A stop/start/continue for the ungrading community

A stop/start/continue for the ungrading community
Photo by Nelson Ndongala / Unsplash

Forget goblin mode or gaslighting: In education, the word of the year in 2022 was definitely ungrading. While the idea has been around for a while, becoming particularly well-known after this essay by Susan Blum in 2017 and a book edited by Blum in 2020, it seemed that in 2022 the idea of ungrading found its footing. Everyone seemed to be talking about it on social media. Faculty reading groups emerged everywhere. I taught an ungraded course myself last Winter, and ungrading plays a major role in the Grading For Growth book coming out this year.

Ungrading will likely continue this upward trajectory in 2023 as higher education comes to grips with new realities, and especially as the community behind it continues to grow. Although I am not currently using ungrading in my classes (for reasons described here), I have a great respect for the ungrading community. Their energy and passion makes me hopeful that maybe we are on the cusp of the large-scale positive change in higher education some of us have been working towards for decades.

It’s from this place of hopefulness and respect, and in the alternative-grading spirit of growth through feedback loops, that I want to start 2023 with a dose of unsolicited feedback for this community using the stop/start/continue format: One thing that the ungrading community is doing doing that it should stop doing, one thing that it is not doing that it should start doing, and one thing that it is doing that it should continue doing.


Before I get started, let me be clear about my terms. I am referring to “ungrading” as a particular approach to the evaluation of student work in which:

  • There are no marks (grades) of any kind put on individual items of work;
  • Student work fits into a portfolio, curated by students, that will be used to document their growth and development through the course;
  • Instead of a mark, each item of work gets feedback — written, and perhaps oral, but not numerical or mark-based — from the instructor that contains observations and suggestions;
  • Typically, the student can revise and resubmit work for the portfolio using the feedback (at least, I’ve never seen a version of ungrading that doesn’t allow revision and resubmission of significant items of work); and
  • Perhaps ungrading’s signature feature is that while course grades are still assigned, it’s done collaboratively: students assign themselves grades, often in dialogue with the professor, based on a self-evaluation of their portfolios, against descriptive criteria for what constitutes various course grades.

So, for me, ungrading is a particular form of what I usually refer to as “alternative grading”: Grading methods that adhere to the “Four Pillars” framework that David Clark and I have written about. There are other forms of alternative grading that are not ungrading, such as specifications grading and standards-based grading.

Very importantly, I am not using “ungrading” as an umbrella term that encapsulates all forms of alternative grading, or as an overall mindset about grading. This use, which has become increasingly common, views methods like specifications grading as a species (or perhaps an embryonic form) of “pure ungrading” as I described above. I think this usage of the term is problematic for a number of reasons; for example, it’s confusing to refer to approaches such as specifications grading as “ungrading” when grades are in fact being given. I’ll save that rabbit hole for another post. But suffice to say, when I refer to “ungrading” or “the ungrading community” I am talking about something specific.

Stop: Ungrading absolutism

Ungrading practitioners are passionate about student success and growth. They tend to be equally and oppositely passionate against anything that gets in the way of growth, and grades are often in the latter category. One often hears or sees statements like “I got rid of grades because I truly care about students”. Or:

Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another. Grades…are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction. Grading is a massive co-ordinated effort to take humans out of the educational process.

That’s from this blog post from ungrading pioneer Jesse Stommel, for whom I have the utmost respect. Another person I respect is Alfie Kohn, who said in his seminal article “The Case Against Grades”:

[G]rading for learning is, to paraphrase a 1960’s-era slogan, rather like bombing for peace. Rating and ranking students (and their efforts to figure things out) is inherently counterproductive.

In that article, Kohn goes on to describe, in great detail, how any form of grading mitigates against learning — including Four-Pillars forms of alternative grading like standards-based grading, that are not traditional but also not ungrading. He specifically singles out SBG to say that it’s “not enough”.

When you read Jesse’s work, Susan Blum’s book, Kohn’s essays, or the many articles or tweets from other ungraders, it’s hard to escape a certain message: That grades and the humanity of students are fundamentally incompatible with each other; that any form of grade-giving is at some level compromising student intellectual growth; and therefore, if you really and truly care about students, there is only one option: Ungrading, or at least a trajectory that is headed toward ungrading.

I am sure that in most cases where this message gets communicated, it’s not intentional and not even a view actually held by the person communicating it. But the message is real, and it’s a problem for a few reasons.

  • It can be a form of teacher-shaming. The message that if you really care about students, you’ll ungrade can make teachers who do care about students but who for whatever reason do not ungrade, feel worthless. A teacher might choose not to ungrade for many reasons: Specs grading is a better fit for the course, for example; or they're not sure how to make it work for large classes; or they’re contingent faculty and don’t get to decide such matters. It is possible to care deeply about student growth and success, and understand how ungrading works, and still choose not to do it. But the message that "care implies ungrading" is equivalent to "not ungrading implies you don't care".
  • It’s exclusionary. There’s a secondary message here as well: If there is no coexistence possible between student growth and grades, then ungrading is an all-or-nothing proposition. Nothing you do in the classroom is fully acceptable unless and until it’s ungrading. (I’ve seen firsthand a form of teacher-shaming in which an expert instructor doing specs grading was patronizingly told that they are “on their way”.) If the message is “all or nothing” then a lot of instructors are going to choose “nothing”. So it shuts people out. It also shuts people down, because if you’re not able or willing to “go the whole way” then why even try?
  • The jury is still mostly out on ungrading. There’s no shortage of testimonials on social media and elsewhere about how great ungrading is, but the fact that it works well for some people in some situations does not constitute data about its actual benefits, or an argument that it ought to be used in your class with your students. In fact, as I wrote here, I have serious questions about whether ungrading actually does more harm than good with students with significant background knowledge shortfalls. I believe generally that there’s sufficient evidence to say that traditional grading is full of intractable issues that all call for a repeal-and-replace approach to the entire concept. But there is more than one way to do it: Specifications grading is also good; so is standards-based grading (despite Kohn’s objections); so are all the many other Four Pillars-based approaches that center on feedback loops. (Reminder: I am not referring to ungrading as an umbrella term.)

Again, this message that I am referring to — that ungrading is the only choice of “grading system” that is compatible with student care — is one that I don't encounter often in real life interactions, and it’s not intentionally voiced by most ungrading folk I encounter (which is a lot). So rather than a thing to “stop doing”, this might be more along the lines of “please be careful not to do this”.

But it’s a message that has the unsavory taste of evangelism to it, and so to the extent that it appears, it needs to disappear.

Start: Getting into the weeds

I’d like to see more ungrading people start writing in detail about the day-to-day specifics about what they are doing with ungrading, how it’s working, and — especially — how it’s not working and the steps they are taking to adapt or renegotiate their practice.

I see tweets and longer-form articles about “how to ungrade” that have some good ideas on how to get started, but often they’re not much more than high-level suggestions or general descriptions of practices. Start by trusting students; Get rid of graded items that are just there for surveillance; Give lots of feedback. It all sounds good, and on some level this all is good. But getting this whole shebang to work on a daily basis, at scale, without collapsing under its own weight requires details. Blueprints. Failure narratives. All of it, not just the successes.

So I challenge the ungrading community to do something that sounds hard but is actually simple: Give us the details. Get unapologetically into the weeds through longer-form approaches of communicating your practice.

A straightforward way to do this is to start blogging about what you’re doing. Set yourself up a blog on some free platform, and once or twice a week, post a Captain’s Log about what’s happening with ungrading in your classes: What worked; what could have been done better; what totally did not work; how you will adjust, having done that thing that totally did not work; what you are hearing from your students; what you are hearing from your colleagues and administrators; how you are instantiating what you’re reading and thinking about into classroom practice; what you will do again next semester; what you swear you will never do again; your successes and realizations; your second thoughts.

You have more than enough material for a weekly update. Keep it short, unpolished, relatively unfiltered, and real. That’s what the rest of the world is all waiting for.

Continue: Being fearless

Higher education feels like it’s just a few steps away from a complete revolution right now. That’s why I have no intention of leaving this profession — I don’t want to miss this. History tells us that one essential part of every revolution, is the existence of a few elites who are in positions to expend capital to push the revolution over the edge, into places where it would otherwise never reach. If you are ungrading, you are one of those elites.

I mean “elite” in a positive sense: Talented, skilled, and creative — and above all, courageous, otherwise you would just be thinking about ungrading rather than doing it. You also have the capital to expend; not in terms of money, but in professional, intellectual, and political areas. Again, if you didn’t have this, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. You have more influence on other people than you think.

So keep iterating on your ungrading practice (and again, blog what you are doing so we can all learn) to make it better, simpler, more transparent, more supportive of student success. Be fearless about taking educated risks that are likely to benefit students. Share your creations. Engage people in conversations about grades, including and especially the skeptics (and not just skeptical students). Be a happy warrior in the cause of making higher education better, starting with grading.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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