A few (in-person and on-Twitter) friends have asked me to debrief on my first semester doing what I’ve been calling my “all-in” with ungrading. In the spirit of sharing that has allowed me to grow and learn from so many of you good folks, here’s what I’ve learned so far—I still have so much work to do!
First, a brief history of how I got here.
I have been experimenting with versions of ungrading for a few years now. I began with individual assignments, defining what elements a draft had to contain in order to earn an A. I used the + and – designations (and my judgment) for grades that fell between letter’s descriptions.
This may sound a lot like a common rubric; in my own experience, the difference was specificity. While still somewhat subjective, the descriptions were the most specific I’d composed, targeted to the individual assignments and the writing moves or tools we were practicing in it. If we weren’t actively discussing and practicing something in class, it did not appear on the list of objectives for a grade, AND I didn’t let it affect the grade. I also used phrasing that evokes not the perfection of the draft, but the work of the writer. For instance, in an assignment focused on writing for a specific audience, I included these (among other) objectives:
In that system, I was still grading each assignment, but my in-class activities, early-draft feedback, and final-draft comments were more targeted than before.
I also still graded some individual homework and in-class assignments beyond drafts, mostly judging them by completeness.
Next, inspired by Asao Inoue’s tweets and his excellent book Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom , I experimented with labor-based grading. (You can download it for free at the WAC Clearinghouse site!) I jumped in and tried his system, tracking tasks, not giving grades, and using a spreadsheet of tasks to weigh and calculate a grade at the end of the semester. Inoue has generously made his own syllabus and course materials free to access and use.
Inoue’s book has made me a firm believer that we should not be grading the quality of final products, ever, in a writing class. The work, the process, the practice should be the focus. I can’t urge you to read his book enough. It changed me.
While I appreciate his system very much, I may have jumped in too soon. I learned (again) that my brain detests a spreadsheet, that I needed to spend more time laying the groundwork early in the semester for reluctant students, wary of the system and craving grades. And I needed to feel more confident, too.
So, the next semester, I tried an altered version of labor-based grading. I still focused heavily on tasks (labor), but also included more specific learning objectives, the things I wanted students to practice (but not perfect) in final drafts, as in the two objectives I list at the start of this post. I felt more confident, students liked having grades throughout the semester, and I was still moving away from the very problematic focus on the quality of final drafts, rather than on writing experimentation and practice, which is always messy.
But—BUT! I still felt that my confidence was rooted, at least in part, in this return to the familiar—I was regularly giving grades again! Students, too, were comfortable because this system was more like the ones they’d seen in every class.
I began to read more and more of the #ungrading conversations on Twitter and consumed more books like the excellent An Urgency of Teachers. I worried that grades throughout the semester, however reframed, were still discouraging real experimentation and practice. Students were chasing a grade in what to do next, and not allowing themselves to be messy, to fail, to dive deeply. Why try something risky when it may not lead to the coveted grade?
Then came the pandemic and the shift to online learning in Spring 2020. My students were anxious, exhausted, and struggling, and so was I. None of us were doing our best work. At the semester’s end, I had a lot of zoom and email conversations with students about what they had tried to do, what they’d learned about the moves and tools and objectives, even if their drafts didn’t turn out the ways any of us wanted or expected. Turns out that they learned a lot, even if extra shifts at the warehouse, bouts of depression, or sharing computer time with three siblings meant that the final projects were unkempt or unfinished.
As I moved into my second semester of teaching in a pandemic, I felt that this was the best time to go all-in on ungrading. I created my own version, crafted from the reading I’d done.
I divided the semester into four main assignments. For each, I listed associated tasks, including drafts, homework, and in-class activities. I also listed learning objectives, the specific writing tools and moves they would practice.
I did not describe A, B, C, D, or F grades. I did not grade at all throughout the semester.
I maintained a checklist of the tasks that both students and I could access, so we could see how many they’d completed or missed.
Feedback (both mine and peers’), homework, and in-class activities focused on the leaning objectives.
At the beginning of the semester, we read about and discussed grading and ungrading. In a midterm meeting with each student, we discussed their work, including their practice with and understanding of the learning objectives. We just talked bout their writing, too: how was it going? What did they like in it? What were they struggling with? Some begged me to estimate their grade at that time. I was steadfast in my refusal, sometimes asking them: how do you think you’re doing? Why?
The final week of classes was dedicated to thinking about grading and writing reflections. I created a collaborative document listing the grades A through F, and another document that compiled the checklists of tasks and learning objectives of each assignment. As a class, we wrote descriptions of each grade, then reread, discussed, and struggled with what we had written. That document was not meant to be a final guide for me, I made clear, but a way to help us all think about grades, to prepare for our final one-on-one meetings.
In the reflection, students wrote at least a paragraph, with specific examples from their projects, about their learning and practice with each objective. E.g.: What have you learned and / or practiced about writing for an audience? I also asked them to comment on the completeness of their work. Finally, they had to suggest & explain a course grade for themselves.
During exam week, I didn’t read and comment on stacks of projects. Instead, I read their reflections in preparation for our meeting. I’d already read so many drafts of each project! In our meetings, I asked them to tell me more about what they’d said in their reflections. Then, we discussed the grade.
Most of the time, I was either in complete agreement with students, or I suggested a slightly higher grade. (One student told me he wanted to suggest a C; his family had talked him into saying B; I told him he did A-level work.)
In a few cases, a student asked for a grade higher than I’d have given. We talked about it. The results were just about split down the middle. In half of these cases, I was helped to see where and how they were indeed trying to practice some objective, that they did have a better handle on it than the drafts displayed, and perhaps shown that work had been completed that I’d missed recording—so I went with the grade they suggested. In the other half, I pointed out missing elements in drafts and uncompleted tasks, and the students very willingly said yep, you’re right. The battles I’d anxiously steadied myself for didn’t happen.
This was also a pandemic-semester. So, I had cases of students with incomplete work due to a variety of issues beyond their control. We worked out how to deal with that individually.
It was the least stressful exam week I’ve ever had. Many students, though certainly not all, commented on how this approach was less stressful for them, too, and helped them to focus on the writing rather than the grade. Anecdotally, those who were stressed out by ungrading this semester were very much invested in standard approaches to grading. Some of my honors students, I think, identify with their grades so much that they felt very vulnerable without them. I’m going to work on ways to mitigate that.
Next, I have more reading to do, starting with Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) edited by Susan Blum.
That’s it! That’s my quick reflection on the journey so far. Hope this is useful to someone!