Does Ungrading Work for Everyone?

Best practices are only best when they work for nearly everyone. While ungrading advocates encourage others to ditch traditional grading, we need to consider the impact of ungrading on groups who already encounter resistance from students around grades.

What is ungrading? Robert Talbert defines it as “a way of assessing and reporting on student learning in which students complete assignments but aren’t graded at all on any of them.” On the other hand traditional grading is characterized as assigning a grade. With ungrading, Jesse Stommel “offer[s] feedback with words and sentences and paragraphs, or by just talking to students, rather than using a crude system for quantitative evaluation.” Similarly, Rachel Toor notes that “for the growing number of advocates of ungrading, the whole point is to focus on learning rather on ‘sorting or judging’ students.” Ungrading is seen as offering feedback that fosters student learning, while traditional grading is reduced to a blunt instrument that judges student work.

Ungrading’s advocates have reported success in their classes, but grading that results in a grade can be useful also. While some disciplines, like STEM, rely on exams and problem sets to evaluate student learning, many other disciplines grade by providing the very kind of feedback featured in ungrading. Moreover, you can combine the formative feedback of ungrading with the evaluation of traditional grading. For example, I encourage faculty to combine rubrics with assignment wrappers. Rubrics make expectations transparent for instructors and students and help with the impact of grading on instructor workloads, while assignment wrappers provide an opportunity to talk with students about how to improve their performance.

Moreover, many advocates do not address the implications of ungrading for individuals for whom grading remains an issue. Grading frequently is a site of contention for women, people of color and international faculty, who often talk about the frequency of grade challenges. Because it relies solely on formative feedback, ungrading opens up these individuals to even more challenges. Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin note:

Think of classroom authority and expertise as a force field that surrounds an instructor and creates a protected space within which the teacher’s expertise and skill is assumed. . . . Instructors with privileged (white, male) statuses mostly don’t even know the force field is there. Women and instructors of color, meanwhile, definitely know the force field is there, that it tends to malfunction, and that they aren’t always guaranteed safety and space in which to teach. They often get distracted dealing with students who test the limits of the force field.

Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors

Pittman and Tobin bring up something that is often overlooked in discussions of ungrading: who does it. We already know that diverse faculty have different experiences in the classroom, but ungrading is presented as a neutral teaching strategy that will yield similar results for most. When Pittman, a tenured woman of color, adopted ungrading in her class, “student resistance was widespread and confrontational.”

Does this mean that ungrading is bad or wrong? No, but promoting it as a best practice in opposition to “quantitative evaluation” overlooks how formative feedback alone can produce grade challenges for those who are prone to them the most. I advocate using teaching strategies, well, strategically. For example, student learning for some assignments may be served by a simple quantitative score, while others should feature the very kinds of detailed, formative feedback promoted by ungrading. These choices depend on what you want students to learn and how you will know if they’ve learned something. They also depend on the degree to which you wish them to attain competency at any given point in the course. We might scaffold assignments in our courses and provide detailed, formative feedback early, while the last assignment in the course may not require the same level of feedback and result in a grade. Rather than seeing ungrading as a replacement for traditional grading, I think it represents a starting point to think about how instructors can deploy a variety of strategies to get a comprehensive view of student learning in a course.

Sources

Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin. “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 Feb 2022.

Jesse Stommel. “Ungrading: An FAQ.” Jesse Stommel. 06 Feb 2020. https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-faq/

Rachel Toor. “The Controversial but Useful Practice of ‘Ungrading’ in Teaching Writing.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 26 Apr 2021.

Robert Talbert. “What I’ve Learned From Ungrading.” Inside Higher Education. 27 Apr 2022.

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Does Ungrading Work for Everyone? by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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