Why I Ungrade, and a How-To Primer

I’ve come to the conclusion (a little late in the game) that standard exams are ableist, sometimes (most times?) racist, and do not measure learning. We can do better.

Exams are ableist because they operate under the assumption that everyone is able to retain or function under a certain umbrella of expectation at a specific time. This is not the case. Some of my most amazing students have been horrible exam takers.

Exams are (sometimes?) racist and sexist. Even seemingly innocuous exams like the good old Force Concept Inventory are not as innocent as they seem. The FCI was shown to have ethnic and racial bias. (See Henderson and Stewart, Racial and ethnic bias in the Force Concept Inventory 2017). In chemistry, this title pretty much speaks for itself, “A QuantCrit Investigation of Society’s Educational Debts Due to Racism and Sexism in Chemistry Student Learning“, Van Dusen et al 2022.

Exams do not measure real learning. They measure what a student can do at a pinpoint in time, under specific conditions. They fail to capture the learning trajectory, or even what a student knows in that moment for students who experience exam anxiety (or many other situational issues).

For these reasons and others, I ditched exams and began ungrading. I truly ditched traditional exams back in 2018, when I was teaching large sections of first year biology. In that course, though, exams are required (as is true for most first and second year courses at UBC). So I designed collaborative exams (these are not two-staged exams). I am now teaching a third year lab course that has never had traditional exams, but did have quizzes and worksheets and things to make sure students were “keeping up”. (I’m embarrassed now to even admit that.)

Step 1: If you want to ungrade, my first tip is to take a look at all of the things students are currently doing for marks and get rid of all of these surveillance type of micro-managy things.

My course products are project based. I have roughly 100 students, and they can work in groups or they can work solo. Their projects are meaningful in that they are all sent out beyond the walls of UBC and are read by other stakeholders in the community (the City of Vancouver, local grocery stores or restaurants, etc.) (A write-up on one of my class projects is here Place Based Learning in Pacific Spirit Park)

Step 2: Get your students involved in deciding some meaningful thing they can do as a demonstration of their learning. (In some of my courses, this is very broad and I encourage creativity).

Step 3: Trust your students! This was harder for me than I thought it would be. When the first projects came in, I couldn’t help myself, and I asked my TAs to keep a secret spreadsheet and they assigned rough marks “just in case”.  (In case of what, I don’t know.) I immediately deleted this spreadsheet. In the spirit of ungrading, I truly believe the learner to be the best judge of their learning.

Step 4: Archive everything and provide copious amounts of feedback. This is not as daunting as it seems. Reading student work and commenting without assigning marks is a pleasure. I have students submit work on Canvas and feedback is provided.

Step 5: As much as it is feasible, allow for formative learning. At almost all stages, students in my course can take our feedback, edit, and resubmit their work. This is how true learning works. (We all know that).

Step 6: At the end of the term, I still have to enter a grade for my students – and not just any grade, an actual percentage. Because of this micro-managy system, students often perceive a real true difference between each percentage point. But it seems a bit much to ask students to assign themselves a percentage. Even an accumulation of self-assessment of all their work to arrive at a letter grade is a big job. What I did was design a self assessment form. Students do not willy-nilly pick an arbitrary grade. Instead, they work through reflecting on all their work and suggest a letter grade (on each piece and at the end). This actual form is adapted from a form in “Ungrading” edited by Susan Blum. Firas Moosvi (UBC Okanagan) provided a lot of feedback and encouragement as I designed this form.

Here it is, in its entirety.  (Feel free to use/edit as you see fit). (For some students, they take this document and run. Some students insert pictures of what they’ve done – they are really proud to showcase this. A minority of students (N=2) were uneasy and met with me 1:1 to talk through how to do this assessment. Another student wanted some guidance on how much each thing in the portfolio should count. I sent her the old weighting system from the “before ungrading” times as a guide.)

Biology 342 Self Assessment Form, Fall 2021

Your name:

Your lab section:

Congratulations!! You have made it through the term. We have shared a long and involved journey this semester as you have experienced what’s it’s like to be a scientist. I hope you have enjoyed this experience and were successful in meeting your learning goals. Because you are the one who has spent time learning this term (and I am not), you are best able to authentically evaluate your progress.

Gather your stuff from this course. The stuff you have created constitutes your portfolio of learning. This includes your lab notebook, your City of Vancouver mini-report, your salmon letter, your term project, and feedback for oral presentations. Grab some tea/coffee/water/a snack and settle in for some reflection. Plan to spend 30-60 minutes or so.

1. The most important thing. Think back to before the term started. Look through your entire portfolio. You accomplished a lot! What is the one most important thing that you will take away from this course? (Your most important thing may be broad or it may be very specific.)

2. Scavenger hunt (looking at specifics). Each week you set learning goals for yourself. Choose your 3 favourite things you accomplished (learning goals) and write them here.

3. Read through all of your self-assessments that you made at the end of each lab. Critically read feedback you were given. What was this experience like? Did you always/usually/sometimes meet your goals? What summary letter grade would you give yourself for your weekly learning? Why?

4. How would you grade your lab notebook? Is it complete? Organized? Neat? What did you learn through this process? Justify your grade (in a few sentences).

5. Your field work. Read your City of Vancouver report again. Would you change anything in this report now that you have more experience? What was your group contribution like – did you contribute equally? Give yourself a letter grade for this project. Justify your grade.

6. Your salmon project. Read your salmon letter again. Pretend you are the recipient of this letter – does it make sense? Did you contribute equally to this project? Give yourself a letter grade for this project. Justify your grade.

7. Your research project. Think back to your initial project design. You probably weren’t sure if it would actually work, and that part doesn’t matter. Evaluate your group’s project design. Was your question clear and measurable? Did you choose something brave that may not have worked? What was hard about designing a project?

8. Your data. You decided when and how to gather your data for your project. How was data collection? Did it go like you expected? Did you contribute equally toward data collection? What was hard?

9.  Your report. Read through your final report. Are you proud of this work? (You should be!) What letter grade would you give yourself for this project? Why?

10.  You gave oral presentations in this class. How was that experience? How did you do? Was your project well articulated?

11. Please suggest a grade for yourself, with comments. One of the key components of this exercise is for you to learn how to be a good judge of your own work. Be careful not to under-estimate your score in the way of “modesty”, “humbleness”, laziness, or out of fear. Similarly, be careful not to over-estimate your score out of overconfidence, laziness, arrogance, pride, or a false sense of ability.:



Explain how you arrived at this grade:


If your suggested grade is very different from how the TAs and I perceive your learning, I will set up a meeting with you to discuss your grade. I reserve the right to raise or lower your grade. Note on how grades will be entered: If we agree that a B best reflects your learning in this course, I will enter the median within the B range. (A letter grade of B +/- goes from 71-79, so I would enter a 75.) If your honest reflection puts you somewhere outside of this median, you can certainly suggest a more precise number – with justification. For example, you may suggest a 78 because you went to the Museum of Anthropology and spent 2 hours learning how salmon are important to our first nations, and your learning was significantly enhanced by that extra effort.)

12. Do you have any other comments?

12b. Please comment on what this “ungrading” experience was like for you this term. (If you’ve taken a lab course that was graded traditionally, how was your experience different in this ungraded course?)

I hope you have a wonderful break! I appreciate you taking part in this course and in this exercise. Lab notebooks will be available for pick-up next term in the lab. Please drop by to say hello!”


4 thoughts on “Why I Ungrade, and a How-To Primer

  1. Robert Stumbur

    I’m curious to learn how different your facilitating/lecturing was when you switched to upgrading.

    If the students are setting their own goals, how much content do you provide, and how much are they encouraged to discover on their own?

    Can you share any information or provide suggested resources on structuring an ungraded course?

    1. Celeste Leander Post author

      Hi Robert – Because this is a lab course, students have the lab manual in advance as content. This is basically instructional with minimal “why”. For example, students do a seafood forensics project where they bring in salmon samples from the “wild” (sushi restaurants, grocery stores, etc) and they do a series of molecular techniques to see if the salmon is labelled to species correctly. The lab manual has step-by-step instructions, but does not adequately describe why this project matters. I introduce that part in lecture, and students typically do a deep dive on their own – and learn things that are new to me! When I teach a lecture course next year, I will use the textbook as prior content and lecture space as more thinking/discovery.

  2. Brenda Bacon

    Hello Celeste – I am a retired professor of social work – but I’ve kept a couple of fingers in the academic realm by teaching occasional courses. This year I am developing a new undergraduate course and find myself intrigued with different concepts of evaluating students – and making courses more egalitarian. I loved your article and it has given me a number of ideas to include in my new course – that I get to teach next year!
    Thanks for your generosity in sharing the student evaluation form. I am going to make some revisions and include it in my course.

    1. Celeste Leander Post author

      Hi Brenda – Excellent! My specific form was adapted from Susan Blum’s. It’s published in the Ungrading book. If you haven’t read, I highly recommend it. Best of luck with your alternative assessment adventures.


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