My introduction to Ungrading

In the fall of 2021, I decided (mostly on a whim) to ungrade my first full class. Over the summer, I was introduced to ungrading through Firas Moosvi (UBCO, computer science and physics), Jackie Stewart (UBCV, chemistry and Associate Dean or Science), and Clarissa Sorenson Unruh (Central New Mexico Community College, chemistry).

I quickly leaned into ungrading. I teach a medium sized third year biology lab course with approximately 100 students. In many ways, this course seemed like the ideal course for me to pilot ungrading. I teach all the sections, and I have taught this course for several years. When transitioning my course, these are some of the things I did.

(1) I pruned out all but the very most essential stuff. What remained were lab notebooks (twice), and 3 group assignments. I got rid of everything else – including quizzes, prep-work (like an annotated bibliography), and worksheets. This worked really well and I’ve kept the same structure. (Ungrading, at it’s core, is really about trusting students, and I do. I trust them to want to learn and I trust that they are best able to evaluate their learning.)

(2) I created a lengthy self-assessment. I am at a university that uses percentage grades (as opposed to letter grades). Students perceive a real difference between a few percentage points and with Firas’ help, I scaffolded a way for students to work within this to suggest their own thoughtful grade at the end of the term. I did not have them evaluate their progress at any other point during the term. Mostly because I desperately and truly did not want them to worry about grades. It became really clear to me within the first few weeks that my students are traumatized by their prior experience with grades. I decided on the spot to move forward without even mentioning grades until the work of the term was over.

(3) I worked with my TAs to give a lot of feedback. This ended up actually being kind of fun – as opposed to the not fun task of assigning marks. We gave quick feedback on notebooks almost weekly, and lots of feedback on the things the students produced throughout the term.

I have a lot of very thoughtful feedback from my students that I am currently processing. Sometimes I’ll read a comment from a single student and think about it for days. I’ll write more on this in upcoming posts, but student comments overwhelming follow two themes: they felt less anxious and more brave in their learning choices, and they worked harder and learned more than in courses where they are graded.

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