A professor shares the benefits and drawbacks of ungrading (opinion)

Seven years ago, I made a snap decision to walk away from traditional grading, and I never looked back. I was fed up with the traditional way of grades lie to us and to students about learning, as well as with how learning had become a game of grade grubbing and point scoring.

Having read Linda Nilson’s book on specifications (“specs”) grading, I adopted that methodology whole cloth in my courses—one that typically uses just a simple two-level rubric (“meets standards/needs revision”) or perhaps a four-level rubric to evaluate student work. Among the courses where I’ve used specs grading is Modern Algebra, an upper-level course in my teaching rotation. Despite excellent experiences with it before, my Modern Algebra students still tended to focus laser-like on the specs grading and significantly less so on the work itself or what they were learning and needed to learn. Research tells us that this skewed focus will often persist no matter how simple or helpful the grading is.

I had read much about the ungrading movement and felt it might be a good direction for the class. So I revamped the Modern Algebra course to have ungrading at the center. Now, at the end of the semester, I’m ready to report on how it went and what I learned.

What Is Ungrading?

Ungrading is a concept that has stubbornly resisted definition, but my take is this: it is a way of assessing and reporting on student learning in which students complete assignments but aren’t graded at all on any of them. (To avoid confusion between “grades” on assignments and “the grade” in a course, I’ll use the non-American term “mark” to refer to the former.) Instead of marks, student work receives lots of helpful feedback, which students use to refise their work and resubmit it. The instructor then evaluates the revisions, offers more feedback and so on.

The feedback loop continues until the students’ work meets quality standards spelled out in the course. At the end of the semester, rather than loading points into statistical formulas and seeing what comes out, students build a portfolio that shows their growth and skill in the subject, and they make a case for the course grade they believe they have earned, using that portfolio.

Ungrading removes marks from the picture in order to focus student attention on the work itself and engagement with the feedback loop. The point is to remove distractors (and marks are absolutely distractors), build metacognition and self-evaluation skills, and give students pathways to grow in their learning over time.

Unlike beginning-level math courses where a problem has only one right answer and only one way to get it, Modern Algebra is much more akin to how professionals do mathematics: experimenting with ideas, forming conjectures about what’s happening and then writing proofs—logical, convincing arguments—to explain why the conjecture is true. It’s essentially a writing-intensive course with a particular flavor. And as with all writing, there is not just one right answer. Proofs have shades of quality and correctness, as well as variations of strategy and expression. The process benefits greatly from getting feedback and iterating on it. So I decided the best way to get student attention where I wanted it was to throw out the marks—to ungrade.

How Ungrading Worked

Each week, students tackled two proof-based problems. They also did “daily prep” assignments before each class meeting where they worked out some details of a new concept, put together preliminary proofs for other problems and presented their work in class.

I provide extensive written feedback on homework assignments about what was good and what needed additional attention. Students revised and resubmitted one problem per week or multiple revisions of the same problem during the week. But I gave no marks for this work. I didn’t mark the presentations, either. I didn’t need to—students were the audience and raised questions and provided feedback. Sometimes presentations had errors, and that made for good discussion and class activities.

We’re now at the end of the semester. For over 13 weeks, students have been alternating between homework and daily prep—doing real math, making mistakes, getting feedback and using the feedback to improve. They’ve also had opportunities to give evidence of learning that is not homework problems or daily prep work, such as in-class group activities. And throughout, they’ve received no marks on anything, just feedback.

In a few days, students will be assembling their portfolios and making a case for their course grade—A, B, C, D or even F. The syllabus has a guide for what constitutes an A, B or C and what’s expected for each of those grades. I’ll go through their work, and if I agree with their grade self-evaluation, that’s the grade they get. If not, we have a syllabus policy for that, including situations where a student gives themselves a lower grade than I believe they’ve earned.

What’s Been Good

I’ve liked a lot of things about ungrading, including:

  • I know my students better. I’ll be honest—in the past I’ve made it to week 13 and still didn’t know the names of many of my students. But I’ve learned that ungrading only works if you have lots of communication with students. I held one-on-one meetings with each student in the fifth week, as well as optional 10th-week meetings, to make sure they’re calibrated and to get their thoughts. I’ve gotten very familiar not only with students’ names and faces but also their strengths and weaknesses. My classes were small—19 students in one section and nine in another—and you obviously can’t always have this level of contact in every class. But it’s the level of familiarity to which I now aspire.
  • I hear much less talk about “what the teacher wants.” In the past, students tended to frame their work in terms of “what the prof is looking for” rather than its intrinsic quality. The most common question I’d receive on revisions wasn’t about math, but rather “Is this what you want?” I struggled to convince students that it’s not about what I want but what the standards say. However, with ungrading, with the marks removed, this question hasn’t come up at all.
  • Students are cool with this. Students have had plenty of chances to complain about ungrading, but it’s just not been a big deal. Nobody has brought the grading system up at all, in fact, and I have not had to seek any buy-in. Students have wanted some clarification on the portfolio, but otherwise the whole thing just makes sense to them.

What’s Not Been as Good

I wouldn’t say that I’ve had a lot of problems with ungrading. But I’ve encountered a few issues or questions that I still have about the concept and how it’s implemented.

  • Ungrading seems to work only as well as students’ abilities to self-evaluate. Building self-reflection and metacognition is one of the goals of ungrading, but those skills are also among its ingredients. If a student lacks those skills, you can give all the helpful feedback you like, but that student will struggle more to make sense of it than another whose skills are better developed. You’re always going to find variations in students’ preparation in college-level courses, but in ungrading, those variations seem to be amplified, because it’s all based on self-evaluation. Therefore, I’m not sure that ungrading is serving the students who work hard but don’t have the best grasp on the basic tools of the discipline as well as it does those whose grasp is stronger.
  • Ungrading might unwittingly contribute to equity gaps in higher education, particularly in the STEM subjects. Evidence suggests that alternative grading systems in general can help with those gaps. But by removing marks from the picture, it may take away the guideposts that learners from less privileged backgrounds might need as they navigate college courses. It’s as if someone took away all the signs in an airport in a foreign country and then dropped a nonnative-language speaker into it. By having the signs, it’s possible this person might focus on the signage more than their journey, but those signs are helpful, and it’s hard to enjoy anything if you’re lost.
  • Ungrading shifts more work onto students. It makes them responsible not only for understanding the material itself but also for understanding their understanding. I don’t fully agree that’s a major issue, since students are not for responsible for self-evaluation and building metacognition ought to be among the primary outcomes of every course. But ungrading is definitely more work for students. The benefits outweigh the costs in my view, but you can’t deny there is a cost.

The Verdict—for Now

I enjoyed my ungrading experience. It was a good fit for my course; it helped at least some of my students; and I think my students and I learned a lot from it. But I’m not sure I would do it again.

Besides the issues above, I’m not sure if grading is significantly more beneficial than, or even different from, plain old specifications grading. While my students are good at taking feedback and doing something useful with it, I found it necessary to use specific language in their feedback letting them know if their work has met the class standard or not. (For example, “Your work on Problem No. 1 definitely meets the homework objectives.”) Leaving them to figure it out for themselves resulted in confusion, which could become disaster in the final portfolio if a student felt as if their work had met standards but received no clear signal it had not.

And if I need to give students clear signals about this, why not just use specifications grading with marks containing this information? Why not use, for example a three-level rubric of “exemplary,” “meets objectives” and “needs revision”— the information of which goes in the grade book and is given along with the feedback? What are we gaining by being coy about it in my verbal feedback? If students really need that explicit signage, then shouldn’t we give it to them?

It’s not an easy issue to address. On the one hand, research and practical experience tells us that no matter how simple or well-meaning the marks are, when they are present, they will become the sole focus of student attention, regardless of the feedback. But I’ve found that marking a student work in a way that’s simple and indicates progress saves students time and extraneous cognitive load. It gives explicit guidance where otherwise they would be operating using self-evaluation skills that are still in progress.

“But how will students get to the point where they can self-evaluate effectively if you keep telling them explicitly whether their work is good enough?” you may ask. It’s a fair question, and perhaps it’s a mistake to remove that work from their plates. On the other hand, removing work from students’ plates seems like a good idea, generally speaking, and perhaps students will be better able to self-evaluate if they are less overburdened.

In the end, I see ungrading as a tool, an approach to assessment that has its own set of pros and cons and works well in some contexts and less well in others. I don’t think ungrading is the logical end point of all grading systems, as in “If you really cared about students, you wouldn’t use grades at all”—as if ungrading was some morally perfected form of specifications grading.

The important thing, instead, is to keep student growth at the center and give them a grading system that’s optimized for that growth—whether or not it includes marks.

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