Ungrading Light: 4 Simple Ways to Ease the Spotlight Off Points
Plenty of academics are on board — at least in part — with the “why” of ungrading, but lots of questions remain about the “how.”
Questioning the educational value of assigning grades is one of the hottest topics around in higher education. Professors have always felt strongly about grading, and perhaps even more so about its newest alternative: “ungrading.”
A recent collection on the subject, edited by Susan Blum, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, features lively essays by teachers who’ve all put their particular stamp on the practice of de-emphasizing or abolishing grades. Its appeal is not hard to understand when you consider:
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Questioning the educational value of assigning grades is one of the hottest topics in higher education. Professors have always felt strongly about grading, and perhaps even more so about its newest alternative: “ungrading.”
A recent collection on the subject, edited by Susan D. Blum, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, features lively essays by teachers who’ve all put their particular stamp on the practice of de-emphasizing or abolishing grades. Its appeal is not hard to understand when you consider that:
- Ungrading tracks with classic research on motivation. Famous studies have shown that tangible incentives depress creativity and reduce the intrinsic appeal of work for its own sake. (It’s important not to oversimplify here: Real-life situations involving motivation are complicated, and it’s perfectly plausible for both intrinsic and extrinsic factors to be at play.)
- Practically speaking, faculty time is better spent offering thoughtful feedback rather than bartering credit for work. Perhaps nothing eats up our emotional resources faster than disputing points with a disgruntled, grade-focused student.
- Similarly, dealing with suspected or actual cheating is draining, and there’s at least some suggestion that minimizing high-stakes, high-points assessments helps neutralize the temptation to cheat.
- Last but not least, overhauling how we handle grades might also help support marginalized students in a system rife with bias.
For all of those reasons, plenty of academics are now on board — at least in part — with the “why” of ungrading, but lots of questions remain about the “how.” Faculty questions about this approach range from the elementary (How do you summarize a student’s performance at the end of a semester?) to the advanced (How does ungrading work in a science course with fairly fixed learning goals? How do you mesh ungrading with specifications grading?) And most everyone wonders about the amount of time involved, which could be prohibitive for all instructors except those with the smallest classes and lightest teaching loads.
More than most teaching innovations, ungrading immediately gets faculty members wondering how to pull off such a drastic change. Hence this essay, which offers four simple, moderate ways to start de-emphasizing grades in your courses and putting the focus squarely on learning.
Design some required assignments for which the score is irrelevant. Some activities are important for students to do for their own learning, but their actual performance on the work is less important. Can you design meaningful assignments and offer full credit to any student who makes a good-faith effort?
This is something I’ve been doing in my own courses with gamified Kahoot quizzes. Each week students play along in class — something they’ve enthusiastically endorsed as a helpful and engaging way to master the material. It’s a worthwhile activity, and required. But I have zero interest in the stressful and time-consuming enterprise of handing out more or fewer points based on how they scored.
So instead, I require students to turn in a short assignment with enough information to document that they did, in fact, take the quiz. They also have to write — and this is key — a few sentences reflecting on their own performance. They tell me how they think they did, whether they were surprised (pleasantly or unpleasantly) by their performance, and what they plan to do differently next time.
Drop your penalties for late work. Try retiring punitive, points-based policies in favor of giving students reasonable amounts of extra time to turn in assignments.
For some time now, I’ve been disenchanted with enforcing deadlines through grades. The traditional approach — a 10-percent penalty for each day that an assignment is late, zero points for anything submitted online more than five minutes late, and so on — encourages students to engage in elaborate cost-benefit analyses to try to figure out what to tackle next. All of that cognitive effort would be much better spent on doing quality work in the first place. After all, the main purpose of the work is their own learning.
If we want students to approach assignments in a spirit of deliberate, thoughtful effort — as opposed to grade-obsessed frenzy — we need to set the conditions for that to happen. In my courses, I’ve been explicitly stating that my deadline policy prioritizes two things:
- Communication. I ask students to get in touch with me when they’re going to fall significantly behind on a deadline. The point isn’t for me to pry into personal matters, or impose intrusive requirements (like asking for a doctor’s note). I simply want them to let me know when I can expect to receive the work. That way, students take responsibility for making a plan and following through on it.
- Quality of the work. I tell students this: I would rather see your best work handed in a few hours — or even a few days — late, rather than have you turn in something you threw together in a panic shortly before the deadline.
But could a no-penalty policy favoring communication and flexibility result in chaos — with some students falling so far behind that they fail?
Possibly. However, that has not been my experience. A flexible policy for late work means that even students who really are struggling have a better chance of making it across the finish line, given that they’re not facing an increasing drain of unrecoverable points once they start falling behind.
And again, the goal here is to make grades and points much less of an all-consuming concern. Most students are perfectly willing and able to finish their work without the constant threat of grade-based punishment, once you put a better system in place and take the time to explain it.
Offer two-stage exams. Nothing about a course is more entangled with grades than the traditional, closed-book exam. I’m not arguing that we get rid of such tests — in fact, I give formal graded tests in my courses. But I am a strong advocate of extending learning through a two-stage exam. It’s a productive way for students to go back over exam material, with a focus on improving their understanding rather than bickering over points.
Briefly, a two-stage exam involves having students redo an exam in small groups, during the first class period after they individually take the test. You can pull this off in different ways, but I like to randomly assign students to groups. During the second stage of the exam, each group has to reach a consensus on the correct response for each test question before writing down a group answer. I then offer a modest amount of extra credit (that goes toward each student’s individual exam score) based on how well the group does on this new, collaborative exam.
The value of this method of revisiting the material is head and shoulders above the traditional practice of “going over the exam” by reading off correct answers in class. It exploits the value of tests as learning experiences in themselves, ones that help reinforce knowledge. Most important, with respect to ungrading, a two-stage exam shifts the focus off individual points gained or lost and onto the reasoning behind the answers. Students get to hear and discuss how others thought about the test questions, work through the evidence, and find a factual basis for each answer. That kind of substantive reflection is the antithesis of grade-driven cramming.
Tellingly, in the five years I’ve been doing two-stage exams, not a single student has challenged the validity of one of my test questions. Such challenges used to happen all the time. That approach has transformed the post-test class period from an atmosphere of tense negotiation to one of open discussion of ideas — nicely capturing the spirit of ungrading.
Practice “maximal availability” (within reason). Give your students ways to reach you quickly with questions and problems about coursework, instead of getting stuck and making excuses later for why they didn’t finish an assignment. During the pandemic, I started experimenting with new avenues for students to ask for help, mostly because a lot of them seemed to need extra support. Here’s what I did:
- I added a new section to my syllabi that explained exactly how students should proceed when they needed different kinds of assistance.
- For in-depth questions, I directed them to make an appointment (aided by a convenient online scheduling program) or come (virtually, at the time) to office hours.
- But for quick questions, I tried something I never dreamed I would do: I gave students permission to text me on my cellphone.
Giving students my personal phone number might seem a bit far afield from ungrading, so let me explain the connection. One of the drivers behind students’ stalled progress and ensuing panic over grades is hitting a roadblock while doing work outside of class. Until they get an answer to their question, they can’t finish the assignment. And that tends to pull the students and me down into a spiral of grade-focused excuses and blame.
Yes, students shouldn’t wait until the last minute to do their work. Yes, they should make sure they know how to complete their assignments before they exit the classroom. But procrastination isn’t always the culprit here. Students with multiple commitments and tight schedules (i.e., most students today) don’t have the flexibility to just set aside an assignment until I can get back to them hours later or the next day. This might be the only window they have to do the work. Personally, I’ve found that it’s the early-starters — not the last-minute crowd — who are most likely to send me quick texts between classes. They’re not grubbing for grades; they want clarification about something because they’re eager to do a good job, which is exactly the kind of mentality I’m trying to nurture.
For years I avoided making myself too available to students outside of class, on the assumption that the sky would certainly fall. Students would see it as an invitation to communicate unprofessionally, or worse: They’d send incessant demands, maybe even stalk or harass me. None of that has happened — at least not yet. And I do want to be clear that being able to share a personal cellphone number is a reflection of my privilege and status. As a white tenured faculty member, I’m less of a target for abuse and unreasonable demands than the untenured or than faculty of color, and as a middle-aged woman, I am less likely than younger instructors to get overly personal texts from college-age students.
So this might not be a good idea for everyone. Fortunately there are other ways to accomplish the same ends. Platforms such as Remind allow you to send and receive messages without sharing your cell number, and set times when you’re officially unavailable. Even a class Slack channel could be a workable solution.
To be clear: I am not saying that faculty members should be perpetually on duty and constantly working. I don’t — and no one else should — agree to answer students’ messages instantly or around the clock. My students get this, and don’t have a problem waiting for an answer to a question that came in at midnight, or in the middle of a faculty meeting for that matter. But students see texts as better and quicker than email, and better still than waiting for a chance to raise their hand or pull the professor aside after class.
I’ve also found that being more available via my phone hasn’t added much to my net workload. If anything, it’s easier to handle quick questions with a text message than to have them all end up sitting in my email or lobbed unpredictably into an already-busy class period.
What’s next for ungrading? Inevitably, more and better ideas are going to come along for putting ungrading into practice. Lots of faculty members will be trying — and improving upon — the smart ideas that are already out there. And as we get additional data on the actual impacts of these changes, we’ll know how to better direct our efforts.
Just as important as the techniques, though, is the change in focus and mentality associated with ungrading — the shift away from points and toward purpose. This is why we need to put wide boundaries around the concept, as I do with the ungrading-adjacent ideas I’ve offered here. I agree with Robert Talbert, a professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University, when he characterizes ungrading more as a philosophical framework than a specific set of practices. Likewise, the pedagogy activist Jesse Stommel nails it when he writes: “Ungrading works best when it’s part of a more holistic pedagogical practice — when we also rethink due dates, policies, syllabi, and assignments — when we ask students to do work that has intrinsic value and authentic audiences.”
Reorienting our own attention is where ungrading really starts. Once we’ve done that, our students will follow.