Ungrading online discussions

The fact that we are not graded each week lessens the fear that we might miss a task/quiz/reading and in fact, I think it encourages us to do/read more widely because there is not so much pressure to do perfectly on one assignment. It’s kind of like a buffet (where we have to try everything, but will like some things more than others and can get add’l servings!)

I also tend to like to participate in discussions a lot; sometimes this makes me feel self-conscious because I don’t want people to think I’m contributing so much just for a good grade. But your course isn’t set up that way, so I don’t have to worry about that perception.

participant in an MA TESL course (used with permission)

Two weeks into my ungrading experiment, and things are going quite well. One of the interesting side-effects has been a shift in the way I ask students to engage in online discussions. The go-to method in online teaching is to require a certain number of posts and replies, perhaps with a rubric that differentiates between substantial and superficial responses. But that leads to a checklist attitude, increases stress, and results in very dull discussions. In addition to encouraging minimum effort (what’s the least I have to do to accumulate points?), it also discourages students who actually do want to engage, as seen in the feedback I quoted above. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective, but it makes complete sense.

Here’s what I’ve tried instead:

  • We’re reading one of our textbooks on Perusall, which I’m really enjoying so far. The only requirement is to engage in some way on Perusall at least once each week – that might be a comment, a question, a reply, or even an “upvote.” I’ve turned off Perusall’s pedantic, obtuse grading engine, and decoupled it from the LMS.
  • We practiced by annotating the syllabus, which is great way to start the course!
  • Students complete a “weekly declaration” (inspired by Laura Gibbs) in which they mark that they have read and annotated the chapter (and done all the other asynch tasks). That’s their grade for the online component. For now, I am comparing their responses to a quick skim of Perusall’s analytics, deducting the point if they haven’t actually annotated anything, and contacting the small number of students who haven’t engaged at all. They can of course catch up and resubmit the declaration “quiz.”
  • For discussion boards, I either require a post, or I ask students to write a post and/or replies. I encourage them to read and respond to each other and to me, but I’m not requiring a post + 2 replies (boring).
  • I created chat channels in Perusall for optional discussion of other aspects of the course and the second (print) textbook. They’re off to a slow start. In future, I would use Chat for introductions instead of a Canvas discussion board.

And here’s what I’m finding so far:

  • The students overwhelmingly preferred to be in one big group on Perusall rather than 3 smaller ones so they could read all their colleagues’ comments and questions. This also meant I wasn’t answering the same question 3 times!
  • One told me, “I think I’m learning as much from the annotations as the book itself.” Bingo!
  • Engagement varies, exactly as I’d expect. A few students aren’t participating, and they’ll be receiving invitations to meet in my office hours this week. A few others make the minimum single annotation (not a criticism). The rest are commenting from a handful to dozens of times. That’s good: they have the choice to engage if it’s useful or just indicate presence if not.
  • Although there’s technically a Sunday deadline to complete the week’s online work, some discussions so far have been open-ended. Again, I like this.
  • I find I’m replying a lot so that I can clear up confusion and explain terms and concepts that aren’t in the book. They’re good questions: many relate to specific terminology or to the meaning of research results. But I may need to hold back a bit to encourage the students to talk among themselves.
  • Discussion boards are better when they’re not forced!

So, what are the next steps? Ungrading is a process not a policy, so it requires ongoing tweaking, explanation, and open discussion. I want to continue that conversation with the class this week. I want to know why some students aren’t engaging: do they need help with the reading? with time management? with understanding the parameters and expectations of the course? Or are they finding other ways to learn and engage that I can’t see? In this way, I see the ungraded annotations and discussions as a happy medium between “do the reading independently and we’ll talk about it in class” and “I’m going to track, surveil, and assess your reading to make sure you do it.” Now, back to the buffet!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: