Reflecting on a year of ungrading, because grading hurts teachers, too
I’m a teacher, and I’ve spent 10 years in college classrooms. For the first time, however, I implemented “ungrading” — a process broadly defined as “leaving out grades, but it is not a method in which teachers stop evaluating students; instead, they are constantly evaluating their students progress by giving feedback or tips to help them improve.” While multiple approaches to implementing ungrading exists, I modified a framework that is suggested by ungrading scholar Jesse Stommel: I did not utilize quantitative grading techniques for individual project submissions. Instead, students self-selected three out of of five project options, and I provided consistent feedback as projects unfolded. At the end of the semester, students self-selected their grade with a short explanation and rationale. I also worked to foreground learning as a process and encouraged reflection on how students’ engaged with the content — both in and out of classrooms.
This decision arose from multiple considerations, but I’ll note two:
- A hatred for grades/grading: I constantly hear from instructors and students alike that grading/grades constitute anxiety. For instructors, assigning points can feel simplistic, particularly when students are more reliant on the grade than processing the feedback (something they are taught throughout their educational career). It’s also a place of potential conflict, where interactions between students and instructions shift from learning to a point-based-obsession. For students, grading can feel like a statement about their self worth, and the grading materials that instructors utilize— including rubrics — can be part of the unwritten rules of college that undergraduates may feel ill equipped to translate.
- Grading and power: When I began teaching, I was an insecure 23-year-old graduate student, and grading quickly became a core mechanism to exert my power and dominance over students. Quantitative grading assessment practices were how I de-nuanced student engagement by simply categorizing work into pre-determine categories and often at the cost of qualitative feedback. Because I was afraid (especially as a young woman) of being perceived un-credible, grades functioned as as a mechanism of power and protection that prohibited my own teacher growth and often silenced students.
Above all, these insights reflect a broader yet sobering reality: grading isn’t a surefire measure of knowledge or learning, and numerous scholars and activists have written about the negative implications of grading — implication supported by research.
With this background in mind, my decision to experimentally explore ungrading was initially and exclusively student-centered. If grading through traditional quantitative metrics are a) ill suited to measure knowledge and are b) inadequate in motivating students (and may dissuade student interest in learning), then ungrading can foster a more dialogue-centered classroom that asks students to explicitly participate in their own learning. At its core, ungrading allowed us — students and instructors — to open up discussions about learning as a process rather than teaching as a set of benchmarks.
While I was anticipating that my experience would collide with these previously-shared insights, I wasn’t anticipating how ungrading would re-constitute my orientation toward teaching.
To be direct: it pulled me out of a burnout slump by transforming feedback from regulatory to conversational.
Because grades are restrictive for teachers, too.
School is more than a regulated set of curricular expectations: it’s about relationship building through conversations with students about how, where, and why we construct certain worldviews by integrating critical thinking.
An example: If a student submits a paper — an engaging piece of argumentative writing with evidence and helpful citations — but falls outside the rubric parameters, they may receive a poor grade. I know what you’re thinking: “But come on, Meggie. They didn’t follow the directions.” Sure. But does this really measure critical thinking? Or, instead, demand conformity? Quantitative evaluations, in my experience, often lean toward the latter. Through ungrading, feedback with the student can still include information about the assignment parameters without limiting the conversation through strict categorization and doesn’t punish students by arbitrarily placing their work into graded boxes. Instead, students become empowered to consider their work in relation to the assignment through reflections, and feedback can begin a dialogue with students about the significance of the assignment, their work, and the relationship between them.
Grading, for me, led to anxiety and dread. With ungrading, I was excited to have conversations with students by providing feedback through their work rather assigning a grade about their work. Rather than despise grading (or, perhaps, the structure of grading), I was provided space to enjoy the creative energy of students and remain impressed by works that interpreted an assignment beyond my rubric’s interpretation. Because while I may be the “expert,” the restrictions of expertise can prohibit innovative interpretations.
Power was transformed, too. By centering dialogue and inviting students to reflect and assess on their own learning, they became central characters in the story of their education. Learning is a choice, and my worst experiences as an educator arose when I attempted to force or control students into learning. And when that control didn’t result in visible progress through grades, students and myself became frustrated and disconnected.
While, overall, my implementation of ungrading was net-positive, integrating transformative learning techniques is difficult because it challenges a system that students (and myself) know. We know grades (or we think we do, anyway). And often that assumption of knowledge or understanding — i.e. “students know how to read a rubric” “students understand the difference between an A or B” — props up a privileged and exclusionary system of education. The choice to change necessitates transparent discussions with students about why and how.
My teacher ethos focuses on students experiences, paying particular attention to the limitations created by our standard schooling structure. And no, ungrading isn’t a magic shield that can protect education from the ongoing attacks, lack of resources, and the current applause for anti-intellectualism, but it can create reprieve, connection, and research-informed possibilities for students. I’m convinced it creates possibilities for teachers now, too.