<span class='p-name'>Getting Started With Ungrading</span>

Getting Started With Ungrading

Over the past semester or two, as COVID has been disrupting most parts of our lives, I’ve been thinking more about teaching, learning, and assessment in my classes. This is more than just an opportunity to modify my practice when things go sideways. I think this pandemic has given us an opportunity to think deeply about our work and make changes.

Part of this reflection includes a close examination of my assessment practices. I’ve been researching different opportunities to rethink evaluations in my courses for some time, but this semester I decided it was time for a change.

I made things “official” yesterday by entering the following statement in the grading section of a syllabus for one of my courses.

This replaced some language about how I would accept work at a later date, depending on a variety of circumstances. But, in all honesty, I’ve been moving to this model for some time.

In this post, I’ll share some insight into how I’m planning on implementing ungrading in one of my classes. In subsequent posts I’ll share more about the why…and finally conclude with a post about the feedback I received as I posted the image above on social media. 😉

Focus on Process, Not Product

I pulled the following statement from my T&P narrative as it does a good job of explaining my thinking.

Central to my teaching philosophy is a belief that learning is an active interaction that involves the acquisition of, or construction of knowledge, understanding or behaviors of an individual that impacts on their ability to understand, collaborate and communicate successfully within the environment that they occupy. I believe the focus in the classroom should shift from the teacher to the students, as learners are encouraged to be actively involved in their own process of learning. As a result, I seek to be a co-learner, and a facilitator in my classes. I work to cultivate a culture of academic rigor and trust in all of my classes. 

Of interest to this discussion about my assessment practices is the following section about assessment (formative & summative) in my technology class.

I also build collaboration and social learning into my courses by providing multiple opportunities for students to provide feedback on each other’s work while reflecting on their own practice. This includes opportunities in EDFS 326 to present an Internet inquiry unit plan multiple times during the semester to each other and obtain feedback to improve the overall work product. Guided by project-based learning philosophies, I serve as more of a facilitator by ensuring that the students utilize multiple strategies to review and give feedback on materials presented over time. We utilize Peergrade, a platform for facilitating peer feedback to allow students to present work to peers, and critically review the work of others.

In my classes, I include multiple opportunities for formative assessment during the class and strive to create multiple approach points for self-assessment, peer assessment, and mentoring from the class instructor. What does this mean in plain English?

My technology class is guided by tenets of project-based learning. This includes gradual feedback across the course as students submit, get feedback, improve, and resubmit work across the semester. We’re using Google Docs as templates that students complete and submit three or four times to the group for feedback. You can see an example of this in the image below.

I also used PeerGrade (and then EduFlow) to collect and distribute work for critical feedback. You can see an example of this in the image below. Note: I’ll change this in the upcoming semester as the pricing for the products has skyrocketed.

The following image shows a student synthesis/reflection post embedded in PeerGrade, and the feedback I provided. Keep in mind, this was accompanied by feedback on the same questions from their peers.

As students submit this work and give/get critical feedback, I give a minimal point value for the submission in the grade book. This is more or less a scale that indicates a 0 (you didn’t do it), 1 (you did it, but missed the mark), or 3 (good work…keep it up…now let’s move on).

Students continue to build, share, revise, critique, and learn across the course, as we focus on their work product. But in class discussions, we spend a lot of time talking about the learning process and dispositions utilized as they complete the work. Dispositions are learner attitudes or aptitudes. They are inclinations to think, work, or act in a specific way. In our classes, we often focus on content, and sometimes skills…but affective skills (soft skills, dispositions) are sometimes ignored.

At the end of the course, students select their best work and move it over to a website they created during the course. As a class, we collaboratively revise a rubric that I provide as use that as the final metric to use as a grade for their final submission. For almost all of the rubrics in my classes, I begin by sharing a rubric or list of criteria I think we should use to assess their work. Students then (hopefully) shred this document until we come up with a list of criteria that we believe is the best representation of the completed work. Yes…this process is messy the first couple of times…but I think it is worth it.

Being Intentional

In an upcoming post, I’ll share more about the feedback I received after sharing the image above…but I think it is important to share some things I’ve learned during the T&P process as I’ve taught classes in this manner.

Yes, there are many students that do not value, or profit from this type of learning. Student evals indicate that they wish I would just teach and not rely on students to “teach themselves.” I have evaluations that indicate that it was confusing to have multiple versions of the “right answer.” Evaluations suggested that these methods and techniques were frustrating, and they viewed this as a lack of clear expectations or would prefer more lecture-driven classes.

From this feedback, and guidance from my department, and students…I started to be more intentional about my rationale for the why and how of my course at the start of the semester…and not just the what.

I spell this out in a section from my narrative:

Academic rigor is woven throughout my classes in three phases. First, I set the standard for students, and involve them in the process. Second, I support rigorous achievement by equipping students through instructional and supportive methods. Third, I provide students with various opportunities to demonstrate their degree of achievement in relation to the given standard. I achieve this by focusing on four pillars in my classroom instruction: engagement of learners through inquiry-based learning, encouraging collaboration across activities, utilization of varied assessment strategies, and scaffolding of skills as a reflective practitioner. This adds rigor to my teaching practice as I stretch them outside of their comfort zones by having them problematize their thinking about technology, literacy, pedagogy, feedback, and assessment. I am helping them transition from student to teacher, or learner to leader.

As the semester begins, I indicate that my class is guided by the four pillars identified above. If you’re looking for someone to lecture you to sleep each week…you’re in the wrong class. I expect you to be engaged, excited, and take ownership of the course. This needs to be constantly refreshed throughout the course, but near the end of the course…students call me out when I get excited about something and lecture for much too long. 😉

So when do we get to ungrading?

There are many layers and opportunities to explore alternative assessment models in your classes. I am not an expert on this if you’re looking for one.

I’m really intrigued by labor-based grading contracts in the classroom. I think I’ll ultimately move to this model, but first I want to strip down the layers in my assessment practices and provide space (and trust) for my students to have more ownership.

I’m inspired by this post from Alfie Kohn and this post from Peter Elbow. The video below from Kohn is also a good resource.

To make this happen in my class, I’m following the guidance from Laura Gibbs in this post and this post.

In my tech class, I’ll still collaboratively construct (and agree upon) rubrics with students. I’ll continue to follow project-based learning tenets and have students create, submit for feedback, revise, and resubmit throughout the course. I’ll continue to embed multiple formative assessments in class, and focus on self-assessment, peer assessment, and targeted instructor feedback.

What will change from my current model is that students will enter what Gibbs calls “declaration grades” in the learning management system. When they submit work, they’ll be presented with an opportunity to send along the link to their assignment, along with a “declaration quiz.” The quiz will be a simple true-false checklist of the objectives and criteria (that we agreed upon) for the assignment. When students click “true” as the answer, the assignment points go into the grade book. I’ll continue to make each assignment worth just a few points and not include high-stakes assignments or tests. Sorry…no midterm and/or final that will help students sink or swim in the course. If I wait for one time point in the class to see if my students are engaged and connected…I’ve missed the boat.

More feedback…less grades

This is an initial test of my exploration into “ungrading.” I’m sure there will be bumps and pivots in the road ahead. I’ll work through these with my students…and reflect here on this blog.

For now, I’ll leave you with the goals indicated here by Laura Gibbs. Laura (as usual) says it better than me. 😉

In this exploration, I seek to:

  • Remove Myself. My main goal is to remove myself from the grading equation so that I can focus all my effort on providing personalized feedback (which I provide in abundance).
  • Remove Stress. This is meant to be a completely stress-free grading system.
  • Make It Flexible. Students can choose to get an A in the class, or a B, or a C; it’s up to them.
  • Make Students Responsible. The students are responsible for checking their own work with the text of the Declarations prompting them to check carefully.
  • Be Clear. At any moment in the semester, students can see exactly where they stand.
  • Be Objective about Grading. There is nothing subjective about any of the grading; it’s a completely objective system (aside from the subjectiveness of the A-B-C-D-F scale itself). At the same time, there are no learning objectives; there are only learning “subjectives” meaning that this system allows the students to pursue their own learning paths and to set their own goals.

Thanks for reading. There’s much more to say…but the semester is starting and I have work to do. 🙂


Photo by Wulan Sari on Unsplash

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