Hatching Plans for Ungrading

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In my last post I wrote about my deepening sense of grading as a social justice issue, inspired by an early summer faculty book group discussing Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), a collection edited by linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Blum. I’m persuaded that the uneasiness so many of us feel about grading is justified. As law professor Anna Lund puts it: “What's ungrading, you ask? It means moving away from ranking students.” Building on a body of research demonstrating that grades curb student learning, “ungrading” approaches instead focus on student metacognition and guided self-assessment.


Our book group on Ungrading included instructors from humanities, social sciences, and science and health sciences backgrounds, all thinking through how “ungrading" might work in our disciplines. We speculated what this shift could mean for students in their first college semester all the way through their graduate courses. If you hatch these conversations with colleagues, you might hear some resistance. After all, there is utility, of a kind, in the sorting and ranking we have been taught to reproduce. However, Blum and the writers in this volume offer persuasive evidence that could counter any of the “buts” you might hear, including ways to incorporate ungrading principles in STEM and general education classes, as well as multi-section and larger classes. (See her final chapter titled “Not Simple but Essential” for some inspiration.)


Here are some ungrading-inspired strategies I have been using, which I plan to develop into broader approaches for my fall courses. I hope to learn from you, too, what you are trying in the spirit of this pedagogical movement.


Ungrading and class participation

I plan to continue to give my students (from first semester undergrads to grad students) control over their participation scores, devoting time in our early class meetings for them to develop together what it will mean to show up, to prepare carefully, to take risks and try new skills, and to articulate their own goals for growth. Frequent check-ins throughout the semester help students foster the metacognition about learning that is a central tenet of ungrading. I offer time during a penultimate class day for students to write up these self-assessments. They are often quite moving to read.

Rationale: As a feminist, I encourage students to assess and value their growth and abilities, a self-advocating skill that is particularly important for marginalized people in every field of work.


Ungrading and cover letters for drafts, polished drafts, and end-of-semester reflections on writing

I have written about cover letters in another post, but here’s the brief and adaptable assignment, intended to be completed on due dates during class time, so that it doesn't become one more assignment.

Write a reflective 1-page(ish) cover letter to me about:

     * Your research and drafting process. What are you continuing from your last assignment, and what are you trying that is new? Why?

    * What are you most pleased with in this draft/final draft? Be specific, and explain why.

    * What are you struggling with, and what kind of feedback would help you?

    * Is there anything else you'd like to comment on or ask me about?

    * For the end of the semester: Consider your growth over the semester as a researcher and writer, and tell me what you're proud of, what you plan to take into other classes, and what you plan to keep working on.

Rationale: Fostering metacognition about the research and writing process is essential to our ongoing growth as thinkers and writers. I use variations on this assignment for all my courses, from first-year seminars to graduate courses.


Ungrading and assignments done in groups, or which require high risks

For any assignment that requires students to take especially high risks, creatively or collaboratively, I have begun offering class time for students to develop goals for the assignment at the start. Students can then use those goals as a touchstone after the assignment for reflecting on the ways they stretched themselves, surprised themselves, and what they learned about themselves and the skills they are developing. I use this for “Reacting to the Past” assignments, group projects, and attempts at new genres (most recently, collectively written feminist manifestos, inspired by Penny A. Weiss’s Feminist Manifestos: A Global Documentary Reader).

Rationale: Students have appreciated the freedom to experiment and challenge themselves, knowing they will be able to assess their own growth, rather than waiting for outside judgment. I learn a lot about them, and about the effectiveness of the assignments.


Of course, this move toward ungrading is as much about us as instructors as it is about our students. In the closing pages of Ungrading, a quotation has stuck with me from Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know:What could our classrooms look like if we modeled learning rather than modeling already knowing?” (Ungrading 224). I’ll hold that challenge in mind as I hatch plans for my next classes. What ideas are you incubating over the summer?


Image Credit: Photograph of an egg taken by the author

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.