“If my curriculum and pedagogy aren’t sufficiently engaging, is that an argument to rely on grades to coerce students into doing what I want?”
This is a quote from Alfie Kohn’s foreword to “UNgrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).”
The book inspired Dr. Chloe Bolyard, assistant professor in Missouri State University’s department of childhood education and family studies (CEFS).
Now Bolyard is looking for ways to take the emphasis off grades in her classroom.
She first heard about the topic of ungrading through interactions on Twitter between various education professionals.
Ungrading is a classroom philosophy that emphasizes feedback rather than scores or letter grades.
“We all define it differently, but I think the goal is the same,” Bolyard said. “It’s a focus on learning.”
What ungrading looks like
When Bolyard adopted this new philosophy, she had to decide what specific things she would need to change in her classroom to align with ungrading.
“You can’t just get rid of letter grades and say that you’re ungrading,” Bolyard said. “It carries over into all of the decisions you make as a teacher.”
This spring was Bolyard’s first semester implementing ungrading.
Some noticeable changes in her methodology:
- Shifting from scores and rubrics to narrative feedback.
- Creating flexible deadlines or “best by” dates.
- Having students self-assess and reflect on their learning throughout the semester.
- Asking students to suggest their grade at the mid-point and end of the semester.
“My whole goal with ungrading, aside from focusing on learning, is to make my work with students more humanizing,” Bolyard said.
Rewards of ungrading
A big part of ungrading for Bolyard has been considering what she can do to acknowledge her students’ humanity.
“My students are humans. They’re not just students in my class. They have other classes, and they have life beyond Blackboard,” Bolyard said.
“Humanizing is recognizing that these students are doing a whole lot. The semester is full of unknowns in terms of their health, their family members’ health, their schedule, their mental wellbeing.”
Already, Bolyard has received feedback from her students about how functional ungrading has been for them.
“Students have commented about appreciating the flexibility,” Bolyard said. “They don’t need to apologize to me for turning in things that they perceive as late.”
“One student has been really vocal about how it has helped her to learn so much, and to push herself to take more creative risks,” Bolyard said.
Challenges of ungrading
Ungrading is not an easier version of traditional classroom grading. There are many challenges to face when adopting a philosophy that goes against the status quo.
“Part of the ungrading conversation is figuring out how the teacher navigates institutional requirements to still submit a final grade,” Bolyard said. “Some folks who’ve adopted ungrading may still use grades but use fewer grades. Or assignments might be worth fewer points.”
Another challenge is how to set clear expectations while giving students more creative freedom.
“Students don’t like ambiguity when it comes to a teacher’s expectations,” Bolyard said.
Self-assessment is one of the most important aspects of ungrading. In Bolyard’s classes this semester, students are using self-assessments and determining their own grade.
“I had a student tell me that she doesn’t know how to grade herself or evaluate herself. That’s another reason why we need to do this,” Bolyard said. “If students can’t evaluate how they’re doing for themselves, I think that’s problematic.”
Another challenge is the different workload that ungrading requires.
“It’s way more work intensive for me. It takes longer to leave narrative feedback than to check boxes on a rubric,” Bolyard said.
Getting started with ungrading
Ungrading, as a classroom philosophy, is still an emerging conversation. Bolyard just wrapped up her first semester using it in her classroom, and she admits there is still a lot for her to discover.
“I’m going to spend a lot of time this summer reflecting on what I think went well and looking at student feedback from the end of the semester,” Bolyard said.
She also acknowledges that she has a lot of freedom in her position to be able to try different approaches to student evaluation.
“I have a lot of privilege in my position in higher ed to say yes to ungrading,” Bolyard said. “I recognize for other people, depending on a number of factors, that it might be something they need to more carefully consider.”
The challenges for getting started with ungrading may look different depending on each person’s situation, so she offers some advice for educators who are interested in using ungrading in their classroom.
“Read as much as you can, talk to other people who are doing it, and find a community who can support you,” Bolyard said. “Don’t feel like you have to completely toss grades out from every assignment. Maybe you just choose a couple of assignments, and you see what happens when you don’t use grades on those assignments.”