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My Crash Course in Ungrading — Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love student learning

April 1, 2022
ND Learning

By Dominique Vargas

What had I gotten myself into? In Fall 2021, I stepped in to teach a class that was already brilliantly designed by a faculty member who I admire and count among my mentors. In one of our planning meetings, the faculty member encouraged me to make the course my own, but emphasized their commitment to ungrading. I agreed enthusiastically, but after our Zoom call ended, I started to panic. 

To be clear, I embraced ungrading in principle. I can’t count the times that I’ve vehemently argued against standardized testing and punitive grading policies. I’ve encouraged grade-focused students to think instead about growth while privately lamenting the time they had spent worrying and not learning. Now all of these principles were going to be put to the test. (Had I not been terrified, I would have laughed at the irony of this fear of failure.) 

My pedagogical education was greatly influenced by bell hooks, Peter Elbow, and other expressivists, so I was a quick convert to ungrading strategies even before I had the language to describe them. Ungrading is really an umbrella term that covers a range of practices that de-emphasize or reduce the focus on grades as a system of marks, ratings, and rankings. In place of grades, instructors provide students with frequent formative feedback combined with student-instructor dialogue, student self-evaluation, and peer feedback. In this course, ungrading also meant that students would never receive a letter or number grade on any class-related work. The syllabus included a robust description of ungrading as well as a contract, which outlined baseline requirements that would guarantee students at least a B in the class. At the end of the semester, students would–in consultation with me–assign themselves a grade for their work based on this contract. 

If you’re still reading, I’ll just mention again: I was terrified. 

I did not know then, however, that this would be one of the most important and formative experiences of my teaching career. Of course, ungrading was not a utopian experience. It was often difficult, but it changed the way I think about teaching and learning. In an effort to align with the way I talk to students about growth, I’ve outlined some areas for reflection: 


What was successful

Metacognition: In the past, when I talked to students about an assessment, they often focused on perceived deficits that prevented them from achieving an A. In this course, students focused more on learning, setting goals to improve understanding, application, and analysis. Ungrading relies on regular reflection as well as self- and peer-assessments to help students to think critically about their performance and growth. In this way, students became more aware of the way that they were thinking and learning. 

Engagement: I’ve always struggled with the best ways to assess students who do not often speak in class. Ungrading freed me from the tyranny of participation grades and gave students more opportunities to authentically engage with the material. This course fostered sustained engagement both in and outside of the classroom through frequent, low stakes assessments, journals, group work, and consistent feedback. These engagement strategies also built intrinsic motivation without the external pressures of grades. 


Where I struggled

Time management: At the beginning of the semester, I told my students that they would get more qualitative feedback than they would if I were using traditional grading strategies. I said this mainly to communicate my commitment to their growth, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for what this meant in practice. I promised and provided written comments on nearly every assignment and verbal feedback in fifteen minute, bi-weekly out-of-class meetings with students. Midsemester and end of semester assessments took the most time, because these responded to student self-assessments while also providing summative feedback. Though I managed to complete all of these assessments in a timely manner, in the future I would rely more on organizational tools like google sheets to keep track of my previous feedback and student goals so that I could spend less time preparing summary comments.

Transparency: Without the tools of traditional grading, I felt like I struggled to communicate expectations for assignments. I focused on clarifying purpose, task, and criteria when assigning learning activities, but I think students still could have benefitted from more structure and examples. In the future, I would implement more traditional assessment strategies such as qualitative rubrics that focus on criteria and structured draft submissions. 


How I’ve changed

Critical self-reflection forms the foundation of my teaching practice. Ungrading provided more opportunities for me to engage with students and colleagues so that I could reflect on and adjust my teaching practices in the moment rather than after the semester concluded. It is important to note that I was in a privileged position: so much of the course design was already in place, and I had incredible departmental support, two fantastic TAs, and an on-call colleague to accompany me through the semester. 

Overall, this experience helped me to get better at the things I care about: providing meaningful feedback and building a more inclusive community. Ungrading also further exposed the often implicit and inequitable framing of grades as currency. This approach required me to think more authentically about the distribution of power in the classroom. I got to know my students better than I had ever done before. I listened to and engaged with their ideas without pretext. I trusted them. I was humbled. I was grateful. It was what I always hoped my teaching could be. 



Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning – Susan Blum, ed.

“The Case Against Grades” – Alfie Kohn

“Ungrading: A Bibliography” – Jesse Stommel 

“When Grading Less is More” – Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed
Ungrading Resources – Penn State University Open CoLab