Education

There’s No Right Way to ‘Ungrade’

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I was both surprised, and I suppose flattered, to be named in a recent article that I am among the people who are “doing ungrading right.” 

I was also more than a little chagrined because most of my writing on ungrading has been to document my myriad struggles in implementing an approach to student-level assessment that was consistent with my pedagogical goals. In Susan Blum’s edited collection Ungrading: Why Rating Undermines Learning (And What to Do Instead), I explicitly describe how I identify with Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to snare the Roadrunner, given the challenges of developing a system of alternative grading.

I am uncomfortable being identified as someone doing ungrading right because framing it as something that can be done correctly suggests it is a schema or program that can be applied regardless of context or conditions, and once fixed, you’re good to go. This has not been my experience. The effectiveness of a particular approach to alternative assessment is highly dependent on context, a context which can be altered by an almost innumerable number of variables.

Ungrading is no one thing. It is not a specific approach or set of techniques so much as a mindset, a recognition that the relationship between evaluation as it traditionally happens in school contexts and the imperatives of learning are complicated, and for many students, those things have been at odds for the bulk of their academic careers.

I would not say that I am doing anything right when it comes to ungrading except that I try to do my best.

My default assumption, one I hold until proven otherwise, is that everyone is doing their best to do right by their students. This does not mean that I agree with everything everyone else is doing – any regular reader knows that I have very strong opinions about teaching and learning – but one of those opinions is that instructor autonomy and the freedom to adapt their practices to their unique contexts is a necessity for success.

The irony of my experience is that being largely ignored because of status as contingent faculty gave me great freedom to experiment. At the same time, my status as contingent faculty means I teach only occasionally now, so it’s much tougher to continue those experiments. As with most issues around teaching and learning, the biggest barriers to change and improvement are structural and systemic. 

When I give talks about teaching writing, and my framework of “the writer’s practice,” I often conclude with a discussion of grading and assessment and how I ultimately turned away from traditional letter/numerical grading on individual assignments because I recognized that how I was grading was at odds with my pedagogical values.

To the extent that interest in ungrading seems to be increasing, my observation is that it’s primarily rooted in instructors questioning legacy practices and how (even if) they are related to what they want students to learn. This is healthy. What isn’t healthy is replacing one system with another without dealing with the complexities.

My advice then is not to necessarily do what I do in terms of specific practices when it comes to grading, but to instead follow the process that allowed me to bring my instruction and my assessment in alignment with those underlying values.

That involves following a number of precepts that help me be aware of my values when it comes to assessing student work.

I give the following advice:

Assess only what you value. For years, much of my time was spent enforcing rules around writing that I didn’t actually believe were all that meaningful when it came to learning how to write. Ultimately, this led me to ditching letter/numerical grades entirely on individual assignments, but that was a multi-semester journey. Other instructors with different values teaching in different contexts will come to different conclusions.

Be transparent with students about what counts when it comes to assessment. This includes, but is not limited to the criteria by which student writing is being judged. In addition to the specific criteria, students should know how that criteria is connected to the underlying values of the course. Students are often uncomfortable with removing grades on assignments during the semester. This transparency helps manage that discomfort.

Use assessment purposefully, not just because assessment is expected. For years, I thought that because I assigned something, I was obligated to grade it. This is not necessarily true if we think of assessment as an aid to learning, rather than something separate. I read student work because I want to be able to diagnose issues students might be experiencing with their writing practices. This means I may bring a different lens to each assignment, depending on what part (or parts) of the writer’s practice are most important.

Ungrading was actually the last part of my pedagogical evolution, and it took multiple semesters to evolve into an approach (often in collaboration with students) that genuinely seemed to (mostly) work. There’s no guarantee that this approach will continue to work in the future. We’re looking at a moving target as conditions and contexts change. And it’s not like every student finished the semester singing hosannas. Even something that mostly works will continue to not work for everyone.

As we evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches, it’s important to recognize there is no evidence that traditional grading “works” (if student learning is paramount) other than it being part of the status quo. This is not to say traditional grading doesn’t work either, but rather we should have an open and flexible process around how we evaluate student work and the kind of feedback they’re provided.

To me, ungrading is really just an unpacking, or unraveling of how we grade to make sure what I’m doing makes sense for what I want to achieve. 

How those processes get repacked or reraveled will be unique to the specific conditions and context of the instructor, course, and institution. 

I spent most of my time pretty convinced that I was doing it all wrong, and I had plenty of evidence to support that belief!

But over time things begin to make more sense, connections appear, the extraneous bits I’d held on from the status quo dropped away. 

I don’t know that you will ever be certain that you’re doing it “right,” and maybe that’s the point.

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