By Robert Shields
Susan Blum’s book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) has been both groundbreaking and controversial since its release in late 2020. It challenges the notion of grades to measure student achievement, describing grading as “a system that works against learning.” The book features the “ungrading” experiences of 15 educators from a variety of academic levels and disciplines. While the writers of each chapter share different perspectives and teach different subjects, they all have one common goal: to convince the reader that “ungrading” strategies can enhance student learning and promote intrinsic motivation among learners.
Most U. S. school systems and colleges, however, require the use of a final grade to summarize each student’s achievement in each course. For those of us that don’t work in an “ungrading” institution, here are some ways that you may consider implementing some alternative grading methods in your class (without making a full commitment):
- If you can’t go gradeless, consider grading less. Consider ways to introduce ungraded activities in your course. Not every activity has to be graded. Instead of grading every activity in your course, provide extensive feedback instead. Throughout the book, the authors posit that feedback is most effective when it is given independent of a grade. This will make the feedback truly formative. Give students feedback on what they did well and on where they can improve to get to the next level. Grades are widely used to summarize an entire term of a student’s academic work, student achievement, or understanding of a concept. By using feedback only, you’re opening a conversation with the student to help them master a concept or skill (Blum, 2020).
- Allow multiple attempts on assignments. Tell students how they can get to the next level, give them multiple chances to get there, and give them the tools to do it. Yes, this may require more time for the grader – but isn’t the goal of learning or taking classes to help students and master a concept? In our jobs, we are usually given multiple attempts to achieve a task and improve our performance, sometimes on a weekly or daily basis. Even as we teach courses from term to term, we receive chances to refine our craft, improve our teaching strategies, and try new instructional approaches. Shouldn’t students have those same opportunities to improve their performance? Consider ways to give students chances to apply the feedback that they receive through multiple attempts, without penalty.
- Teach students how to give feedback to others. Giving balanced feedback is an essential skill that students will need to be able to use in the workplace. Not only do we want students to be ready to work in group settings with people of different backgrounds and cultures, but we also want them to be able to provide constructive criticism and feedback to others. This is an essential skill of any leader in the organization, and we want to prepare our students to be future leaders. So, why not teach them the skills now? In lieu of grading every assignment, consider ways to give students a chance to provide feedback to others, and even reflect on the work that they have completed. This leads to the next point.
- Give students chances to self-reflect on their own work. This is an essential skill for any professional to have – the ability to take a step back and reflect on what they have learned throughout a process or project. Consider ways to give students times to self-reflect – whether it is through a paper, a video, a poem, or a piece of artwork. Encourage students to reflect on ways that they have applied feedback from the instructor and from other students. In some cases, instructors may consider giving the students a chance to give themselves a grade in the course, while justifying the reason why they have given themselves the grade. For example, the students may discuss how they applied feedback throughout the course or how they increased their skill in a particular concept.
Standard-based grading (SBG) concepts may work well when it comes to allowing revisions of an assignment. An adaptation of SBG may replace grades with the use of performance levels such as “exemplary,” “accomplished,” “developing,” or “beginning,” to describe a student’s current understanding of a concept or skill. Note that the words “developing” and “beginning” are action verbs indicating that the student’s grade isn’t fixed, rather, the students have a chance to reach the next level of proficiency (Powerschool, 2023).
In summary, let’s ensure that our students are being encouraged to focus on mastering concepts and skills, not on gaining and losing points. Reach out to the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) if you’d like to discuss additional strategies to try some “ungrading,” or alternative grading methods, in your course.
Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Powerschool (2023, July 19). Everything you need to know about standards-based grading. https://www.powerschool.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-standards-based-grading/