<span class='p-name'>From Crackpipes to Criteria to Critical Pedagogy</span>

From Crackpipes to Criteria to Critical Pedagogy

As I’ve recently shared, I’m investigating an ungrading policy in my classes. I shared a post with my original thinking and rationale for exploring this topic. In this post, I wanted to share some of the feedback and questions I’ve received on the topic.

Please note, this feedback is not for the faint of heart. I started this process by sharing the following image below in the Higher Ed Learning Collective. I thought I would get some good feedback from the group, but the end result was far from that. I had around 300 comments, 479 reactions, and 20 shares from this one screen capture.

I’ll italicize the comments I received from others in the group. I cleaned up some of the language as it got salty at points. I wordsmithed some comments as they all revolved around the same topic and I wanted to clarify some tensions that I’m still having in this work.

I’ll also try to provide some commentary as needed. This is a bit long, but I know there are many of you that are trying to make sense of this topic, so it should help with your thinking/questions. Here we go. 🙂

Some of the Responses I’ve Received

Aren’t you required to turn in grades for students at the end of the term? Aren’t student GPAs tied to things like funding and progress towards a degree?

Yes, I still have to submit grades for the classes. That still exists. The larger systems are still in place at my institution. I have assignments, tons of feedback for courses, rubrics, criteria, and all of the same evaluations that we normally expect in a classroom. I’ll explain more of the process in an upcoming post.


How supportive is your Chair/Dean/Institution?

I can honestly say that I don’t know. I am tenured, and most of what I’m doing in this evaluative system was reviewed and approved by all T&P panels. The only thing that is different now is that I’ve given it a title of “ungrading” and held space for more student voice and ownership.

There are several colleagues in my department that indicated that they want to see what happens…and they’re actively testing this out as well in their classes. I asked that they do not read the post and feedback in the HELC group. 🙂

In fact, several of us are starting up a PLC at the institution that will meet and discuss ungrading across programs. We’ll meet and discuss this Spring.


Speaking as a registrar and as someone who is required to assist in our university accreditation and compliance efforts, the short version is that it’s probably not up to you to let students select their own grade, you probably have an institutional policy that needs to be followed. Check your institution’s handbook or check with your department chair or your provost. In short, this is an exceptionally problematic idea for a) federal financial aid regulations, b) assessment and data gathering, and c) job placement and qualifications.

I believe that I am following all of the policies, regulations, and required data elements necessary for accreditation and compliance. Hopefully, this will be a bit more clear as I outline the processes involved.


When you work in most industry jobs you constantly have to evaluate your own performance. It’s a skill you should build up and learn how to do when you are still in school. I like the approach to not having grades and being more introspective and reflective on your experience.

One of the “soft skills” (affective variables, dispositions) that I believe is the most important across my classes, and our program is to have our graduates act as health reflective practitioners. It is hoped that this introspection and reflection will support student growth now…and in their careers.

Additionally, we indicate that a growth mindset, grit, and reframing failure is something we’d like to build into our classes. By taking “failure” off of the table…it is hoped that students will be able to take more risks and focus on learning, growth, and exploration.


What do you teach? I teach medical students who need to learn biological chemistry and endocrine disorders. We assess the students to make sure they can identify disease/abnormalities and build a diagnosis. If a student does not have a solid understanding of biochemistry and physiology, the student does not progress in medical school and will not have access to actual patients via residency programs. Often, students think they know something, but when presented with a clinical scenario, they struggle. Grades and assessments are necessary. Would you want to see a doctor who gave him/herself grades in med school?

I work in teacher education and teach teachers how to embed literacy and technology into their classrooms. Although you may believe that this is not a life or death situation, I would beg to differ.

More to the point, I believe that an ungrading policy could work in other programs and content areas. The key challenge or hurdle (IMHO) is believing in a false dichotomy between knowing and not knowing. As an illustrative example, I worked with a colleague to design a learning module and series of assessments for a course on cybersecurity. The assessments would have a hexadecimal key hidden in a pile of files. If students found the key…they passed. If they didn’t…they failed. This was the only real assessment in courses. I indicated that this is lousy in terms of ed psych, pedagogy, and assessment. Students need a variety of approach points for learning, feedback, critique, and opportunities for reflection.


Although self-assessment can be useful in certain limited scenarios, it is quite frankly irresponsible and/or downright dangerous in many others. When making such decisions, we should consider a cost-benefit analysis for all those involved. Are we sacrificing the students’ knowledge, motivation, and/or future employability in exchange for our ego’s need to feel “woke” or liked? In that case, it’s not compassion or acceptance of diverse needs — it’s a personal issue disguised under the veil of social desirability.

Agreed. This is why I’ve included opportunities for students to share anecdotal, anonymous feedback on how this is working (or not working) for them.


In the 1970’s my high public high school was ungraded. It was anxiety provoking, to the point where my hands broke out in rashes and l had hair loss. The rest of the world has standards. If you are aware that others (at other schools) are meeting standards, and you yourself have no markers of where you are, it’s not freeing. You don’t trust your instructors more, you see them as unwilling to tell you the truth about your potential and your abilities, you don’t trust them to even know your worth, or be honest with you about your shortcomings. When I got to college I had no idea if I was prepared or how my work would stack up against my peers.

One of the issues with “ungrading” is that some believe it means “no grading.” This is far from the truth. There is a considerable amount of feedback and critique involved in my system. There are also varying levels of instructor, peer, and self-feedback baked into the system. Lastly, I think it is problematic to believe that the instructor is the only one that can serve as the benchmark for potential, ability, and worth.


You’re lazy.

I may be lazy, but that’s another story. In all honesty, there is A LOT of work happening behind the scenes if you move to an ungrading model. If you’re doing this because you think it’ll lessen your load, you’re sadly mistaken.


I know where you got this idea.

I needed to reverse image search the photo to figure out what it is. It’s a crack pipe for those that are already wondering. I have to say that this photo was one of the comments that really hurt. The photo and comment were ultimately deleted from the discussion.

I think there is no substitute for clear grading rubrics with the path to an A grade made very clear.

I see that, but call me “old school”, but I believe the path to an A should be clear, I feel like they pay me to assess the student work, according to a rubric. I feel rather certain that a number of my failing students would pass themselves anyway, and why not? Courses are expensive and some are there just for the credits. I like to see a competency demonstration before I pass a student, otherwise, let’s just pass out course credits to all.

I’ve written quite a bit about the possibilities of thinking flexibly about learning pathways as we learn and grow over time. Put simply, learning pathways are the route taken by a learner through content, or a learning experience as they move from learner to leader. Some see learning pathways as the ideal sequence of learning activities that drives individuals to reach proficiency in the shortest possible time. The graphic below by Bryan Mathers discusses how learning pathways play out in a badging ecosystem.

This is important as I believe the identification of a specific route (or routes) in learning is important. I do not believe it is the only route, and I think learners should be provided with multiple opportunities to explore or create their own paths. Lastly, the courses I have developed all offer scaffolded, chunked learning experiences that guide individuals in the learning experience.


What do you do if someone writes a narrative that overinflated their contribution and assigns themselves an A? Do, or not do, there is no “try”. Some never do the work. Would they give themselves a C-? To me, not fair to those who do the work and acquire the learning competency. Beyond discussing it with them, do you change that grade or let them carry it if they want to? If they stopped attending or turning in assignments but still give themselves an A, what do you do?

I’m still thinking about this. I talked with one of my colleagues that is also testing ungrading on this topic. In the syllabus for that class, the midterm and final are opportunities for students to declare their grade, assemble their supporting/supplemental materials that link to rubrics and criteria, and this leads to a discussion with the instructor. My colleague indicated that in a small sample size, there was one student that they bumped up the grade…and one student where it was bumped down.


Not what Paulo Friere had in mind

Okay then.


Decolonizing the classroom is a powerful act and an immense balancing act. Ira Shore, Parker Palmer, Paulo Freire, Audre Lorde, bell hooks…you are invoking the most progressive educators of the last fifty years. I grade, assess, grade, comment on work, and grade and assess some more. At the end I ask my students to grade themselves. Ninety-nine percent of the time we agree on the “grade”. Please post on how this works for you. Best wishes on this endeavor. Please continue to post and let me know how it goes.

Well…okay then….


I love this so much. You are modeling a powerful practice in decolonizing the classroom. You are making space for students to gauge and measure their own success. Of course, as classroom teachers, we understand that this level of autonomy will require some work on your end to ensure folks understand how they’re genuinely being held accountable. However, please ignore some of these myopic and short-sighted comments. What you have modeled here is glorious. I absolutely love it. Please keep doing this and don’t let anyone deter you! ❤️

I keep coming back to this comment and the prior comment as I continue in the process.


My courses are 55% ungraded feedback assessments (0= missing, 1= needs revision/resubmit, 2=complete, reply to feedback) and 45% traditional grading with exams/quizzes and a reflection term paper. Revisions on the ungraded work are only for very incomplete submissions or egregious errors. Minor corrections are covered with the credit for responding to the feedback on complete assessments. The mix and feedback interaction reduces anxiety though, if a student does not participate in the syllabus discussion, you may have to repeat that they need to submit, even imperfect, ungraded work to receive any credit. The syllabus discussion is in-class and online. A mid-term check-in also helps a lot.


This would cause me anxiety as well. I admire you as a professor. As a student, I don’t. I did the work, I looked at the rubric, and now you want me to evaluate your rubric and see if I think my grade makes sense to you?

This is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had as I rolled out this model. Anxiety is already a potent, debilitating force in many classrooms. My students indicated that they mainly view themselves through the lens of their grades. This view of their intelligence, and the grade being the primary indicator of their intelligence and identity, gave me pause.

Next steps

I hope this was of value to you as you think about ungrading. I’m continuing to think through my experiences and focus on supporting my students.

I do have to say that it would be much easier, especially for mental health if I would have kept this close to the vest and tried it out in private. That being said, I’ve never shied away from testing things out in my classroom and trying to iterate on teaching, learning, and assessment.

Sharing it with a Facebook group of 40,000 higher ed folks from around the globe may not have been the best decision, but I did get some quick, actionable peer review and feedback. I am thankful for that.


Cover Photo by Julien Riedel on Unsplash

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