Ungrading to Assuage Student Anxiety

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Whether you are teaching in person or online, we are all witnessing the social-emotional cost of students trudging through the 18th month of the pandemic. In one-on-one meetings with all my first-semester students, I was struck by how many described themselves as feeling “socially anxious,” having “anxiety,” or just feeling overwhelmed and “awkward” about being around so many other humans every day. It takes a lot of energy, for sure. As an introvert who works hard to turn on extrovert energy for the class period (I am sure I am not alone), I empathize. Even students who seem fluent in the classroom have confessed to being maxed out by the human tasks of getting dressed, showing up to class, and turning in assignments, over and over. 

My small data set of anxious students jibes with larger studies that show high levels of social anxiety in our student populations. For incoming students who have limped through their final semesters of high school online, the leap to college-level expectations might be especially anxiety-producing. Rather than feeling we must push students to “get up to speed” for college learning, we might honor students’ rawness—and our own (after all, we’re also 18 months into this pandemic slog)—by refocusing on how we learn, and the time and risks it can take to stretch as writers.

For these reasons, I have lingered over Miriam Moore’s description of respecting the necessary slowness of the writing process, and sharing the experience with her students of being “stuck.” I also appreciate Andrea Lunsford’s recommendation for slowing down to set affirmations about our writing intentions. Rather than pretending we are back to “before times,” we might do well to question our previous expectations of student “performance,” and reexamine what learning means in our newly challenging context.

I have written before about the “Ungrading” movement and the social-justice shift it requires of instructors to value learning over grading in our classrooms. The “game” of schooling (meeting deadlines or being punished, following rules exactly or being punished), which fell apart for many students during the pandemic, is perhaps one we should stop playing forever. After all, so many of those rules are out of step with how scholars actually work. Consider how many manuscripts are submitted late, or articles are given feedback for a “revise and resubmit.” What might our courses look like if we offered students the grace we receive as scholars?

On my campus, our “Ungrading” faculty discussion group is about to start back up. I encourage you to start one on your campus, too. You might begin by reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards for some provocative theoretical grounding. Or, you might dive right into an anthology like Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum. Even a small step, such as allowing students to re-submit assignments after receiving feedback, can help your students focus on their own learning and growth, and might assuage some of their anxiety about this semester.

What is working for you as you acknowledge your students’ pandemic anxiety and help them focus on their learning? If the rich discussion on our campus and in Bits posts is any indication, we can be one another’s best allies as we turn another challenging semester into an opportunity for pedagogical innovation.


Image Credit: Photograph of a laptop and textbook on an outdoor table taken by the author, April Lidinsky

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.