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3 Ways to Ungrade Student Work
… that are more rigorous than grading
… that are more rigorous than grading
Since COVID-19 wreaked havoc on higher education, instructors have been trying to balance workload, outcomes… and just straight up compassion for students. As a result, discussions about doing away with grades in the classroom are on the rise, even though the practice has been around for quite some time.
A growing number of instructors and universities have eliminated grades in the classroom altogether and replaced them with more meaningful, alternative evaluation. Grades become a distraction for students. They take away from time spent on learning. When students know they have to struggle to get a grade, it can demotivate them and make them resent the entire educational process.
To see more reasons why I switched to ungrading, see my previous blog post.
Along with this comes discussions of rigor in many higher education circles (see both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed). If you don’t have grades, then how can we have rigor? But rarely will you find a good definition of what rigorous actually means. Vaguely, rigor in the classroom means high-quality work. Though, it often means simply putting obstacles in the way of students to make learning more difficult, for example, adding a time limit or counting grammatical errors.
To see more ways we set up obstacles with grades, see my previous blog post.
But does that mean students are learning more? No, it just means we get to weed more of them out.
Rigor has nothing to do with how much information students learn. In fact, it is a complete myth that if something is difficult to learn, then more time spent on it will ensure students will remember it. No. What ensures students will remember something is if they engage with the material. When students engage with something, you internalize what you are learning, and it becomes a part of you. It is this type of learning that produces real and lasting change. We should remove obstacles to learning, not add them.
Ungrading is one way to do this… and here are three of the best ways that I’ve tried in my own classes. If you try any of these, you will find them far more rigorous than simply giving students a letter grade.
The most popular approach these days, at least in the writing classroom, is labor-based grading. Essentially, this means giving students credit for the labor they’ve done in the class and not grading the quality of the work. In his grading contract, Asao B. Inoue simply tells students:
If you do all that is asked of you in the manner and spirit it is asked, if you work through the processes we establish and the work we are asking of ourselves in the labor instructions during the quarter, if you do all the labor asked of you, then you’ll get an “B” in the course.
To get an “A”, students need to do a “grade booster” by adding additional content to the course. This could be researching a related topic and reporting to the class. Doing an additional deep revision of a project. Creating a new project. Etc. The key for me is that students do these grade boosters intentionally. This is not extra credit, but opportunities for students to choose an area they want to improve or learn more about and explore that on their own time. This is how we learn outside of the university… why not in the classroom?
So where is the rigor in that? Students just have to complete the assignment and the get all the points? The key to labor-based grading is to have multiple checkpoints with consistent opportunities for both peer and instructor feedback. That is hard work! If you are checking for quality every step of the way, then you don’t have to worry about whether the students are learning. You know for sure.
In my own classes, I make sure there are at least three checkpoints. The first checkpoint is when they are developing ideas. This gives students immediate feedback on whether they are on the right track. If they aren’t, they can ask for help from me or another student. The second checkpoint is when we discuss drafts. This gives students a chance to ask questions and get feedback from their peers and me. Here we can talk about what’s working well in the work, what could be improved, what was unexpected and so on. Finally, I give them overall feedback on their final product, helping them see which course outcomes they achieved and what they can work on further in revision or on future projects.
This process is actually more rigorous than giving grades. With grades, it is easy for students to game the system by doing just enough to get the grade they need. With this approach, students have to do enough to get all the points. And, if they don’t, they get immediate feedback from me or their peers. This leads to deeper learning. Students have to decide for themselves how much they want to work on each task. They can decide whether they need to revise and edit, or just stick with the original draft.
Another popular ungrading approach is spec-grading or “specifications-grading.” In this approach, any assignment that the students hand in must reach a specific threshold, or set of specifications, required by the instructor or class. There are two grades: Complete/Incomplete. If the assignment does not meet the specifications, students get an incomplete. They may revise the work as much as they want within a certain timeframe, but they do not get any points for that work unless it meets these specificities… even if the student did the work. The student has to do more than just the bare minimum to get a grade.
Robert Talbot, a proponent for this kind of grading in mathematics, sees this approach as a simple way to help students learn tough material at their own pace. Students have to engage with the work at a whole new level. As an example of this approach in action, let’s say that you are teaching a Calculus course where the material is quite challenging. The first assignment is a long-ish proof of a particular math problem. If the students can’t make the proof work, they fail the assignment.They get an incomplete on the assignment and may try again as many times as they want. And if they do the work and eventually get it to work, they get a full grade. This approach forces students to do a lot of work and to engage with the material.
While the labor-based approach makes sense for process-oriented activities in the writing classroom, I’ve found specs-grading useful for major projects or final papers. If students take part in class activities like discussion and peer review, they will inevitably learn. But many of the projects we do in class should reach a threshold of quality that students can share with professionals or potential employers. Students simply cannot pass until they reach that threshold.
You may ask, won’t this decrease the quality of the work? Students will only do what is necessary to reach the threshold. Quite the opposite. From my experience, students produce better work when they have to meet specific criteria. This forces them to consider the project and to focus on the task at hand. It also forces them to engage with the material on a deeper level. When you just give grades no matter what, it is easy for students to coast through an assignment, simply to get it over with. But when you use this approach, it forces them to get it right or suffer the consequences.
The key to spec-grading is that it provides a sense of rigor and accountability. Students know that they have to do enough to get a grade, and they will not get any points for work that is less than what they need to achieve. This matches the realities of the workplace better. If you give your boss unsatisfactory work, they will not give you a “D” and move on. Likely, you’ll either need to get it up to specs or get fired.
Finally, the last popular method of ungrading is self-grading. Students reflect on the outcomes for the course and their own personal and professional goals in order to determine their own grade. Students look at the work that they’ve done, giving themselves an honest evaluation. For example, I’ve often found grading online discussions difficult. Yeah, I can count all the posts and give them a complete. Or try to grade the quality of their posts. But not only is that more work for me; it likely does not measure true learning or even participation. Instead, I tell students what it means to be a good participant in online discussions and have them write a brief reflection on how they measure up and where they can improve. Obviously, this requires consistent, well-structured opportunities for reflection.
This is perhaps one of the oldest forms of ungrading. In fact, when I first starting teaching writing, I used self-grading along with portfolios to help students learn to write without fearing grades. We worked on their writing throughout the semester through workshops, peer review, and instructor feedback. At the end of the semester, students collect their best writing, polish and revise each piece, and write a reflection on what they learned as a writer. This is especially useful for students who struggle with writing courses, often because they fear the teacher’s red pen. They’ve been taught that they write badly and live in constant fear of poor grades. Self-grading takes that out of the equation.
While self-grading provides the student with the opportunity to write without the pressure grades, the reflections also give me valuable information about what I can do as an instructor to help my students. Did they learn to write more effectively when working on their own or in small groups? Was there a particular aspect of the assignment that confused them or tripped them up? Did they need more guidance, or did they figure it out on their own? All of this is useful to me as an instructor. It helps me plan my future workshops and assignments.
So what about rigor? If we allow students to give themselves grades, wouldn’t everyone just get an “A.” The results might surprise you. Once they get used to the idea, most students are quite honest about how they grade their work. More often than not, their evaluation matches mine… and sometimes is lower!
Grades can be important, but they can also be a bit of a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, it makes students more careful about their work. On the other hand, it can cause them to “cocoon” in their comfort zone, avoiding any kind of risk or discomfort in their work. We want our students to grow, right? To stretch and challenge themselves? Self-grading gives them room to explore and experiment, while also forcing them to think more deeply about their learning.
One thing I think is important to remember is that these ungrading methods are simply tools to help you reach your goal… which is to help each individual student achieve their personal best. Remember that no matter what system you use, students that learn nothing or slack off will still receive an “F”.
My first attempt at ungrading was actually a combination of all three approaches, because we do three different kinds of work in most writing classes.
Labor-based grading is perfect for all the writing activities that lead up to a final draft. If you simply do them “in the spirit they were assigned,” you will become a better writer.
Specs-grading is perfect for final projects or drafts. Students are rarely interested in detailed feedback on these projects. Is the project good enough? That’s what they want to know.
Finally, I used self-grading at the end of the course as a safety. Since this was my first time developing an ungrading system, I gave students an opportunity to propose their own grade, just in case my system didn’t work for some students.
Every one of these required more work and more rigor on the student’s part. There was no grade inflation … quite the opposite. I had some of the lowest grades I’ve had in a while. But the quality of the writing also went up. And there were no complaints about final grades, because each student had to grapple with their work in new ways.
Does this mean my classes are easy? No. It just means I try to keep space in the class so as many students as possible can learn and improve their writing. That way, we can say we are accomplishing our educational goal of producing well-rounded, functional citizens who can contribute to society. In the end, that’s rigor.