What to do about grading

This guest post comes from Eric K. Leonard, Shenandoah University

I had the pleasure of spending last week at the annual International Studies Association conference in Montreal.  It was a pleasure because I got to hear so many interesting discussions on pedagogy and honestly, ISA wasn’t always that way.  I attended my first ISA meeting in 1997 and the number of pedagogical panels was limited, to say the least.  

But as the years (actually decades but that makes me sound really old) have progressed, ISA has truly embraced the push by members to create space for pedagogical discussions at the annual meeting. I know for me personally, it has made attendance at this conference a joy. 

Amongthe plethora of pedagogical workshops, roundtable discussions, and panels that I attended one topic seemed to keep emerging – the assessment of students or grading. And within that topic, there was a lot of buzz around the idea of “ungrading”.  

I will admit that I generated some of the buzz since I am a vocal advocate of this method.  But in several discussions, this topic was raised without my prompting, albeit not always with the same enthusiasm and positivity that I hold for ungrading.  One thing was shared by most in the room and that was a disdain for grading. In one session, Simon Usherwood even mentioned that his appointment does not require grading!  Frankly, based on the level of jealousy that erupted from his confession, I was surprised he made it out of the room in one piece. So maybe we all can’t stop grading, but what would it mean to start ungrading? 

First, let me state that I am not a fan of the term ‘ungrading’.  As one of my students pointed out, they still get a grade at the end of the semester, so is it really ungrading? I much prefer self-reflective grading or something less clunky (suggestions are welcome). 

Second, ungrading is not one method of assessment.  It entails a lot of different methods that include specification grading, labor-based grading, minimal grading, authentic assessment, and others. The commonality amongst these methods is that students primarily self-assess through a process of self-reflection.  

The method that I employ is often considered the most extreme form of ungrading because as the instructor, I don’t grade any of my students’ work.  Because I teach in a hybrid format that includes a flipped learning model (maybe a conversation for another post) students submit a written assignment every week of the semester.  However, I don’t put a letter grade on those submissions.  

Instead, I provide students feedback to assist in their improvement of future submissions and to push students in terms of how they think about the week’s topic.  So throughout the semester, students never receive a letter grade.  But my university requires that I input a grade at the end of the semester.  

The way in which I ascertain student grades is through a process of self-assessment.  At three different points in the semester, students complete a self-assessment of their learning process.  This self-assessment includes questions about what they learned, what sparked curiosity, and questions about attendance, the number of assignments missed, if any assignments were late, participation level and quality of their comments during our classroom discussions, the effort a student has put forth, and the overall quality of their work, which can be compared to an “Answer Key” that contains examples of exemplary work from students in the course.  After students consider all of these different variables, they are asked to submit a grade and justify that grade.  

I explain to students that in most instances, I either accept that grade or input a higher grade.  And historically, that is the case.  However, I reserve the right to request a conference with a student if I am struggling to see how that student justified their grade.  In my experience, these conferences are rare (less than 1% of students per semester) and typically conclude with the student gaining a better understanding of the self-assessment both in terms of its criteria and its purpose.  In two years of ungrading, I had one student that refused to rethink their grade after a conference and therefore received a grade that I struggled to justify.  

With that brief accounting of how I employ ungrading, let me remark on a few critiques that typically emerge around this form of assessment.  

The first is that students, especially certain demographic groups, will simply overvalue their performance. In other words, students won’t truly self-reflect on their work and they will just provide themselves with a higher grade.  

I had a similar fear when starting this process but I can honestly say this has not been the case.  As mentioned above, only one student was adamant about their earned grade, despite my pointing out statements in their own self-assessment that didn’t seem to square with the perceived grade.  Because my policy is to let students grade themselves, I allowed that student’s perceived grade to stand.  But as mentioned, this has happened ONCE in two years.  Ballpark number, that is 1 in 250 students.  And a quick aside, that student would not have fit the demographic that the literature tells us would contest their grade. 

Second, as one participant stated during a panel at ISA, ungrading is “fake.”  I think what they meant by this statement is that ungrading does not accomplish what it claims to.  

An incomplete list of ungrading claims is that: 

  • Ungrading relieves the stress of grading and promotes greater learning rather than a focus on the grade.  
  • It encourages greater collaboration rather than competition among the students and between the professor and the students.
  •  It recognizes the subjective nature of traditional grading, especially in essay submissions, and allows students to agency in their learning process.

Given the context of the conversation, I believe the “fake” comment was directed at this final claim.  But what claims like this one fails to accept is that when an instructor grades an essay, research paper, or dissertation, there is a subject component to it and the student has no agency.  Thus, that is also fake.  

If we provide students the opportunity to be part of the discussion on their grades, we might get more thoughtful students that are more interested in learning rather than their GPA.  And although they do not have complete agency over the grading process, since I am creating the self-assessment form and providing an understanding of what exemplary work looks like, the level of agency is much higher than in a traditional assessment format.  I don’t understand why people see this as a dichotomous relationship in that students either have agency or they don’t.  The reality is that any increased level of agency for students in the educational process is a good thing and I believe ungrading serves to fulfill that goal.     

One final thought on ungrading.  And this is probably the most important point I can make in this post. 

Ungrading is not for everyone.  

Just like any other pedagogical method, ungrading has to fit with your teaching style, your approach to higher education, and your students.  Thus, this post is not an attempt to advocate that everyone adopt ungrading and to chastise those that refuse. Instead, it is an attempt to shed light on how one professor implements this assessment method in his classroom.  

You will notice that I didn’t discuss in any detail the literature on why we should stop grading or how it benefits the learning process.  This literature exists (in abundance) and engaging it might persuade some to give ungrading a try, but the question that every instructor has to ask themselves is whether they think this could work for their pedagogical approach and their students.  I answered that question with a resounding yes (and I have the student comments to support this claim)!  But that doesn’t mean your answer is the same.