I’m not even sure that title is appropriate. I never actually learned to grade. Assess, yes. I have been taught pretty extensively on assessment in both my masters and doctoral programs but not any formal training or reading or support in learning how to grade. But, I know how I have been graded. I have loads of experience being graded with 24 years of formal education under my belt! That should be enough, right?
When it was my turn to develop assessments, I had a long list of things I did not want to do. I did not want to answer questions like “do I have to know this?” and “is this what you want?” I did not want to track student progress by docking arbitrary points (who decides this section is worth 10 points? Oh, me? So, I can make it 10,000 points? I CAN? Wait, so there are actually no rules to this at all and no one actually knows what they’re doing? Cool cool.) I didn’t want to talk about due dates and points and format and page length and font size and all things that distract from what I DO want to talk about which is teaching, learning, strategies for supporting kids with disabilities, the role of teacher bias, the school to prison pipeline, systemic poverty, white supremacy, trauma both in and out of school, so many things other than grades.
So I started pushing back against traditional grading. I think this journey began for me in my second year in a tenure track faculty position. I think that was by far my worst year as an instructor, my students hated me, my pedagogy was all over the place, and my confidence was low. I knew I wanted to forge a new path but I hadn’t found Dr. Blum’s book I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthology of College yet and I hadn’t found Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris on Twitter yet. So, my first year of ungrading, is a blur of failure but this part of my work has improved steadily since.
What I Know Now
- Students must be involved. This semester, for the first time, my students helped to co create an assignment description and the rubric for their final Passion Project presentations. We codeveloped a timeline for the course and determined flexible deadlines together. I have extended the offer of flexible deadlines for several years but this helped us to organize together. As a result, we all stayed much more in sync throughout the semester without a huge end of the semester stress.
- I must be trustworthy. This has been difficult. I know I’m trustworthy but the students don’t. They’ve learned from all of their years of experience that anything can happen, grading really can be unfair and arbitrary, and they don’t know me at all. I’m much more transparent now about my approach, the details of how they will be assessed, and how I will engage them in their own assessment as much as my own.
- Self and peer assessment must be taught. I’m still working on this. Students don’t know how to give constructive, meaningful feedback to their peers and they’re hesitant to evaluate themselves. This is something I’m going to focus heavily on this spring. Learning how to be teachers means learning how to give meaningful feedback so I’m going to make this an outcome goal for all my students.
Take it slow. Determine one area or one learning objective (since they should each be measured for mastery, right?) that you will shift from quantitatively assessing to a qualitative measure. I believe I started by shifting from reading check ins to commitment logs. Reading check ins at the beginning of class consisted of a few questions about the readings or an open ended free write. I replaced that with our commitment logs which may have an entrance question but was not assessed for right/wrong.
Get over yourself. This is a pretty critical component of ungrading. We have to be willing to participate side by side with our learners, allow them to exceed our understanding or imagination, and relinquish our beliefs that it’s our role to give students knowledge. We are co creators of knowledge, meaning makers, and in partnering with our students, we allow ourselves to be challenged, to grow, to learn. Exchange power for trust. You’ll be surprised.
Involve students. They know grades are problematic and they have been conditioned to crave them like a drug. Once they kick that craving, they are able to engage in the work of learning, they can free themselves of all the energy it takes seeking out that grade high to create, think, apply, question, seek, wonder, and more. Teaching is not black and white. It’s a mess of beautiful grays that students can explore without fear of noncompliance with a predetermined task that couldn’t have possibly anticipated the questions they would raise.
Have you any interest in ungrading or the ungrading movement? Tell me about your experiences!
Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??). I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.