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“ungrading” in the classroom

[cross-posted with ACERT]

The following recap was written by Philip Johnson (Graduate Center, WAC Fellow)


On March 7, the Lunchtime Seminar turned to the idea of ungrading, as a means of questioning not only how we grade, but why we grade in the first place. Could there be better practices for encouraging deep learning on the part of students?

Jeff Allred (English) kicked the seminar off by posing three questions to the room, as a think/pair/share exercise (quickly becoming a favorite ACERT activity):

  1. Why do you grade?
  2. Do you have any memorable (positive or negative) experiences of being graded?
  3. What would happen if you graded less?

Answers to these questions varied greatly, but the overall trend was towards seeing grading as onerous (for teachers and students), but necessary – or at least mandated.

A growing academic discussion centers on the idea of ungrading. Jeff highlighted three helpful resources:

Jeff also flagged the ongoing Twitter discussion, using the hashtag #ungrading.

Next, Austin Bailey (English) described his process of introducing ungrading into his courses this semester. At the beginning of his talk, he offered the important reminder that ungrading is no magic pedagogical solution; his approach is of experimenting with the idea, exploring the changes that it effects within his classes.

Austin found inspiration for his experiments in Cathy Davidson’s idea of the deficit model in higher education. Instead of treating grading as an exercise in deducting points for lack of knowledge or ability, can we find other language and other models by which to capture student progress? Austin’s approach this semester involves basing final grades in two student self-assessments. At the midway and end points of the semester, students submit written reflections on their work through the course, as well as a tentative grade (of their work overall, not of any particular piece of it). The final course grade is the product of an agreement between Austin and the student. As he states in course syllabi, this means that Austin does not have final say over student grades.

This approach drew a lot of interest and questions from seminar participants. We hope to welcome Austin back to ACERT before too long, to find out how his ungrading experiment worked out over the course of the semester.

Finally, Allen Strouse (English) started by sharing some of the theoretical underpinnings of his pedgogy. He highlighted Ivan Illich’s notion of counterproductivity, the idea that even generally beneficial and benign institutions, such as schools and universities, undermine this beneficial public role as they become more and more institutionalized, and focus more and more on self-perpetuation. Allen sees grading as a good example of this; as we discussed at the beginning of the seminar, many of us view grading as required, as opposed to necessarily beneficial.

Allen shared various approaches to ungrading. One that caught the interest of a lot of people in the room was the practice of only assigning grades of A or B to written work. Instead of assigning lower grades, Allen offers students the chance to use his feedback to revise the paper, until they receive a higher grade. They can continue to resubmit their work until it is strong enough to receive a high grade.

These talks generated lively discussion, and a lot of questions about implementing different ungrading practices. An important thread across this discussion was how to take these practices, mostly developed in relatively small English classes, and apply them across disciplines, course levels, and class sizes. The pedagogical rationale behind ungrading should apply to diverse setting, although the actual classroom practices need to be adapted to the specific setting.


Check out presentation slides from the event below:

Jeff Allred

Austin Bailey

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