Grading an Ungraded Course

Each course taken for credit requires a grade.  That’s the system we work in.  There is very little direction, in higher ed at least, about how to come to the determination of a grade but a final grade is always required.  And grades matter a lot.  So much that suicide attempts and completions surge during finals and/or end of quarter reporting.  Do we really feel so confident in capturing learning in a letter grade?

I’ve developed a nimble and ever-evolving  process for determining a final grade for my face-to-face courses.  In this post, I’ll talk about that process and answer the pervasive question, “What about the students who take advantage?”

Ungrading begins on (before) the first day of classes.  I’m constantly working to refine my syllabi language and my orientation for students on the first day.  I use Jesse Stommel’s language in my syllabus.

This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions. 

I also really like this language from Chelsea Morris @ecrising_ga about revise/resubmit procedures. I include peer review in this process as well as our knowledge is socially constructed in an active learning community.

Writing is a personal process that is ever evolving. I want you to know that I strongly believe that we all (and by all, I mean myself, too) can improve our writing. Therefore, on specific assignments in this class that involve submission of a written product, I will allow you to revise and resubmit your paper in order to develop the best final version that meets the goal of mastering course objectives. For each assignment, I will provide specific suggestions on how to improve your submission that you should implement with each new submission.

I build as much self and peer reflection and assessment into the semester as possible.  As the semester nears an end, I compile all of the work for the course (e.g., commitment logs, passion projects, book club, peer feedback) and ask students to complete a final feedback form.  This form asks for a proposed final grade for the course and then student rationale for that grade based on each of the tasks in the course.  This fall was the first time I completed the form – in the past, I have conferenced face to face.  The form provided students with a more targeted opportunity to consider their learning and their growth prior to our conferences.  It also provides tangible evidence of the process for my annual evaluation documentation.  I will move that form to google forms this spring and put it in their online commitment logs.  See?  Always evolving and, I think, improving.

The minute I begin speaking about ungrading, someone ALWAYS says, “yeah I agree mostly but what about for the student who does the minimum, who takes advantage, who doesn’t take it seriously because you’ve already told them they have an A?”  So, let’s unpack that.

Grades should be communication about progress toward mastery and mastery is the expectation.  So, just below the surface of this question, is the belief that grades are reflective of behavior and/or compliance, not learning.  And I get it.  We have all had learning experiences where the grade we were given was contingent on factors other than our demonstration of content mastery.  I got an A in a course because I did a book review in addition to the required course content (completing the required course content guaranteed a B).  I got a C in Movies of the 30s because I missed two classes, each resulting in a dropped letter grade.  I could go on.  So could you.  So, first we have to uncouple grading with policies around attendance, participation, effort, due dates, etc.  This is the hardest step for many.  Trust your students.  Invest in them.  Be trustworthy and safe so that they know they can be honest about what they need to be successful in mastering the content of your course.

Next, I would ask, “who cares?”  I know that sounds a little flippant but grades are made up.  If a student does not submit any work, does not attend class, does not engage or participate in any way, I have to assume there is something much more important going on in their lives.  I reach out, I try to build understanding, and I accept the difficult decisions many college students have to make about where to direct their resources.  Focusing on the points or the tasks or the deadlines does not promote trust and our shared priority of the student’s mastery.  And they are not that important in the bigger picture of what is preventing the student from being present in the work.

Finally, I have only had one instance in 9 years of this process where a student and I disagreed about the proposed final grade.  We both presented evidence and we came to the consensus that the student’s assessment would prevail.  The student felt strongly that they presented their best work and demonstrated an alignment with their product and mastery of course objectives.  I don’t give students grades, they do.

I’m always going to err on the side of students.  I don’t use grades to manipulate, coerce, or “gotcha” students.  The relationships I establish with students and the growth I see in their ability to talk about and reflect on their own learning is enough for me.  If one or two students leaves my course with a grade they didn’t “earn,” I’m okay with that.  The door remains open for us to continue the dialogue, continue learning together, continuing pushing each other.

Supporting preservice teachers to become lifelong learners must involve teaching them to identify their learning gaps and evaluate their own learning.  Traditional grading practices work in opposition with my teaching and learning goals.

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