On December 14, nearly 80 colleagues from the GLCA and the GLAA joined a virtual conversation about “ungrading.” And what IS ungrading? As we learned, it can be a number of different approaches. But at its heart, ungrading places the emphasis on learning, recognizing that the standard grading process in which faculty spend a lot of time determining whether the paper is an “A-” or “B+”, whether that question on the exam deserves 87 points or 86, and student (often) spend a lot of time “discussing” with instructor exactly WHY they got a B+ rather than an A-. Ungrading recognizes that the primary purpose of the assessment is to help students learn and improve their knowledge and skills, rather than to create a summative score that students use to compare themselves against an external credential. While some colleges provide narrative evaluations rather than a transcript (e.g. Hampshire College), most of our colleges require a final grade. “Ungrading” in this context suggests a variety of approaches that stress smaller over large stake assignments, student self-evaluation, extensive faculty feedback, and a well-thought-out understanding by the faculty and students of the expectations for what success on the assignments looks like.

For most “ungraders,” adoption of an “ungrading” model requires a clear set of learning goals and objectives that are defined at both the course and unit/module level, and a clear alignment between those objectives and the assignments used in the course. It stresses demystifying grades and the culture of grading to help students take greater ownership over their learning.

Jesse Stommel, the Executive Director of Hybrid Pedagogy who has written a lot on the topic, suggests a broad definition of ungrading, one that is dependent on context. “Mostly,” he writes, “ungrading for me requires (at a minimum): 1. ways to give better feedback that encourages and supports mastery levels of learning and 2. methods that enable students to take charge of their own learning (i.e. increase their agency), such that they can continue to excel even after my class ends.

“Ungrading” can come in a variety of forms from “specification” or “contract” grading (the which, for example, students who want a “C” in the course have to do a certain amount of work that meets the specs; those wanting a “B” have to do everything the “C” people do, but more of it and of higher quality and/or difficulty level, etc.); authentic assessments (where students write for real-world audiences, focusing on intrinsic motivations, and drawing students into the design of assignments / assessments); peer-review and redrafting; and student reflection and self-assessment. 

In our virtual conversation, five faculty members from Denison University and Oberlin College, shared their various approaches to “ungrading.” Included below are the handouts they provided, some additional resources on the theory and practice of “ungrading,” and some of the questions which were raised at the session.

  • Jordan Fantini (Chemistry, Denison University), discussed a transition to mastery-based grading in two chemistry courses;
  • Jennifer Fraser (Ethnomusicology, Oberlin College and Conservatory) provided information on specification grading that she uses in an ethnomusicology course;
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy (Classics, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Environmental Studies, Denison University) shared her “ungrading” practices in a writing course;
  • Jan Miyake (Music Theory, Oberlin Conservatory of Music) provided insight in how ungrading has worked in her courses and what she would do differently;
  • Lynn Powell (Creative Writing, Oberlin College), discussed her approach to grading in Creative Writing 212: Word & Image: Poetry in Dialogue with Visual Art

Both for practitioners of “ungrading,” and for those interested in exploring it further, many questions remain. It seems clear that “ungrading” is not motivated by an antipathy to assessment or evaluation, and that it is not designed for those who think that this might be a way to save bundles of time spent grading. “Ungrading” involves time and commitment both upfront — conceiving of how one would go about it — and during the multiple evaluation feedbacks provided during the semester. But, as almost everyone remarked, it moves assessment away from the most unproductive discussions and considerations (is this an A- or a B+), and towards practices that not only increase students’ ability to evaluate their own work, but greater reflection on the part of the instructor.

But, speaking of the questions raised, here were a few that came up in the virtual conversation:

  • Have these approaches to assessment changed the depth/breadth of your course content?
  • Do you have suggestions for critical reflection paper prompts?
  • Do students struggle when departing from the analytical essay assignments?
  • How do you ensure that students are always ready for new content in a course that requires mastery of earlier content?
  • Since this is often a process driven and peer review approach, how do you handle students not handing in drafts or assignments for further discussion or work on in class?
  • Have you incorporated any projects, papers, presentations into mastery-based grading?
  • How have BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, & People of Color] students in STEM courses responded to alternative forms of grading?

If you have questions, answers to these (or other) questions based on your own experiences, or would like to add to the conversation in any way, please don’t hesitate to email us: Steven Volk (steven.Volk@oberlin.edu); Colleen Monahan Smith (smith@glca.org); Charla White (white@glca.org).

You should also feel free to email any of the following individuals who participated in the virtual conversation:

Jordan Fantini: fantinij@denison.edu
Jennifer Fraser: jfraser@oberlin.edu
Rebecca Futo Kennedy: kennedyr@denison.edu
Jan Miyake: jan.miyake@oberlin.edu
Powell: lynn.powell@oberlin.edu


Ungrading: An Introduction (Jesse Stommel)
A Beginner’s Guide to Ungrading (Susan Blum)
From Degrading to De-Grading (Alfie Kohn)
Ungrading: What It Is and Why Should We Use It? (Clarissa Sorens) [NOTE: Includes an extensive bibliography]
What I’ve Learned from Ungrading (Robert Talbert)
Assessing My First Semester of Ungrading (David Clark)
Ungrading and Equity: Does It Support Minoritized Students? (Jaci Smith)
The Unintended Consequences of ‘Ungrading’: Does Getting Rid of Grades Make Things Worse for Disadvantaged Students (Becky Supiano)
Contract Grading Detrimental to Oberlin Academics, Student Success (Zachary Stout) [NOTE: A negative opinion from an Oberlin student]

Three recorded webinars from the IONiC chemistry community on alternative grading (scroll to bottom of each page for link to YouTube link to recording):




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