Ungrading the Grads

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about ungrading in the past year. Gmail always tries to autocorrect the word to upgrading, which as my colleague pointed out, is actually quite apt. I happen to have an unusual schedule of 3 very different graduate courses this spring, so I’m going to dive in and ungrade/upgrade the whole lot of them. And blog about it, of course.

Ungrading, as I understand it, is only partly about decentering grades, although that’s a pretty good start. Ungrading if taken to its logical conclusion involves rethinking the entire process and purpose of education along with the roles of the instructor and student (see Blum, 2020: “everything is connected; you can’t make just one change”). For years, I’ve used the teaching/learning cycle (TLC) in my writing instruction and emphasized the importance of the slash mark. As Pauline Gibbons writes, by jumping off the teacher-centered vs. student-centered pendulum, “both teachers and students are seen as active participants, and learning is seen as a collaborative endeavor” (2015, p. 14). But ungrading asks us to go further and fully prioritize teaching and learning over grading and assessment.

This can be disorienting. Most education systems are built around the idea of grading, determining which step on the staircase each individual stands in relation to the others. Taking away grades can feel like sleight of hand. And indeed I have to enter a grade in the all-powerful registrar’s database in May, else bad things will happen. But that doesn’t mean the I need to turn my class into a scavenger hunt for points and percentages.

After all, who cares about grades in a professional master’s degree? What matters is whether my students understand the content, engage with it as (future) professionals, and leave capable of functioning well in their chosen profession. Grades don’t give any of that information. In fact, grades give very little useful information at all. Averaging different types of assessments flattens out performance and can lead to some anti-learning decisions on the part of students and instructors. I realized last semester that students could entirely skip a major assignment and still pass the class with a respectable grade! But they’d have missed a significant learning activity.

I want to help students learn, not earn points. So I’m getting rid of the points. There will be lots of opportunities to demonstrate learning, tons of feedback, and high expectations, but no grades until the end. I’ll share bits and pieces from my experience as the semester progresses in subsequent posts, including specific policies, successes and/or failures. But here’s an overview of my classes and evolving strategies:

  • Second Language Acquisition & Bilingualism: this is a big one. I’m going to use a combination of labor-based “declarations” (Blum, 2020) for weekly asynchronous modules (the course is blended in design) and simple three-point rubrics (Elbow, 2002) on intermediary drafts of larger assignments to indicate whether students are exceeding, meeting, or approaching expectations. Lots of feedback, lots of revision, with the goal that everyone succeeds at the end. Who cares if it takes some students longer and more work to get there?
  • MA TESL Practicum: this is actually fairly easy. The entire course is already built around reflection on the participants’ class observations and lessons. So, again, tons of feedback and opportunity for growth, plus a portfolio where students can pull together evidence that they have met the standards set by our professional accrediting body. If students’ weekly journal posts don’t engage sufficiently with their teaching practice, I’ll tell them, we’ll have a conversation, and they can improve. No averages, no penalties for showing growth.
  • Graduate Communication Workshop: this is a no-brainer since the course doesn’t count towards any degree. It’s an elective course graduate students can choose to take in order to improve their speaking and writing skills. So, as last semester, every task is simply marked complete/incomplete — I have no interest in figuring out what an A, B, or C looks like for students at different stages of their degrees and in different fields of study! Essentially, this course is “all feedback-no grades (Gibbs, 2020).

I always enjoy teaching. I also enjoy giving feedback that students can use. But I hate grading and performative feedback (here’s why you got this grade; here’s why I deducted 5 points – ugh). So I’m not going to do it, and I’m more excited about teaching this semester than I’ve been in a long while. Stay tuned!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL, the Online Program Manager for the University of Delaware English Language Institution, and a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. He lives in Delaware in the United States.

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