Ungrading: The Gift of Time

One of the most poignant early benefits of my ungrading experience was the gift of time. Two weeks before classes started, I was walking my dog, a time during which I normally do the challenging mental gymnastics of designing a new course. It turns out that these gymnastics are more about the logistics of grading than they are about actual teaching.

How many points should x be worth? How many pre-quizzes do we need? I need to organize the spreadsheet.

It dawned on my that I was going to have a lot of free mental time to do something else, since I would not be grading. This turned out to be a game changer. I began to think about teaching and learning more.

How might x skill be incorporated meaningfully? If there are no grades, how might students demonstrate their learning of y?

True story: I did not even make a spreadsheet. (Although assignments were submitted and are archived online.)

I spent many years teaching first year biology. When I started in the early 2000s, our team meetings were a lot about sharing teaching methods, ideas, and resources. Sometimes these included fully thought out plans, but were mostly sharing cool research articles we could incorporate into our classrooms. Over the next 20 years, this changed dramatically. By 2018 (the last time I taught the course), team meetings were almost exclusively around designing exams and organizing assessment. I knew, even then, that this time sink was a detriment. What if all that time was spent on improving the teaching/learning experience?

What our time can (should) be used for is providing meaningful feedback on more meaningful material. The hours spent making, printing, marking, entering marks for an exam, can be used to provide great detailed feedback on student writing or projects. I wasn’t sure this would work, but my teaching team had ample time to implement this. We also discovered that providing feedback without associated marks was fun!

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