By Emily Smith
I still remember the grade I received on my first college paper—a C+. That grade, circled at the top of my essay, began a cascade of panic, self-doubt, and indignation. I’m sure that my professor had taken the time and labor to thoroughly read and edit my writing, pointing out where I could improve my grammar, organization, or argument. But over a decade later, those comments have been forgotten and all I can recall is that C+.
Now, as an instructor myself, I have chosen to implement “ungrading”—a practice designed to promote student learning by minimizing the stress and anxiety students experience when confronted with a grade. It may seem counterintuitive, but de-emphasizing grades does not lead to diminished expectations or lower-quality work from students. Rather, ungrading begins a semester-long conversation between myself and my class, in which we together assess and evaluate their participation, analysis, and writing with minimal references to traditional letter grades.
What is ungrading?
Ungrading is a broad umbrella term used to describe a method of evaluating or assessing student work that does not include traditional grades such as letter grades (A, B, or C), numerical scores (10/12 or 80%), or ranking. Methods of ungrading can include written and verbal feedback from the instructor (without a grade attached), self-assessments, peer-assessments, contract grading, and having students assign their own grades.
What are the benefits of ungrading?
Recent research has shown the downsides of a traditional grading system, such as diminished intrinsic motivation among students and higher levels of student stress. In contrast, ungrading can promote a growth mindset, encourage students to take intellectual risks, and help separate students’ feelings of self-worth from their received grades. Ungrading can reduce competitiveness between classmates and facilitate a more meaningful relationship between students and instructors based on personalized and constructive feedback. Finally, ungrading encourages metacognition, by requiring students to think critically about the process of their work and to imagine how they can improve in future assignments and courses.
How can I start incorporating ungrading into my teaching?
While some colleges and universities have moved away from traditional grading practices, the reality is that many instructors will find themselves having to work within their institutions’ prescribed system of grading and assessment. Thankfully, ungrading does not have to be an “all or nothing” practice. You might consider de-emphasizing grades in your course by:
- grading only a few assignments throughout the semester
- allowing students to revise or drop lower assignment grades
- practicing “minimal grading” in which early low-stakes, formative assessments are evaluated on a simple grading scale (such as complete/incomplete, pass/resubmit, or developing/satisfactory/strong) with an emphasis on constructive feedback
- incorporating self-assessments throughout or at the end of the semester to learn how students have tracked their own participation, content mastery, and learning in the class.
All of these options allow students to practice and make mistakes (an unavoidable part of growth!) without harsh penalization.
Where can I find resources on ungrading?
Ungrading: Why Ratings Students Undermines Learning (And What to Do Instead), edited by Susan Blum. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Christopher Phillips, “Ungrading Pedagogy.” Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship. Lafayette College. https://citls.lafayette.edu/ungrading-pedagogy/
Dominique Vargas, “My Crash Course in Ungrading—Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love student learning.” Notre Dame Learning. University of Notre Dame. https://learning.nd.edu/stories/my-crash-course-in-ungrading/
Marcus Schultz-Bergin, “Grade Anarchy & Student Learning.” Daily Nous. https://dailynous.com/2019/03/27/grade-anarchy-student-learning-guest-post-marcus-schultz-bergin/
Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades.” https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/
Jesse Stommel, “Ungrading: An Introduction.” https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-introduction/
David Clark, “Assessing My First Semester of ‘Ungrading.’” EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2022-01-17-assessing-my-first-semester-of-ungrading
“Ungrading Resources: PSU Open CoLab.” Open Teaching & Learning Collaborative. Plymouth State University. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yKqmxvpRZyVO5oqRQ5ox4ysotRf0PWTl2-qsatgr68Y/edit#heading=h.48xubhljoqze
Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE— Life Sciences Education 13, no. 2 (159-166). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4041495/