I recently ran into a friend at a Halloween bonfire party who is an accomplished faculty member in the sciences. As we huddled near the fire for warmth, we discussed the idea of “ungrading” and the specific challenges of this idea in STEM courses. It left me curious to find examples of strategies that instructors have implemented.
To those new to the topic, ungrading is an umbrella term used to describe decentering the instructor’s authority via the typical graded assessment to foster deeper and more enduring understandings through better feedback and increased learner agency and intrinsic motivation over standard assessments. Our current grades-first system can lead to significant anxiety and decreased academic motivation, especially in challenging courses. In contrast, courses that use interactive narrative evaluations promote trust and cooperation, leading to greater intrinsic motivation. (3)
A typical model for giving students feedback on their work is one-way, where instructors provide essential feedback on work that a student has turned in. Students are expected to read this feedback and consider it when thinking about the work they have already completed and any future work. Students in this scenario are passive recipients without agency in their own reflection. If you ask yourself – did this student even read my feedback? Chances are, they either didn’t, or your message was not as meaningful to them as it could have been. We have all been there.
“Grades serve only to fence in students, to hold them back from learning, to force them to pay attention only to what they need to get through a course. Eventually, students realize that they come to college not to learn – not to ask profound questions, not to gain confidence, not to attain insight or self-awareness – but to succeed. And success is measured by grades that suggest a student has achieved some finite understanding of a field that is, in reality, boundless.” ~ Sean Michael Morris (7)
Partly, ungrading is meant to get students to pay attention to feedback. The problem with feedback coupled with grades is that students tend to focus on the end grade rather than the feedback, instructor feedback is often too late for improving performance, and instructors may use feedback to justify the grade instead of providing developmental information. (12) Decoupling feedback from grades, formative instructor feedback, peer assessment, student self-evaluation, and cycles of revision that lead to success through a learning journey rather than only the successful completion of a list of competencies are all key to ungrading.
For courses with assessments rooted in the making of creative work (i.e., writing, arts, etc.), ungrading makes intuitive sense, as constructive criticism is essential to creative improvement. Also, there may be more room to incorporate a revision cycle where all types of reflection and feedback (instructor, self, peer) can be addressed for the final version. In addition, strategies such as labor-based and engagement-based grading contracts to calculate final course grades on effort rather than a judgment of quality can help move the determination of performance away from unfair systemic practices rooted in the dominant culture. (5)
It is harder to envision devaluing grades in content-heavy courses that rely heavily on assessments testing memorization or the practice of problem-solving toward theorem mastery. Several case studies I found give some insight into approaches to implementing ungrading techniques in STEM courses.
1. In Ungrading by Susan Blum, an instructor returns organic chemistry exams with feedback but no grades and then asks students to rate themselves on each question that they receive. Any discrepancies between the instructor’s records and how the student responds are discussed, and safeguards are put into place to address student self-inflation of their performance. (2) The idea is to turn the exam into more of a conversation before assigning a formal grade.
2. Class time was used for group activities and discussion in a calculus course. Students were required to keep journals about their learning throughout the class. Weekly assessments took the form of story-based homework that the instructor provided feedback on, and students could turn in as many times as they liked. Students suggested what their grades should be based on effort and understanding. (11) I would assume that the instructor would meet regularly with any student who did not feel their understanding was adequate and that a flipped classroom approach to lecture material would complement the in-class learning.
3. In one chemistry class, students take closed-book midterms but grade themselves and then revise their wrong answers and evaluate each response with an emoji for how confident they feel their revised answers are. The instructor then provides feedback for each question, points are given, and students are then asked to compare their confidence levels with the instructor’s evaluation to know where they should focus effort for subsequent assessments.
4. In an organic chemistry example, after taking the midterm exam, students work in groups to develop a grading rubric which they receive more points for than the exam. (6)
5. In a watershed hydrology course, homework was graded through peer review. This involved checking for completeness and providing a reflection on their own comfort with the topic. The instructor provided feedback without grades. Throughout the course, students wrote reflective essays discussing their progression with the course concepts. The final was a short oral exam where students were given a set of large-concept questions in advance, and they were asked to elaborate on two of the questions, chosen randomly. Students were then asked to write a reflective essay on what grade they felt they deserved in the course. Course grades, required by the university, were assigned based on all assessment activities. (4)
6. Each week in an algebra course, students worked on problems and came to class each day having done some preparatory work. Students received instructor feedback on assignments without grades and resubmitted a problem per week. In-class activities involved group work with feedback but no grades. The syllabus was a guide for what constituted a letter grade and what is expected to meet them, and students and the instructor came to an agreement based on self-evaluation. The syllabus also offers a policy on situations where there is a final grade disagreement, which is linked in the reference. (10)
Ungrading can also have downsides that should be considered and carefully addressed during implementation. Gender and cultural differences in self-graded confidence and self-advocacy have been noted (11, 9), and some students may be at a disadvantage without the traditional grade as a means to pathfinding their way through the semester (8). Also, the focus on reflection and self-evaluation requires more effort beyond simply the course topics; while this is one of the points of ungrading, these meta-level ideals also place an extra layer of responsibility on the student.
Ungrading in practice can also be challenging in high-enrollment courses. However, a feasible approach might be incorporating ungrading strategies throughout the course where they make sense:
- If you use an auto-graded multiple-choice exam, provide feedback for incorrect answers up front and stagger the release of the grades so students can view the feedback and make corrections before the grade is released. This approach is possible in Canvas.
- Incorporate peer-grading
- Using cover sheets in a lab course where students describe how their lab report is informed by previous report feedback and ask them to rate themselves on their effort. (1)
- Ask students to provide a written justification of why they should receive a specific grade based on a simple rubric rooted in effort for improvement.
- Reward students for participation and effort in some tasks based on completion
- Abandon grading on a curve to remove competition around high grades (9)
In the end, we still have to give a letter grade to satisfy university requirements, but that doesn’t mean that we have to leave the student out of the picture in deciding their grade. I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments if you have tried implementing ungrading techniques into your STEM or high-enrollment courses.
- Ungrading, an FAQ
- Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)
- Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time
- On Assessment: An Exploration of Emerging Approaches
- Ungrading can work in STEM: A conversation with Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh (text and video)
- Ungrading in a General Science Course
- Some colleges mull the idea of ‘Ungrading’ for freshman students (text and audio)
- Reflections on Ungrading in Small Chemistry Classes
- ‘Ungrading’ doesn’t necessarily mean no grades. So what does it mean?
- UCI CalTeach Presents: Ungrading as a Path to Meaningful Science Learning (video)
- How to Upgrade (video presentation with Jesse Stommel)
- Dr. Susan Blum on “Ungrading”: How Rating Students Undermines Learning (video interview)
(1) Bloxham, S., Campbell, L. (2010). Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: Exploring the use of interactive cover sheets. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3), 291-300.
(2) Blum, S.D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). (First edition. ed.). Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
(3) Chamberlin, K., Yasué, M., & Chiang, I.-C. A. (2018). The impact of grades on student motivation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787418819728
(4) Dymond, S. (2021, December). Flushing the Grades: A Pilot Study in Ungrading in a Watershed Hydrology Course. AGU Fall Meeting (Vol. 2021, pp. ED55E-0326).
(5) Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse.
(6) Jarvis, C. L. (2020). Chemistry educators try ‘ungrading’ techniques to help students learn. Chemical & Engineering News. Retrieved from https://cen.acs.org/education/undergraduate-education/Chemistry-educators-try-ungradingtechniques-help/98/i16
(7) Morris, S. M. (2022). The problem with ungrading? Everyone’s doing it wrong. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/problem-ungrading-everyones-doing-it-wrong
(8) Silverman, S., Sorensen-Unruh, C. (2020). Ungrading can work in STEM: A conversation with Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh. UM Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources. Retrieved from: https://dearbornhub.net/?p=411
(9) Students of TLHE 720 at Centennial College. (2021) On Assessments: An Exploration of Emerging Approaches. Chapter 11: Is Ungrading an Appropriate Assessment Tool in Science-Based Courses? Open Library.
(10) Talbert, R. (2022). What I’ve Learned From Ungrading. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2022/04/27/professor-shares-benefits-and-drawbacks-ungrading-opinion
(11) von Renesse, C., Wegner, S. A. (2022). Two examples of ungrading in higher education from the United States and from Germany. arXiv preprint arXiv:2209.14240.
(12) Winstone, N.E., Boudm D. (2022). The need to disentangle assessment and feedback in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 47:3, 656-667, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1779687
Jen Moss, is an instructional designer and adjunct faculty at UAF with over 25 years of experience in academics and higher education. She is a Certified Creative Commons Educator and is passionate about open education.