When I discovered the ungrading movement a couple of years ago, I realized it fit well with an approach I’d been exploring in my writing classes—one that prioritized student labor, revision, and holistic assessment. I knew this approach had a well-established basis in theory and practice within writing studies (e.g., Elbow, 1994; Inoue, 2019), but I struggled to adapt it to other courses whose goals focused less on writing and more on students’ mastering a body of knowledge. How, I wondered, could I employ ungrading practices in courses where relatively objective assessments like quizzes and exams had an important role in assessing students’ learning?
As I struggled with this question, I found helpful ungrading models in the later chapters of Susan Blum’s (2020) edited collection Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). As the same time, I continued to reflect on the role my courses play in my students’ lives, both at the university and beyond. Yes, students in my linguistics, grammar, and rhetorical theory courses need to develop a command of disciplinary knowledge. But more importantly, they need to develop the habits of mind and behavior necessary to lead fulfilling lives as educated people—habits like curiosity, persistence, and metacognition. Without these, students may do well on my exams, but there’s little chance they’ll transfer that success to anything beyond our course.
To promote these habits, I’ve developed an ungrading assessment structure that’s suited to content-focused courses. In short, I ask students to give me evidence that they’ve succeeded in the course in four ways:
They show me their evidence in written reflections or individual meetings throughout the semester. The number and format of those depend on the course: generally, the lower the course number, the more frequent and more highly structured the check-ins. For each reflection or meeting, students first compile a list of documents or experiences they can point to as evidence of their success. It’s also helpful to ask students to explain how each piece of evidence points to their success. In other words, students must not only present evidence of their success, but interpret it in a way that supports the case they’re trying to make.
At the end of the semester, if students can give me convincing evidence that they’ve succeeded in all four ways, I enter an A as their course grade. If they can give me convincing evidence of three, I enter a B. Two, a C; one, a D.
Obviously, this system demands open, clear communication between me and my students. One of the first and most frequent conversations we have is about what those four components of success mean: what levels of achievement will count as mastery, improvement, effort, and engagement; what sorts of evidence students can present to demonstrate their success; and what counts as “convincing” evidence.
Naturally, I enter those conversations with my own expectations for students’ performance. (I do, after all, have more disciplinary knowledge and teaching experience than my students.) But students ultimately need to take responsibility for articulating what they see as success in the course, and by negotiating those expectations, I can help students think critically and realistically about how they need to engage in the course.
Mastery and improvement are perhaps the most straightforward components of success for students to demonstrate. Students can point to their quiz and exam scores as well as to the essays they’ve written (and my feedback on those essays, and the revisions they’ve made in response to that feedback). And yes, students do take exams and quizzes. But because I don’t attach any summative grades to those tasks, students have an easier time interpreting their scores simply as useful information about what they got right and wrong, not as a judgment.
It’s also important that students have the chance to assess these components of success holistically. For some students, exam scores are clear evidence of how well they know the material, but for others, test anxiety or other factors unrelated to the course make exam scores less meaningful. Those students can demonstrate their mastery or improvement in other ways—and the fact that they’re responsible for doing so fosters metacognition.
Students have even more flexibility in how they demonstrate thoughtful, consistent effort. In previous courses, some students have documented the times they’ve come to office hours, or study groups they’ve organized. Other students have shown me how they’ve revised their class notes to make them more systematic, demonstrating that they’re using active study strategies. Others have shown me quizzes and activities they’ve designed, modeled after what we’ve done in class, or the results of online quizzes they’ve sought out. Because they have to show me evidence of their effort, students are forced to think about what kinds of effort will be most helpful for them. There’s no one strategy that works for everyone, but nobody gets to coast, not even the rare students who can do well enough on the exams without studying.
The fourth component of success, engagement beyond the classroom, might seem murky at first. This is where I ask my students to think about how our course material relates to their other academic work or the world beyond the university. In an editing course, this might mean students show me how they’ve used concepts from our course to improve their writing for other classes—a fairly straightforward application. But in other courses, it might mean their showing me news or opinion articles that illustrate our course concepts in the “real” world. Or it might mean bringing in examples of public discourse that show a naïve (mis)understanding of something from our course. After all, it’s always fun to point out when other people are wrong!
Since implementing this ungrading framework in some of my content-focused courses, I’ve found that students continue to strive for (and often achieve) high-quality work. But the way they approach that goal has changed. One great advantage of this system is that no student has to feel like a failure, even if they struggle early in the semester. A student who does poorly on an early assignment, for instance, can take concrete steps to catch up, leading to success on later assignments. And because exams and other assignments aren’t counted as traditional grades, students don’t have to worry that their eventual good work will “average out” with their earlier, unsuccessful attempts. Instead, a student in that situation can show me evidence that they’re working toward at least three of the four components of success: mastery, improvement, and effort. And if a student’s effort doesn’t pay off—if they end the semester with significant gaps in their mastery of the material—then the effort they put in and whatever improvement they did achieve is still recognized. In other words, a student’s final grade, which I am contractually and ethically obligated to report, is based on how they engage in the course—engagement that includes but isn’t restricted to their mastery of the material.
Of course, this system may not be appropriate for high-stakes, high-content courses where the only metric that matters is whether students know the material. But in my experience, most of our content-focused courses, whether gen ed or in the major, are places where we’re trying to help students become successful, self-reflective, intrinsically motivated learners. For these courses, an ungrading system like this one can help our students learn to be successful, not just in our courses but throughout their academic careers and beyond.
Blum, S. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.
Elbow, P. (1994). Ranking, evaluating, liking: Sorting out three forms of judgment. College English, 55(2), 187–206. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/eng_faculty_pubs/12
Inoue, A. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse: University Press of Colorado. https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2019.0216.0
Sean Barnette, PhD, is a professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages and assistant director of the Honors College at Lander University.
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