A media guide to ungrading

A media guide to ungrading
Photo by AbsolutVision / Unsplash

This article originally appeared at Grading For Growth on May 1, 2023. My colleague and co-author David Clark had a number of important contributions. I've edited it slightly for reposting, and there are some updated thoughts at the end for you to check out.

Earlier this year, I wrote that 2022 seemed to be the year that ungrading really took hold in higher education, and that we can expect its prevalence and influence to increase through 2023. So far, that prediction seems to be right, especially if you gauge it by the number of media reports on ungrading beginning to percolate into our news feeds. For example:

Note especially that these aren’t in higher education-specific publications like the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed but rather mainstream media or student publications. So it appears that ungrading is expanding from the realm of pedagogy nerds, into the public consciousness.

Two high-profile articles seem to be driving the most recent news items: This whitepaper from the Hechinger Report, and an article from National Public Radio that summarizes and expands on it. Many local news articles about ungrading (like this one) are based on these two items. I (Talbert) was grateful to be interviewed for both articles. They have generated a lot of discussion and interest in alternative grading generally.

David and I see this as a good thing -- on balance. However, sometimes the discussions we find ourselves in can be unhelpful, because there are misconceptions at work. Some of the reports we've seen get things, sometimes really important things, wrong about alternative grading, which leads to misconceptions that go viral, which isn't helpful to anyone. So I’m writing this article as a “read this first” guide for journalists and anybody else wanting to learn about ungrading, and all forms of alternative grading, and tell its story.

What is ungrading?

There is no single widely accepted definition for “ungrading”. It is a term with several widely diverging meanings. So, if you are interviewing people about “ungrading”, it is critical to ask for a detailed explanation of what ungrading means to them. This is especially important if you’re writing an article involving multiple sources, or asking one source to critique the arguments of another: It’s quite likely that they aren’t talking about the same thing.

That said, in our book, here is how David and I define ungrading:

Ungrading rejects grades entirely (or at least to the extent that is possible). Ungraded classes eliminate grades from as many assignments as possible and focus on feedback. … Instructors often provide a list of criteria or a narrative description for final grades, and some instructors build this list collaboratively with students, leading to an increasingly common name: “collaborative grading.” Ungraded classes often involve two key features: First, instructors hold periodic meetings with students (or ask students to write reflective essays) in order to come to an agreement on a student’s current level of progress. Second, students construct a final portfolio of work that shows how they have grown and/or met key course objectives.

So, we define ungrading as a grading practice in which individual items of student work receive no marks (such as points, letter grades, etc.) if withholding a mark is possible. Instead, the student receives helpful feedback on their work relative to appropriately-scaled professional quality standards. Students also have the opportunity to reattempt and resubmit without penalty any items that they believe need further attention. At the end of the course, each student makes a case for the grade they believed they earned in the course, supported by a portfolio of work they have completed, in collaboration with the professor.

Our definition captures many of the more common features included in anything called “ungrading”, but it’s far from the only one. Again, make sure to ask anyone you interview what they mean by “ungrading”.

For David's and my own experiences with ungrading and some of the details of implementation, see this post or this post.

If you're a journalist, you can look to your own profession to understand ungrading. Let's say you have an article to submit. Your publication presumably has high standards for quality that are well-understood (because they are posted somewhere or because you've discussed them with your editor). When you are finished with your article, you submit it to your editor. The editor then reads it and likely marks it up and gives you helpful feedback on what works and what doesn't. Then you rework the article and resubmit it, get more feedback, etc. until the deadline arrives. At that point, you might collaborate with your editor to determine when and where the article is published.

What doesn't happen with your article is as important as what does. You do not get only one chance to submit it. It does not receive a point score, that is averaged together with all the other point scores from your previous articles. Instead, the verbal feedback and the revise/resubmit process, along with the quality standards you can use for guidance, are enough.

What are some misconceptions about ungrading?

Ungrading is a pretty simple idea, but it's also easy to jump to incorrect conclusions about it. Here are some common misconceptions. You can find more in David's “mythbusters” post.

Misconception: Ungrading means getting rid of letter grades for courses. Ungrading, however the term is used, is about removing grades from student work within a course. But final letter grades are almost always still present. That final grade is determined in a different way than the traditional points-based approach, but students in the vast majority of ungraded courses still get an A, B, C, D, or F in the end. In most universities, every instructor is required to assign a letter grade to every student in the course, and David and I don't know of any university actively removing such a policy. Some (like Evergreen State College or New College of Florida) never used letter grades to begin with; and MIT has long experimented with giving Pass/Fail grades only in freshman-level courses. But this is a separate issue from ungrading.

Misconception: Ungrading means no feedback, or no concern for correctness. Go back up and read “What is ungrading?”: It’s entirely focused on feedback. Compared to a single number or letter grade, feedback is a much more effective way to communicate what’s good, correct, or well-done and what isn’t, and that’s what instructors focus on in ungrading. Single letter or number grades are a poor way to communicate such ideas.

Misconception: Ungrading lets students “pick their grade” in the course. In ungrading, students typically build a portfolio of work from throughout the course. Critically, the portfolio must make the case for a certain grade, that is, it needs to include concrete evidence of meeting the criteria for a grade. This is not “letting students pick their grade” as though they were given access to the registrar’s database.

Misconception: Students cannot fail an ungraded course. Students can, and sometimes do earn "D" or "F" grades in an ungraded course. This typically happens when the student does not produce evidence of learning that rises above a minimum threshold. This does happen, although not frequently in our experience because it requires significant disengagement with the class. Sometimes this is the student’s choice, but other times it isn’t. Ungrading tends to be more forgiving of late work, absences, and so on, as long as a student can eventually produce sufficient evidence of learning.

Misconception: Anything other than traditional points-based grading is ungrading. It's been increasingly common to use “ungrading” as an umbrella term to refer to any grading approach that does not adhere to traditional points-based grading. This is an oversimplification, and it causes a lot of confusion. It’s especially bad when, as often happens, different people interviewed in the same article use “ungrading” to mean significantly different things. If anything, it’s clearest to let “ungrading” to refer only to the particular grading practice I described a little earlier in this article. There are several other forms of grading that are neither traditional nor ungrading: specifications grading and standards-based grading are two prominent ones. None of these is “better” or “worse” than another, and many instructors use a combination of approaches anyway. We prefer the term alternative grading to refer to grading practices that are something other than traditional, then speak in specific terms about specific strategies under that umbrella — including “ungrading”.

What are some common questions about ungrading?

Why would an instructor use ungrading? I will speak for myself here. I have only used ungrading once, and I did it because I wanted my students (in an upper-level abstract algebra course primarily taken by pre-service math teachers) to stop focusing so much on points and grades and focus instead on the (difficult!) math concepts in the class and, especially, on improving their communication skills. I wanted to hold high standards for both math and communication mastery, but in the past I'd found that traditional forms of grading -- and even some nontraditional forms, like specifications grading -- just didn't go far enough. The moment something got a mark on it, the mark because the laser-focus of students’ efforts. The only way to get the level of focus I wanted, was to dispense with marks altogether. It was a matter of creating a learning environment where extrinsic distractions, like grades, were at a bare minimum.

Other instructors, I suspect, have a similar story. But additionally, others point to a desire to improve equity (David has a series of posts on this topic) or lessen the negative impact that grades have on student mental health.

Does ungrading turn students into entitled snowflakes? Remember that in ungrading, the focus is on detailed feedback and revision, and students' grades are not merely "picked" but are the based on a portfolio of work that addresses clear requirements and is the result of multiple iterations of feedback and improvement. Every aspect of the grade can be traced back to student work that meets quality standards. So, no.

In fact I’d say that the students who are used to receiving grades as more or less an entitlement — who tend to come from well-resourced schools and affluent backgrounds — face the greatest amount of adaptation to alternative grading, which firmly grounds grades in concrete evidence of learning and nothing else. For many, it’s a culture shock. (Several of the instructors who we interviewed for our book, who are at “high power” institutions that were concerned about grade inflation under traditional grading, noted an overall decrease in final grades when they switched to alternative grading.) For many others, who know how to work hard but always felt disadvantaged in school, it’s a relief.

Does ungrading promote grade inflation? No, in fact, the opposite is true. "Grade inflation" doesn't simply mean "higher grades", it means higher grades without a corresponding improvement in quality or depth. There is no evidence that grade inflation, in that formulation, is any worse in ungraded courses than it is in non-ungraded courses. Historically speaking, grade inflation came into existence through traditional grading (particularly through the use of grades to secure draft deferments during the Vietnam War). Alternative grading's practice of connecting course grades directly to student work rather than to points and averages as an intermediary makes it less susceptible to grade inflation.

Does ungrading lower the academic rigor of a course? Beware using the term “rigor”, since we don’t think it has any semantic meaning. Insofar as it means anything, alternative forms of grading -- including but not limited to ungrading -- improve the "rigor" of a course by imbuing the course grade with more construct validity.

There are some professors on my local campus using ungrading and I’m writing an article about it, can I talk to you about this? The best person to talk to is the faculty member themselves. David and I may be experts on grading practices, but we are not experts on your students, faculty, or campus. The people using ungrading are likely experts on both. Call one of us back once you have talked to a few of your own and can report to us what they said.

Updated thoughts

  • Journalists: The purpose of this article is to save you time by not having to ask the most common questions about ungrading if you want to interview me or anyone else about it. Seriously, please read it before doing that interview. You'll just be referred back to the article otherwise and it feels like working with a student who didn't read the assignment.
  • Especially seriously, for the love of God, please stop saying that "ungrading" means "getting rid of grades" (which is an oversimplification) and especially "getting rid of letter grades" (which is flat-out wrong).
  • I have been kicking around the idea of writing an article about why political conservatives should really like the idea of alternative grading. I've seen some hit pieces on conservative news sites (which I read) about alternative grading, and I think that's unfortunate. Alternative grading ticks a lot of boxes that matter to conservatives: A focus on hard work and effort, the ability to hold higher academic standards because of resubmissions, a direct link between a student's grade and evidence of learning rather than playing games with points, and more. I think there's a lot there that would be appealing to folks of that political persuasion.
  • David added a lot of language in this article to the effect of: Ungrading doesn't have one specific meaning and what it means depends on who is using it. I think that's wise to keep in mind. I've got my definition (above) and our book's definition (also above) is a little different, while others' vary widely from both of these. So again, before you try to talk to someone about ungrading, ask about what it means to them first. Especially, get them to describe their implementation in the classroom. If they don't have one... don't talk to them!
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.