Attempting to Ungrade

My first attempt at ungrading was this semester (Winter 2021) in my MA Theories of Criminal Behavior class. To be honest, I didn’t plan for this class to be ungraded. My original syllabus was the standard one I have used for years, which includes points for each assignment and rubrics (which can often function as paper outlines) with point breakdowns. Because of COVID-19, EMU pushed the start of the semester back a week, which meant we did not have classes the first two Mondays (week 1 starts on a Wed and then MLK Jr Day). Since this is a Monday class, we didn’t started until week 3. At our first class, we discussed the assignments as usual. That weekend, however, was the first Zoom meeting with the UNgrading book club. Everyone so generously shared their wonderful ideas that it got my mind swirling. At the end of the meeting, I started thinking about ways to implement ungrading in my grad class and the ideas flowed. The grad class seemed like the best to start with because it is the most points heavy class I am overing this semester. It is also currently my only synchronous class and I wanted to focus on a class that had a built-in structure for conversations, which would allow for more natural feedback about the process. I wanted to speak with the class first about making the shift, though, because I didn’t want to throw everything into chaos by shifting midstream.

So that Monday, I started class with something akin to, “I had a thought.” I explained that I was thinking of moving to an ungraded system in the class, how I wanted them focused on learning and not numbers, and that I wish I had thought of this earlier and apologized for the potentially late shift. I then asked them what they thought about the idea in general. Several students responded that they liked the idea in part because when they saw their grade on the first reading response, they felt bad (even though I told them it was expected as I know that the type of analytical writing I am asking them to do may not be the type of writing they are used to doing and they will absolutely improve over the semester). After a bit more discussion, and explaining how each assignment would be adjusted, they were all willing to give it a try. So, I spent the week and weekend making all of the adjustments. (Bonus: Because I tend to use similar assignments for my grad classes, once I figure the basics out here, I should be able to translate much of this to my other grad classes with adjustments as needed.) As I made these adjustments, I was/am deeply appreciative to those who make so much of their ungrading practices available to others.

First, I adjusted the assignments.

Weekly reading responses: Each week, the students are asked to write a 2-3 page response discussing the readings. These are to be analytical responses in which they use the readings to either build an argument or explain their reaction to the concepts/arguments/ideas presented in the readings (in this case, the theory/theories of the week). The goal is to provide an opportunity to start processing the readings before class while working on their analytical writing skills. Originally, these responses were graded on a 5-point scale using an analytical rubric. The rubric has five categories (e.g., thesis; use of sources) that are graded on a scale of 2-5. I would then average the scores for each category in order to assign a grade for the week’s assignment. Under this system, responses that were pure summary automatically earned a 2.5 (partial credit for submitting and showing they did the readings). I then would also give line-by-line feedback as needed and overall comments. After ungrading, I still use the rubric to help them see where they are in each of the categories, but I do not give an overall grade. Instead, they receive a Complete or Incomplete and I still give the same level of feedback.

Leading discussion: Students lead discussion at least one week in a semester. Depending on the number of students in the class, they typically lead a class by themselves, but if the class is larger they will lead discussion in groups. If there are unassigned classes, and there is an easy to way to divide up the class, I will then have them lead a second discussion as a group (if not, I take those classes). The goal is for them to gain more experience preparing for and leading meetings, particularly as many of them wish to go on to either PhD programs or law school or advance into leadership positions in their chosen careers. They are required to meet with me before hand to prep and review their discussion questions. Originally, each session was 25 points graded with a rubric. After ungrading, I again changed the points to Complete/Incomplete. I then turned the rubric into a self-evaluation and peer-evaluation using the same categories as the rubric but I turned them into questions to consider while completing the evaluation. The main difference between the two is that in the self-evaluation, I ask the discussion leader what grade they would give themself (and why) if the discussion was graded, but I do not ask that in the peer evaluations. I then anonymously compile the feedback from their colleagues and add my own assessment, which is then shared with them through Canvas’ grade book.

Final project. For the final/term projects, I always provide a few options to choose from. I typically offer one or two specific options with a detailed rubric and a create your own option where the student and I create the rubric together. They are encouraged to complete the final project in whatever format they choose though most choose a standard paper. These used to be 100 points (80 for the project; 20 for an in-class presentation), but I dropped the presentation while we’re all on Zoom because we’re all over Zoom by the end of the semester. After ungrading, I switched to a single-point rubric using the second variation discussed here as a starting point. Under the original version, I attempted to use the points breakdown to highlight which sections should be more in-depth than others (e.g., a 15 point section should have more details than a 10 point section), but students (and I) were always frustrated that the points within each section weren’t clear. I’m hoping the single point rubric will make it clearer what the goal is for each section and what students need to accomplish to show adequate mastery for the sections. This again is now “graded” as Complete/Incomplete.

Second, I added two new assignments.

Midterm self-reflection. Following suggestions from several in the first UNgraded book club Zoom, I added a midterm progress letter. I ask a series of questions for students to address, using Jesse Stommel’s midterm self-reflection as a model. I like the idea of having students reflecting on their progress and how they feel they have done on the assignments and readings. To continue the conversation, I also ask them to answer a question on whether they would like to have a follow-up discussion and I will write a letter in response to their progress letters. This is again marked as Complete/Incomplete.

Final self-reflection. Also following suggestions from the book club Zoom, I added a final self-reflection, again using Jesse Stommel’s final self-reflection as a model, and final conference. This is again marked as Complete/Incomplete and I will also meet with each student during the final exam period to discuss their final reflection, their progress all semester, what they learned, and what they believe their final grade should be (since I’m still required to submit something for the university).

Finally, I edited the syllabus and Canvas.

After adjusting the assignments section of the syllabus to reflect the changes above, the other major section to edit was the “grading” section. This was a bit tricky as the University requires we include a discussion of how grades will be calculated and, I thought, the grading scale. The discussion seemed easy enough, but since all of the assignments are based on Complete/Incomplete, a grading scale doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I actually reached out to my Department Head for advice on this. His suggestion was to just make it clear how students would be evaluated and how that evaluation would turn into the letter grades that would be assigned based on the EMU system, so that’s what I worked on. This is what I ultimately ended up doing for the “Grading Policy” section of my syllabus:

I first added a slightly modified version of the statement Jesse Stommel uses to explain his approach to grading. I plan on editing this to be more “me” next semester, but since I was making these adjustments so quickly, I went with a version that has clearly worked for someone and made some tiny tweaks. I then had to figure out what to do with the grading scale. I originally kept it in with the caveat that final grades would be determined holistically rather than on a percentage, but it still seemed clunky to keep the scale. Instead, I added a sentence about what the Graduate School’s scale is without the numbers, so students would know what their options are for final grades. As I was working on these adjustments, I realized my missing and late assignment policies no longer made sense, so I played around with that as well.

That last step was figuring out Canvas. Since the grade book is such a prominent feature of the app and is, frankly, a fairly easy way to share their assignments and my feedback, I wanted to see if there was a way to use the grade book to support this process (or at least, as much as it is capable of). After some fiddling, I found one of the options for posting grades was indeed “Complete/Incomplete/Excused.” This works perfectly to mark who submitted (and post their feedback) and who did not submit a response and the excused option lets me keep track of the weeks students skipped a reading response (they’re allowed up to three skips; one just because and two for when they lead discussion). This will also work for their self-reflections and final projects. For leading discussion, I added two “discussion” assignments and I mark each as “Complete” and upload their feedback after they lead their discussions. I also then changed all of the point values to 0 so it doesn’t get calculated into a final percentage. I realized part way through this process that there is an option to not have an assignment count towards a final grade, but changing them all to 0 just seemed more intuitive.

And that is basically where I am at. Now that it’s been in place for a few weeks, I can already see a few other changes I need/want to make, but so far the basic framework that I have come up with seems to be working.

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