wennerth, English teacher, Windsor school district, US

Elizabeth Leininger, associate professor, New College of Florida, US

Taylor Vivanco, history teacher, Santa Ana unified school district, California, US

Beth Haas, assistant professor, Utica University, US

Acknowledgments to Keith W. Mathias and several others who provided feedback but chose not to be named.

Signatories:

Keith W. Mathias, Prince George’s Community College

Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, CNM Community College

Susan D. Blum, University of Notre Dame

Courtney J. Sobers, Rutgers-Newark

Karin Evans, College of DuPage

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