Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

The Power of Ungrading

Insights from Educate, 14th Edition

Jennifer Osborne
May 12 · 8 min read

Welcome to Insights from Educate, the 14th edition of a curated weekly newsletter focused on providing you the latest in education news, research, and professional learning.

As a new teacher, I made the rookie mistake of grading every task I assigned to my students. Grading student work became a form of compliance instead of a way to offer genuine feedback. I thought if I graded all of my students’ work, then they would stay on-task while learning in the process.

What I quickly learned, and what most veteran teachers know, is that spinning my wheels in grading purgatory was not making me a better teacher. I was spending all of my planning marking instead of spending time crafting meaningful lessons and offering constructive feedback.

As I worked my way through more innovative schools, I began to shun grades as a way to measure student learning. I began assessing only summative work, using formative tasks as a guidepost for instruction and feedback. I implemented a culture of mistakes in the classroom encouraging students to take risks in their writing without penalty on their report cards.

In “The Controversial but Useful Practice of ‘Ungrading’ in Teaching Writing,” Rachel Toor explores the methodology of “ungrading” in the context of teaching writing. With a renewed focus on student learning, we can let go of the need to offer a simplistic grade that offers little in the way of true measurement of knowledge and skill.

Toor quotes Susan D. Blum, an editor of a book on the subject of upgrading, “Ungrading allows students to take risks without being afraid that their imperfections will be averaged in with their final drafts. With ungrading, you don’t get an A; this is a reminder that writing is never complete, never perfect.”

All of us who write know that our work is rarely (if ever) perfect on the first try. Yet, we grade students on their ability to produce essays in 30 minutes for the SAT or to produce perfectly crafted and well-thought-out essays in on-demand writing tasks.

We are teaching students that they are not allowed to make mistakes by assigning a grade to their first drafts. Instead of assigning a grade, we should be providing feedback to help them improve. We are then teaching our students that through mistakes comes learning. The kind of learning that will stick.

Educators that take the time to cultivate a culture of feedback will reap the benefits of students who want to improve and aren’t afraid to try.

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Education News and Research

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

According to researchers, 1 in 8 Asian-Americans reported anti-Asian hate incidents in 2020, a number that includes students. Assistant Professor Aggie J. Yellow Horse 16% of more than 3,800 hate incidents involved youths ages 12–20 during the pandemic. Race-based harassment can vary according to socioeconomic status and gender; however, it is evident that anti-Asian sentiment is present in schools.

Asian American parents worry about discrimination as students begin to attend in-person school post-pandemic. Professor Charissa S.L. Cheah notes “some parents may avoid talking to their children about anti-Asian racism to avoid scaring them while they are at school.” Parents can be reluctant to seek help to avoid stigmas associated with mental health and access.

To address discrimination and incidences of bullying, schools should strive to build a supportive environment such as “such as building teachers’ cultural knowledge and strengthening teacher-student relationships.” Associate Professor Kevin Gee suggests creating partnerships with parents and promoting multicultural awareness.

Paul N. Thompson at Education Next examined student test scores in reading and math of nearly 700,000 students for a period of 15 years. Thompson found clear negative consequences of a four-day school week with three to four hours of lost instructional time as a whole. He notes math scores decreased by 6% and reading scores decreased by 4%. Thompson further notes “diminished exposure to school-based counseling and health services, school meal programs, and other supports could also negatively affect child physical health and social-emotional development.” In short, some districts will continue to pursue a four-day school week likely as a result of a changing educational landscape post-pandemic. However, considerations should be made to ensure student learning is not lost in a quest to try something new.

To evaluate means to provide a system of valid, fair, and constructive guidance. In teacher evaluations, there must be a specific set of goals that are observable and measured with valid and reliable data to support decisions.

Researchers note: “the expectation here is that the information collection process will result in a teaching portfolio that can be used for both formative and summative assessments and requires the teacher to provide evidence demonstrating achievement.”

In this framework, teachers build a portfolio with ample pieces of evidence that support their learning and achievement over the course of the year. These pieces can include student work, course materials, summaries, and evaluations. Research shows that when teachers submit a portfolio based on a set of guidelines, the information becomes more accurate and relatable to the goals of the organization.

In other news:

Professional Learning and Inspiration

“My focus here is on what to do, and not do, this fall if you’re still teaching (to some degree) in a virtual environment, but many of the following suggestions can be adapted to a physical classroom, too.”

Flower Darby at The Chronicle suggests active learning and discussion while avoiding monotonous and over-used slideshows. She also suggests movement-based activities and anonymous polling to ensure students are engaged and participating in class. This is also a time to take advantage of asynchronous learning skills by providing students with assignments that can be completed in their own time at home. This provides more flexibility to families that have to miss school for various reasons. Collaborating with and among students will be needed this upcoming school year as students emerge from relative learning isolation.

“This approach has been shown to improve the quality of teaching, teacher morale and, most importantly in the current context, student performance.”

Australia’s education minister aims to examine quality teaching using the Quality Teaching Model, a model that is focused on three key concepts:

  • a need for intellectual curiosity and rigor
  • classrooms that support students and their learning
  • relating student learning to real-life (authentic learning)

Gore describes an approach called quality teaching rounds, whereas small groups of teachers observe and analyze one another based on the quality teaching model. Teachers then discuss and reflect upon the lesson to see what worked and what didn’t. In order to meet the needs of students, districts must invest in teacher professional development that is reflective and based upon specific goals related to quality teaching.

“Learning how to revise one’s writing is something that will serve students well in a variety of ways. Research shows that while writing is an effective way to help students learn content in different subject areas, revision helps them to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the topic on which they are writing.”

Narmada Paul at The Conversation provides insight into helping students embrace writing — with revisions. We all know that writing is an important life skill, but what teachers sometimes forget is the number of revisions that go into a quality piece of text. Students struggle with writing anxiety and benefit from boosts in confidence with plenty of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. Grading practices that focus on the first draft as the final draft removes the likelihood that students will view writing as a work in progress.

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About the Editor

Jennifer Osborne is an experienced educator with graduate degrees in Educational Leadership and Guidance and Counseling. She has taught in five countries across a wide variety of classrooms and schools. Jennifer is passionate about authentic education for students and personalized professional learning for teachers.

Read her Educator’s Bio at Jennifer Osborne Writes.

This is a copy of Insights from Educate, a weekly email newsletter featuring the latest in education news and research with professional learning and inspiration. Subscribe now to receive curated ed news to your inbox.

Research-driven ideas and insights from authentic voices in education.

Jennifer Osborne

Written by

Educator, M.S./M.Ed.⎪Expat ⎪Runner⎪Editor of Educate. medium.com/educate-pub⎪www.jenniferosbornewrites.com

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

Jennifer Osborne

Written by

Educator, M.S./M.Ed.⎪Expat ⎪Runner⎪Editor of Educate. medium.com/educate-pub⎪www.jenniferosbornewrites.com

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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