Ungrading: A 3x3x3 reflection

Ungrading: A 3x3x3 reflection
Photo by Angelina Litvin / Unsplash

Grading in higher education (and elsewhere) basically ruins everything. If you teach, you have (whether you admit it or not) thought at some point: What if we just didn't grade anything? That question is the starting point for the concept of ungrading and the basis for a recent volume of essays and how-tos edited by Notre Dame's Susan Blum.

Readers of this website know that I think about grading a lot, and I've been happily (though not always 100% successfully) using specifications grading for several years now. In fact my colleague David Clark and I have just launched a Substack publication about this topic, in advance of (and to practice the ideas for) a book that should be appearing in 2022.

As we've worked on the book, David and I keep coming back to ungrading and wondering where it fits in the larger scheme of what we sometimes call mastery-based grading — an umbrella that covers specifications grading, standards-based grading, contract grading, and other alternative grading philosophies that revolve around assessing student work based on feedback loops and conversations rather than on point allocations and statistics. I'd read some of Jesse Stommel's excellent blog posts about ungrading along with some of Alfie Kohn's work and was intrigued. Might ungrading be the logical endpoint of all mastery-based grading? Should I quit mucking about with specs grading and just make the leap to full-on ungrading?

Questions like these resonated in my mind whenever I heard about ungrading. But I also didn't really know anything about ungrading. So I picked up the Ungrading book last month to fix that. I finished it last night. Here are three things I learned, three things that surprised me, and three questions I still have.

Three things I learned

  1. I definitely need to incorporate ungrading more often, where I can. This is actually two things. First, I learned that like mastery grading itself, ungrading is more of a philosophy or a frame of mind than it is a technique. Where ungrading seems to work best is in places where students are learning big ideas through activities or assessments that benefit from iteration; especially, writing-focused work seems to be an excellent fit. When implemented in the right environment, the results aren't always magical, as John Warner said in his fantastic essay in Chapter 13: "Student writing doesn't instantly turn into something other than what it is, the work of apprentices often in the early stages of their journey." But what does change, as Warner and others point out, is the culture. Freed from having to worry about numbers — or even mastery-grading labels like "Progressing", "Satisfactory" or "Excellent" — the only thing students can focus on is the work itself. And that's the second thing I learned: If there's one big ingredient that's been missing from my teaching over the last few years, it's that positive learning culture of which ungrading gives a tantalizing glimpse. So, insofar as ungrading fits what my students and I are trying to accomplish, I should be ungrading.
  2. I was reminded of the true meaning of the word "assessment". It literally means "sitting with". When we "assess" students, it ought to replicate the practice of sitting down with a student, perhaps over coffee, and just talking about their work and what they are learning, and passing along help, coaching, whatever you want to call it that will help them improve. Instead, most forms of assessment in higher ed are auditing, not assessing. We look at student work, tallying up the good and the bad, reducing the process to a mechanized system, which we then hilariously claim is "objective" because it's mechanized. Why do we settle for this when we can have real assessment, a real sitting-down-with our students?
  3. I was also reminded of the power of a community of practice. In the conclusion, Prof. Blum points out a pattern from the essays, namely that having other people with whom to work through the details of ungrading is essential. She writes, "I had not necessarily realized how difficult it was... to be the only person I knew in higher ed undertaking this fundamental change in pedagogy until I had company." That brought back some of the feelings of my early days experimenting with flipped learning. That intellectual loneliness is present in higher education anywhere people go against dysfunctional traditions. And so there's great power in finding others who are picking up the same signal as you. (Like the third verse of "Message in a Bottle".)

Three things that surprised me

  1. The four-level rubric I use is overcomplicated. I've written about this before but I changed the "F" ("Fragmentary") in EMRF to "N" ("Not Assessable") because students universally interpreted "F" as "fail". That's a semantic phenomenon that illustrates the problem with having labels for student work in the first place. When I originally discovered the EMRF rubric, I thought I'd finally arrived at the simplest possible way to grade complex student work. But I was forgetting Linda Nilson's original workflow for specs grading, which is to grade everything on a two-level rubric — Pass, or Doesn't Pass — set the bar high for Pass, and then engage students in a feedback loop until their work is Passing. This seems like the core workflow of ungrading. While "pure" ungrading would say (I think?) that student work shouldn't be labelled at all, my takeaway from the Ungrading book is that in the feedback loop there is an implicit labeling — the professor gives feedback until there's none left to give, and the presence or absence feedback are essentially labels. I could be wrong about that. But regardless, I'm now no longer seeing the point of having four levels in a rubric. Why not two?
  2. I already knew this because of research being done for the book, but I was still surprised at the effects of including a grade with feedback on student work as opposed to just feedback. This comes from a 1986 paper by Butler and Nisan but if you teach, you already knew: When you grade student work and put both feedback and grades on it, students will tend to focus on the grade and ignore the feedback. Whereas if it's just feedback, and students are given a chance to iterate on that feedback, they will — and they'll improve in key ways. The Butler and Nisan paper comes up almost everywhere, and the results are so compelling that we all need to be taking them into account more than we do.
  3. The number of times I saw "Let students determine their own learning goals". This concept of students deciding what the learning goals for a class should be, or at least for them, showed up multiple times in the Ungrading book from some of the most recognizable contributors. I do not know how I feel about this. On the one hand, agency is a good thing. Certainly I've taught way too many classes where students felt like course goals were being imposed on them. This seems to be a major argument against learning objectives, which I have embraced early and often. On the other hand — it's hard to imagine teaching a math course, many of which feed into other courses in and outside of mathematics, that begins by letting students pick the learning outcomes. A calculus student might set the goal of "I want to be prepared for my engineering classes", which is good, but then I would come back with "Okay, then you need to master the following skills..." and hand them my learning targets list. That's not real agency, and it would be more honest to just give them the learning targets to begin with and say, "Here's what you'll learn".

Three questions I still have

  1. To what extent does ungrading really work in a content-heavy STEM service course, like Calculus? There are three chapters in the Ungrading book from STEM courses. I was hoping for more, and frankly, I wasn't convinced by any of them. I mean no disrespect. I just mean that sometimes the authors' practices felt pretty thoroughly traditional — as in Chapter 9, which describes an ungrading-inflected scheme for exams in Organic Chemistry that focuses so much on points and averages that in the end it doesn't really seem like ungrading at all, but just two layers of traditional grading. Or, there's not much detail given at all, as in Chapter 10 which focuses on a math class. (Lack of detail seems to be a common critique of this book in online reviews and I believe this is justified. I do wish there were a companion volume or a website that gives access to those details, like Rachel Weir's repository of mastery grading resources.) A class like Calculus 1 has a lot of ground to cover and a distressingly short amount of time in which to cover it. I believe you can and probably should ungrade, at least in spots, in such a course, but you also have to keep things moving to make sure students are set up for success in the next course. What's the balance? Can you let students pick the learning objectives? Or pick their grades?
  2. Does ungrading actually lead to greater levels of self-regulation and critical thinking downstream? This is a question pointed out in the conclusion of the book. One of the purposes of ungrading, it would seem, is to build students' metacognitive skills, especially the ability to use feedback from a variety of courses to improve — and to give feedback to others. But does this really happen? We just don't know yet.
  3. Can ungrading work as a part of a larger mastery grading system? Or, does the labeling that often happens in mastery grading — even if it's just Pass versus No Pass — counteract the effects of the unlabeled feedback that seems to be the hallmark of ungrading? Definitely, some of the authors in the book tried to "partially ungrade" a course. As I mentioned, I wasn't totally convinced this worked. But I would like for it to work. I'm simply wondering if "partial ungrading" is even a logical possibility, or if by including ungrading, you have to go all the way in order to reap the benefits. I suppose I'll find out myself, as I'm leaning toward zeroing out some of the grades in my mastery grading setup in the fall.

Ungrading is a movement that I welcome, and which can't be ignored at this point. Anything that moves the needle on progress toward a more fair, student-focused, and just system of evaluating student work is badly needed. The Ungrading book definitely has my mind working, and I recommend it to anybody interested in making this kind of progress.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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