I have been moving away from traditional grading schemes for a while. In teaching the INCAP course in Spring 2019 and Tackling a Wicked Problem in Fall 2019, I have moved fully into the ungrading camp. But my journey was a pretty gradual one. It started a few years ago when I began to recognize that point systems have a large amount of subjectivity incorporated into them. For example, if I had a semester in which there were 1000 points to be earned, I had a difficult time articulating an objective difference in the work of a student who earned 916 points (an A) and 915 points (an A-) over the course of the semester. So the first thing I did on my path to ungrading was get rid of + and – grades. But this only made the situation worse because then I had to try to articulate and even bigger difference in the work of a student who earned 900 points (an A) and 899 points (a B). The ridiculousness of this hit home for me when I realized that, by default, our learning management system (Moodle) sets the precision of numeric grades on individual assignments to two decimal places. The developers of Moodle think that the default situation is that instructors want (and are able) to distinguish between a 90.12 points and a 90.11 points on a paper or other assignment. I call this “objectivity theater.” I adapted the phrase from Bruce Schneier‘s “security theater” in which he argues that much of what we do in the name of security doesn’t actually make us safer but the performance of those acts make us feel safer. Similarly, assigning numbers and increased numerical precision to our assessments of student work doesn’t make our assessments more objective but it makes us feel as though we are being more objective than if we assessed in some other way.
Another issue I was struggling with as I journeyed toward a full embrace of ungrading is the idea that students need space to make mistakes and learn from them. Sometimes students have a stretch of time during which they don’t understand the material or have something going on in their lives that prevents them from focusing their full attention on the work to be done in their classes. I increasingly hated the idea that these issues would permanently affect the student’s semester grade (and therefore, their college GPA) even if they ultimately learned the material. So I developed a kind of contract grading mechanism about 10 years ago in my Creating Games class. I wanted students to have some say in the work they did in the class but also wanted them to have the opportunity to continue to continue to engage with particular learning outcomes if they hadn’t met their goals related to those outcomes. I created a whole bunch of assignments for students to choose from in order to meet the learning goals of the class. I also allow the students to come up with their own assignments. We then work together to write up the assignment so that everyone in class has the opportunity to choose that assignment and the assignment becomes a permanent part of the class. Each assignment is worth a particular number of points and the students know how many points they must earn in order to achieve an A, a B, a C, and so on. The only assignment that is required in the class is that students must develop their own strategy for how to achieve the final grade that they want in the class. If a student doesn’t earn the number of points they want/need on a particular assignment, they can reengage with the topic/content/goals of the assignment to earn additional points. I have been very happy with how this grading mechanism has gone and how it encourages students to engage over and over again with material that they are struggling with. I have talked about this way of grading in a lot of venues over the years and several people have pointed out to me that the focus on points might mean that some students are focused on earning points for the sake of earning points rather than actual learning. I think some of the lessons I learned from my INCAP and Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP) experiences will be helpful.
This essay from Inside Higher Ed, articulates many of the things I have tried to do with my full embrace of ungrading. In particular, I talked with students a lot in both classes about how what they are learning relates to their goals for their future. We talked about how they might articulate the connections between their project-based learning and their other classes and their future job searches. The students in both classes engaged in lots of self-reflection on what they wanted to improve upon in their learning and their work as well as their plans for making such improvements. I decentered grading by not assigning any grades to assignments but instead focusing on providing constructive, actionable feedback on their work. Ultimately, the final letter grade for the course (which I was required to report) was based on a holistic examination of the student’s engagement with the work over the course of the semester. We talked about what grades are for, what they represent, and how to determine what the final grade might be. I asked them to assign themselves a grade and then I wrote to each student about whether their grade seemed accurate to me and why or why not. We did this multiple times through the semester and by the time we got to the end of the semester, most students were right on target in their self-assessment. There were a few students who seemed to grade themselves slightly too harshly and few who seemed to go slightly easy on themselves. But no one was horribly far off.
How did I do this? I used the Moodle gradebook to ensure that student feedback was collected in one place for them to review regularly. For each item in the gradebook, I set the Grade Type to “Scale” and I set the scale to “Complete/Incomplete.” The featured image on this post shows my gradebook at the end of the semester.
When I graded an assignment, I marked it as Complete or Incomplete based on whether the student submitted it or not and wrote a letter to the student about the assignment in the feedback box associated with the assignment. In the letter, I tried to identify one or two things the student did well and one or two actionable items that the student could improve on. Each week, I updated the number of absences that the student had and updated the feedback box for the number of absences with the total number of classes we had up to that point. By looking at the gradebook, the student could then see that they had missed, for example, 3 out of 24 classes. Also by looking at the gradebook, the student could see how many assignments they had completed and what my feedback was on those assignments.
Early in week 6 of the semester, I had the students do a self-assessment. We had a conversation about how to demonstrate learning (we had talked about this before), about the purpose of grades and how they are determined, and what we as a group thought an A looks like in the gradebook, what a C looks like, and what an F looks like. I then gave them the self-assessment where I asked them questions about the items they saw in Moodle (for example, how many absences do you currently have?) and how those items did or did not reflect what they believed they had learned up to that point in the semester. I asked them to assign themselves a grade. I read their self-assessments and gave them feedback (again in the Moodle gradebook) about whether I thought their self-assessment was accurate. I gave them a week to talk to me about my feedback if they disagreed with me and reported their 6 week grade by the deadline. I repeated this process at the end of the semester with their final grades.
I am pleased with this process. I got to know students and their goals really well even if they were kind of shy about talking to me in person. I don’t think it was more time-consuming than “regular” grading but it was so much more satisfying and interesting. From my course evaluations, I think the vast majority of students found it valuable. I look forward to refining the process.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.