Why Ungrading?

Going gradeless, or ungrading, is something I’ve been vaguely aware of for years. I’m not quite sure when I first heard of it, but I know it was not until after graduate school. Regardless, I remember thinking it was an intriguing idea. As a new faculty member at a small liberal arts college (SLAC), however, I already felt like I had a lot on my plate. I was the only criminologist in a department that offered a criminology degree, I was prepping at least one new class each semester, and I was dealing a variety of other issues that made my time there challenging (some of which I’ve written about elsewhere). In short, I was overwhelmed and wasn’t convinced being different in yet another way from my colleagues would be supported. I decided, though, that after tenure, when I could worry less about how I was evaluated, that I would look more deeply into ungrading and potentially give it a shot.

To be honest, I had forgotten about this goal. I had moved institutions and once again found myself worrying about tenure. While I was in a much more supportive department, I was too focused on figuring out my new institution while navigating a shortened tenure clock. Ungrading was the furtherest thing from my mind. That is until earlier this year. While boredly scrolling through Twitter, I saw someone post about the book UNgrading and a related Twitter chat.* I did a little more digging and found information about the virtual book club hosted by David Buck. And that’s when I remembered my goal. After a bit of digging, I also realized the book was exactly what I was looking for: not just a discussion of the whys, but also some ideas for the how. I figured what the heck. I signed up for the book club, because I knew that would give me a reason to actually read the book and start making changes rather just having yet another unread book on my shelves, and then ordered the book.

As I started delving into the book, and reading the authors thoughts on how the grade becomes the goal rather than the learning and on how it can create a disconnect between student and teacher, I flashed back to three moments in my own career in academia: two as a student and one as a professor.

1990s Physics Class
I was not very good at physics. I did okay, but it wasn't my favorite class. I've always preferred my history, government, and literature/English classes to more traditional sciences. (I did enjoy chemistry but I suspect that had more to do with being able to mix chemicals and potentially make things go boom than the anything else.) Even so, I worked as hard as I could in that class because I was determined to keep a 4.0 and this class was the first time I felt that was in danger. I finished the semester with a 90. Pretty good, but not the A I needed. At the time, an A was a 92. A year later, the county school board decided to make an A a 90. Through absolutely no involvement of my own, I had my 4.0 back! Sixteen-year-old me was thrilled! But even then, I remember how odd I found it that my GPA depended on the whims of a group of people rather than anything I did.

1990s Pre-Calculus
At the end of my junior year in high school, we were signing up for classes for the next year and for some reason I had decided to not only take AP Calculus, but to take BC version instead of AB. I knew most of my friends were taking AB, but I liked a challenge and while, again, math wasn't my favorite subject, I felt the need to compete to show how "smart" I was. So I wrote in the "tougher" version on my proposed schedule for the next year. My pre-calc teacher disagreed. She thought I should stick to AB and almost didn't sign off. But I insisted. As she signed the form, she told me again that she thought it was a mistake. To some extent, her lack of faith in me is part of why I so determined to take it. Fast forward a year and because of scheduling issues, I (along with two my classmates) took AP Calc BC essentially as an independent study. I more or less taught myself that second semester and I did pretty good if I do say so myself. Got a 3 on the AP exam (so passed) and knew it would have been higher if I'd had the regular class format, which was pretty good vindication against my pre-calc teacher. To this day I'm still frustrated at her lack of faith in me.

The fact that I remember the details of these moments so well is a sign of just how much grades as a measure of who I am as a person is engrained into me (something I’ll discuss in a different post). These two memories of my frustration with the system as a student should have predicted my frustration (and, frankly, hate) of grading as a professor. This all came to a head last winter.

Winter 2020 MA class
In the semester the pandemic hit, I was teaching a new-to-me graduate course. As with all of my graduate courses, students wrote weekly responses, which I also graded and commented on weekly. Normally when I have this assignment--at the undergrad or grad level—-there's a predictable pattern to their responses. While they may all start at a different writing levels, they all show improvement week to week. With this class, however, something wasn't clicking. It didn't matter how much I commented or how I many times I repeated the same comment on different responses, there wasn't any movements. It felt as though all the time and effort I put into giving feedback was wasted or, worse, being ignored. I was frustrated and I expressed that frustration at the start of class one week. It was not my finest moment.

I’ve thought about this last moment a lot these past few months. I wish I hadn’t gotten so frustrated. Even though they all did start to improve, I wish I had found a different–better–way to problem solve with them. It was not until I read about Ruth Butler’s study, which found that comments alone led to the most improvement whereas comments and grades were as bad as grades alone, in UNgrading (p. 46) that it clicked. Nothing was changing because they weren’t focusing on the comments. They were focusing on the number and read it as “failure” rather than “room for improvement,” which is how I wanted them to read it. It was then that I realized my frustration that semester wasn’t with the students; it was with a system that told the students that the goal was getting a number, not gaining a skill. Unfortunately, it was the students who bore the brunt of that frustration.

It was also in this moment that I knew something had to change. And fast. I am teaching another graduate course this semester. I am requiring the same types of weekly responses. And I could feel myself dreading grading the responses even though the semester had barely started. The only questions left were “Would the students go for it two weeks in?” and, if so, “How do I do it?”

*My apologies for not remembering whose tweet I saw, but I thank you all the same.

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