Ungrading: Another Essential Unsettling of Conventions

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With an eye toward designing more equitable fall courses, I am co-leading a discussion with justice-minded colleagues on Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), a collection edited by linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Blum.

The pandemic woke up many instructors to the equity problems embedded in many educational conventions, with grading as exhibit A. Even pre-pandemic, if you asked any instructor what they dislike about our work, “grading” would be the top response. So why do we keep hitting ourselves in the head with this same conventional hammer, when research shows it undermines student learning?

Andrea Lunsford illuminates the problem of defaulting to “conventions” when we teach students about “loosely agreed upon ways of doing things with words across the disciplines.” 

In place of the norming language of “conventions,” which reinforces ideologies we would do well to interrogate, Lunsford draws on Anne Ruggles Gere’s work to invite instructors instead to teach “critical language awareness.” This approach empowers students to consider the effects of their linguistic decisions.

In that same spirit, let’s reconsider the convention of grading. Given the vast body of evidence put forth in Ungrading that indicates grading actively harms student learning by enforcing uniformity, not offering meaningful information about student progress, and not motivating students to take the risks required to learn (Ungrading 55), why should we persist? If the pandemic brought to the fore aspects of grading you have found unsettling (such as assessing student participation, progress, and meaningful engagement), this summer might be a good time for a pedagogical reset.

The contributors to Ungrading recognize the challenge of incorporating ungrading methods into the baked-in sorting mechanisms of most of our institutions. I’ll write in my next post about the methods I am already using and how I plan to expand them. For now, I want to linger a bit longer on the foundational work of Alfie Kohn, who wrote the Forward to Ungrading, and whose insights helped launch the discussion of the active harm of grades. After all, it is one thing to consider grading a pain, and quite another to take in the enormity of the way the carrots and sticks of grading perpetuate inequalities, call our curriculum into question, and require us to reconsider every aspect of the conventions of assessment and power in the classroom (Ungrading xviii).

I am happy that we include Kohn’s ground-shaking work in the 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing, since student voices should be essential to discussions about what and how we learn, as well as how that learning is valued. While Kohn’s work in Ungrading is directed to instructors, his provocative short piece that we include in our book, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?,” is written for the broader public. Students find in Kohn’s voice a spark to light a crackling conversation about the unfairness and arbitrariness (not to mention the demoralizing stress) in their long histories of being graded. Kohn’s questions threaten to burn away the foundations of our educational systems: What are the ripple effects of considering excellence to be a scarce commodity? What collaborative and creative possibilities are lost when we pit students against one another? How might other models cultivate democracy?

How far down the road of “ungrading” have you gone? I will share more of my journey, and welcome your traveling tales, in my next post.


Image Credit: Photograph of Ungrading 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.