Category Archives: Teaching

What does “falling behind” mean in teaching?

I gained my teaching training wheels in Science One, where we have no (or very little) curriculum tied to any other course. I spent well over a decade teaching almost exclusively in this program. Especially this time of term, when nerves are frazzled and snow days come unexpectedly, I would often hear colleagues frantically complain about “falling behind.” I honestly had no idea what this meant. Behind what?

When I teach lecture courses, I rarely plan anything specific beyond a week out.

How am I supposed to know in advance what student prior knowledge is? What they want to learn more about? What will interest them?

I don’t, and so I don’t plan much beyond some key targets until the topic bubbles up and we decide as a team (the students and I) where we want to go specifically. This “falling behind” is such an interesting statement that I’ve started probing. What do you mean by that, exactly? I’ve decided that “falling behind” falls into 2 camps:

1. The Story Tellers. Some folks have a clear epic novel to tell. (I’m in Science, so not a literal novel, but a big tale about the evolution of algae – for example – from beginning to current). I respect these story tellers. I want to sit in their classes and hear the tales. (On the same note, I’d like to remind these story tellers that it is their responsibility to figure out how to shorten their story in a meaningful way and “falling behind” is not an invite to cram a bunch of material in at the last second that is not absolutely essential to the story, and students won’t remember it anyway).

2. The “What is Everyone Else Doing” Teachers. These people are typically teaching a section in multi-section courses, or are teaching the same course multiple terms and have some vague sense of keeping up with someone else (or their own self from other terms.) To these folks, I would ask… why? Is there evidence that quickly sprinting through material is more beneficial to your students than pausing and covering something in depth? (This is a real question and a real discussion in teaching circles.) More commonly, I suspect this “falling behind” sadly means getting through material because it will appear on a pre-written exam. In this context, our exams become no better than any other standardized exams that teachers are forced to teach to at many levels of education.

I challenge us to do better.


The very first slide of the very first lecture

In my ungraded course, my students assess themselves formatively and summatively, which is no small task and takes some practice. I have a great colleague/friend on Twitter (Rebekah @grrrlmeetsworld) who used this in her course(s), and I stole it (with permission) and used it as the very first activity, right out of the gates.

The slide asks students to chose what role they’d like to play in this course. I offer no judgement – any choice is perfectly fine, including “hostage”, which is the reality of our educational system sometimes. The word that the vast majority of students chose – so many that you can no longer read the word – is “explorer”, which feels exactly right. Because my students make and reflect on their own learning goals, defining their role in the course matters, and it’s also flexible. We will revisit this as a grounding exercise every few weeks.

What does the word “grades” feel like?

My first lecture was this morning. I borrowed an activity from David Buck (dbuckedu on Twitter) and asked students to respond to the question, “What do you feel when you see the word “grades?”” This is a wordcloud of their responses:


I have roughly 100 students who contributed a total of 22 different words. Thirteen of these words were “stress”. We did this activity before any mention of grading in this course, and it simply validates work of others and illustrates the primary reason I practice ungrading.

The letter that mattered most

Once I wrote a reference letter for a student who had never been in any of my classes. In fact, she was not in my program and was applying to a very prestigious graduate school in a totally different field. Her grades were mediocre at best. I enthusiastically said yes, but had to sit with it a while and contemplate my strategy. In the end, I wrote her a knock-your-sock-off academic reference letter, and she got in. (I like to pretend that my letter mattered.) Here’s the gist of the letter.

Her grades were maybe not great. (In fact, they were unarguably not great). But. BUT. She chose extremely hard classes as electives. Like – really hard classes. Her foreign language was Japanese. She took the real physics instead of the “not for majors” physics. When I asked her why, she said it was simply because she didn’t want to miss out on something the science kids were learning. She has an amazing work ethic. (In fact, she worked almost full time throughout her undergraduate career). She is a humanitarian at heart, a constant learner. She traveled the world truly making a difference – working at international consortiums. She is an amazing team player – one of the best. She nurtures relationships. I could confidently say these things about her – in an academic letter – because every one of these traits matters in academia. And yet they very rarely become part of a course grade. Writing this letter taught me a lot about grades and what they don’t say.

During my first year of ungrading, I saw students justify their grades with things like:

“…I really held this project together for weeks when 2 of my teammates were out with Covid and one had to work overtime…”

“…I’ve always been so nervous to speak in front of peers. I had to glance at my cards, but I did it. I’m so proud…”

“…we had a safe project we were going to do that was just something modified from what another group did before. Instead, we designed something that was really hard and probably wouldn’t work…”

This year I have learned the nuances of what self-reflection and assessment can capture. Every student in my classroom is their own whole human with a unique experience they are reflecting on. I have decided that I am OK with each of these humans assessing themselves on a different arbitrary scale, because the scales are personal reflections of their own growth. I will keep on ungrading.

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 ehnic 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. 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 micromanagy 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!”


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!

Ungrading: an interview with 2 students and 1 professor

In the Fall of 2021, we were fresh back to face-to-face learning. Over the summer, I had worked closely with Firas Moosvi and Jackie Stewart on ungrading, both of whom were doing pieces in their respective courses. I chose to go all-in and pilot a completely ungraded third year biology lab course. My primary concerns: Would the students take the course seriously? Would the teaching team be able to support student’s work without grades? This experience profoundly changed the way I view the learning trajectory and challenged many assumptions I had about student motivation. I will piece this out in future posts, but for now – Firas has questions. And he also has questions for the students that took part in this experiment.
Let’s start with them…

The Interview with Claire and Emily (Biol 342 students)

Do you have any general comments about this experience?

“I was a bit skeptical about the concept at first because I’ve never heard of it, but I think it really motivated me to set my own goals in the course. Knowing that I was grading myself made me aware of how much effort I was putting into the course not only in lab but at home as well. Rather than always wanting to impress TAs and Profs (like people commonly do to get a good mark in class), it was more about personal growth. I liked the fact that I actually had a say in my mark, unlike any of my other courses.”

1. On a scale of 1-10 how anxious (10 is very anxious) were you about your grade in this course before you went to the first class? After the first class? At the end of the term?

“Scale of Anxiousness:
Before first class: 9
After first class: 5
End of the term: 7
After receiving my mark: 3”

“Before the first class: 3
After the first class: 3
End of term: 1”

2. What are/were some of your doubts about Ungrading in this course, and in general?

“I was worried that I wouldn’t actually have a say in my mark. Profs tend to say ‘you can let us know if you don’t agree with your mark,’ but when is that really a thing? However, Celeste and the TAs came through!!”

“I thought that it would be difficult to improve and judge how I’m doing in the course if there weren’t grades to reference. We’re taught to evaluate our progress based on grading, so this concept was unfamiliar.”

3. Ungrading is a difficult idea to explain to others without any context. Did any of your peers scoff at how your class was Ungraded ? What were some of the things they said?

“surprisingly, I didn’t get any scoffs from my friends! They found it really interesting and wanted to look into the course.”

“They didn’t scoff, they were just surprised that ungrading was being used since it’s not a common evaluation system. More so, they were interested in how it works.”

4. What do you think made Ungrading a success in BIOL 342 ?

“It was done really well because of two main reasons 1) the TAs and Celeste actually stuck to their word (at least in my case) (Note from CL: I stuck to my word with all students). They listened to our reasoning as to why we deserved the grade. They were really open minded, making it really easy for us to learn at our own pace! 2) it was really organized. There was a PDF and everything for us to fill out, personal ratings, etc. “

“The instructors gave great conductive feedback. Even if there weren’t numerical grades to reference, they made it easier to know what to improve on.”

5. Do you think any instructor can Ungrade in any class? What advice would you have for instructors if they want to do this?

“I don’t think any instructor can ungrade any class. For example, a math course wouldn’t be able to. To get started, ASK CELESTE FOR HELP 😀 but make sure all the bases are covered: student feedback method, give students the opportunity to mark themselves, and be organized!” (Note from CL: You are welcome to reach out if you are considering ungrading in your own courses, but I am not an actual expert in this…)

“I don’t think ungrading would be appropriate for courses such as math, statistics, physics, etc. when students are trying to calculate 1 correct answer. It would better suit courses that have open-ended projects such as BIOL 342. If an instructor were to adopt ungrading, detailed conductive feedback would definitely be essential.”

6. What advice do you have for students that are in an ungraded class?

“I personally really liked ungrading and think it was great!

The Interview with Dr. Celeste Leander

How much did you tell the students about Ungrading or your personal philosophy on grades during the class? Was it all at once at the beginning? A little bit throughout? All at the end? How would you suggest others start this conversation with their students?

“I formally introduced the idea at the start of term with 1 or 2 slides. One of the main reasons that ungrading rings true for me is because it encourages students to stop worrying about assessment, so I didn’t want to belabour it to the point of them worrying about it (if that makes sense.) However, I did casually reinforce ungrading many times- particularly during the first few weeks of term. This happened organically when students would ask things like, “What if x is late?”, or “What if I made this mistake?”. In those situations, I would just whisper, “I’m not grading your work – you are.” Their reaction was the same. They would say something like “oh yeah!” and walk away. I was surprised at how long it took them to settle into the idea.”

2. Often in classes (particularly larger ones), we have to work with others that may not share or buy-in to the ungrading vision. Was this an issue for you? If so how did you deal with it? If not, what do you suggest to others ?

“This was one of the reasons that this course was chosen as a full- course trial. There are 4 sections of lab with 1 lecture, but I teach all of it. However, some of ungrading has been taken up by other large lab courses and there have been some faculty that are not ready to take this on. My suggestion would be to let faculty do what they are comfortable with, and to keep everyone updated on progress. When instructors see that chaos doesn’t ensue, they may be more willing to give it a shot. It’s also possible to start small with a section of a course, but having done it, I don’t think this will have the same benefit to student learning.”

3. Outline the highlights of your ungrading approach

“Students receive feedback from the TAs and/or myself on every submission. Sometimes this is just a quick “great job” or “consider adding x” if it’s something simple. On large projects, students receive significant feedback and are always encouraged to resubmit. (The products of this course are external to UBC, so students have reason to be proud of their work.) At the end of the term, students submit a 5 page self assessment that asks them to reflect on each piece of work in their portfolio and suggest their own grade. Some students understood this from the start and had no trouble, but others asked for more structure as the term progressed. This term I am considering giving students a quick flow chart after each large assignment to reflect in more real time in their lab notebooks.”

4. How did you give students feedback on their work? (how often, how detailed, how technically, etc…)

“The TAs and I were surprised at how fun it was to give feedback on written work without worrying about allocating marks. We give detailed feedback on 3 written projects and 2 lab notebook submissions. The projects are fairly high stakes – one goes to the City of Vancouver, one goes to a restaurant or grocery store in the community, and one is published in an online journal – so formative detailed assessment has always been a necessary part of this course. I would estimate that we are giving some sort of feedback roughly once per week, but sometimes it’s a quick check on something.”

5. Did you have any students that “slipped through the cracks” ?

“Not that I know of, but I did offer to meet with students individually who were having trouble with the self assessment. I had two students who took me up on this offer. We had meaningful discussions on things like “what is the difference between an 80 and an 85?”, for example.”

6. Are you willing to share the historical and current grade distributions for your course?

“Yes, but this course has always had very high grades because of the formative nature of assessment. I actually have not compared grades.”

7. Did Ungrading show up in your Student experience of Instruction surveys?

“Yes, in a big way. In the “please identify the strengths of this course” prompt, nearly 1/2 of students specifically mentioned ungrading. I’m excited to delve into these further and identify how this approach helped them learn.”

8. How did you feel after doing Ungrading – will you ever go back?

“It changed my views on teaching and learning forever. I’ve always been a big proponent of student self agency, so the actual process of ungrading was not a huge jump for me. But it was still hard to completely let go of grading. To be perfectly honest, the first project submission was loosely graded. The TAs and I kept a secret spreadsheet of what we would give if we were grading the papers. In the end, it felt dishonest and I had to stop. There was no reason to keep that spreadsheet. I trust my students to do this work themselves, and they need to rely on that trust. I often teach a section of our large introductory biology course, which is traditionally graded. I love teaching that course, and I don’t know how or if I will be able to incorporate ungrading into that course. For the third year lab course, I will definitely not go back to traditional grading.”

10. How much extra work was it to transform your class, what advice would you give to those that want to do this?

“For this specific course, it was not a lot of work. One of the things that made it fairly easy was the student perception of meaningful projects. They have motivation to do their best work that does not depend on me assessing them. My advice would be to incorporate student agency as much as possible- In my ideal world, I would have classes small enough that I could ask students how they would like to demonstrate their understanding and let them do so in their own chosen way. Also – most important – trust your students. They want to learn and they truly are the best assessors of their own learning.”

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.

Nurture as a Teaching Perspective

A few weeks ago, I took the Teaching Perspectives Inventory, my results of which were used as an example in front of many of my colleagues. My dominant perspective is “nurture”, and I cringed a little, expecting to be chastised for baking cookies for my students (which I do). Instead, Dr Pratt defined “nurture” as placing value on building trusting relationships with students. He asked me if this was true, and I’ve been reflecting on this. Years ago, I was standing in line for coffee in the Barber Learning Centre. Jodi Scott (classroom services) was behind me in line. She said, “Aren’t you teaching right now?” (She knew it was class time because I’d previously asked her for something in my classroom. ) I answered, “Yes, they’re working away in there.” She asked if she could come back to the room with me – she couldn’t believe I’d left 200 students unattended. I do think that I often ask students to do unconventional things, and I think it works because they trust me, and they trust me because I also trust them.

Fostering Optimism

Here’s what I’m thinking about today: Sixty percent of Gen Z students are optimistic about their future, as opposed to 89% of Millenials.

How do we foster optimism in our students?

(Source: Levine, A, and Dean, DR (2012) Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student. San Francisco: Wiley.)