Ungrading

October 17, 2022

Curriculum Vitae

What happens when a professor stops putting grades on her students’ papers?
by Elisabeth Gruner, professor of English

I no longer grade my students’ work — and I wish I had stopped sooner.

I

’ve been teaching college English for more than 30 years. Four years ago, I stopped putting grades on written work, and it has transformed my teaching and my students’ learning. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

Starting in elementary school, teachers rate student work — sometimes with stars and checkmarks, sometimes with actual grades. Usually by middle school, when most students are about 11, a system of grading is firmly in place. In the U.S., the most common system is an A for superior work, through F for failure, with E almost always skipped.

This system was widely adopted only in the 1940s, and even now, some schools, colleges and universities use other means of assessing students. But the practice of grading and ranking students is so widespread as to seem necessary, even though many researchers say it is highly inequitable. For example, students who come into a course with little prior knowledge earn lower grades at the start, which means they get a lower final average, even if they ultimately master the material. Grades have other problems: They are demotivating, they don’t actually measure learning and they increase students’ stress.

During the pandemic, many instructors and even whole institutions offered pass/fail options or mandated pass/fail grading. They did so both to reduce the stress of remote education and because they saw that the emergency, disruptive to everyone, was disproportionately challenging for students of color. Many, however, later resumed grading, not acknowledging the ways that traditional assessments can both perpetuate inequity and impede learning.

I started my journey toward what’s called “ungrading” before the pandemic. In continuing it throughout, I have seen the effects, which are like those observed by other researchers in the field.

Three reasons

I stopped putting grades on written work for three related reasons — all of which other professors have also cited as concerns.

First, I wanted my students to focus on the feedback I provided on their writing. I had a sense, since backed up by research, that when I put a grade on a piece of writing, students focused solely on that. Removing the grade forced students to pay attention to my comments.

Second, I was concerned with equity. For almost 10 years I have been studying inclusive pedagogy, which focuses on ensuring that all students have the resources they need to learn. My studies confirmed my sense that sometimes what I was really grading was a student’s background. Students with educational privilege came into my classroom already prepared to write A or B papers, while others often had not had the instruction that would enable them to do so. The 14 weeks they spent in my class could not make up for the years of educational privilege their peers had enjoyed.

Third, and I admit this is selfish: I hate grading. I love teaching, though, and giving students feedback is teaching. I am happy to do it. Freed from the tyranny of determining a grade, I wrote meaningful comments, suggested improvements, asked questions, and entered into a dialogue with my students that felt more productive — that felt, in short, more like an extension of the classroom.

It’s called ‘ungrading’

The practice that I adopted is not new, and it’s not my own. It’s called “ungrading,” though that’s not entirely accurate. At the end of the semester, I do have to give students grades, as required by the university.

But I do not grade individual assignments. Instead, I give students extensive feedback and ample opportunity to revise.

At the end of the semester, they submit a portfolio of revised work, along with an essay reflecting on and evaluating their learning. Like most people who ungrade, I reserve the right to change the grade that students assign themselves in that evaluation. But I rarely do, and when I do, I raise grades almost as often as I lower them.

I asked students, 'What do you want to learn? Why are you here?'
headshot of Elisabeth Gruner
Elisabeth Gruner

Professor of English

The first class I ungraded was incredulous. After I explained the theory and the method, they peppered me with many of the questions that other ungraders have also faced. “If we ask you, will you tell us what grade we have on a paper?” No, I answered, because I really won’t have put a grade on it. “If we decide halfway through the semester that we’re done revising something, will you grade it then?” No again, because I’m grading an entire portfolio, not individual pieces. “Will you tell me where I stand?” My comments on your work, and our conferences, should give you a good sense of how you’re progressing in the class.

As for motivation, I asked them, “What do you want to learn? Why are you here?” Like most college professors, I teach classes across the curriculum, but I started my ungrading journey in classes that students were taking to fulfill basic graduation requirements. They were stopped short by the question. They wanted a good grade, and fair enough: That is the currency of the institution.

As we talked, though, we uncovered other motivations. Some took my children’s literature class because they thought it would be a fun or easy way to fulfill the requirement. They confessed, sometimes reluctantly, to anxieties about reading, about writing. They weren’t confident in their skills, didn’t think they could improve. These were exactly the students I was hoping to reach. Without putting grades on their work, I hoped — like my fellow ungrader Heather Miceli, who teaches general science courses to college students — that these less confident students would see that they could improve, could develop their skills, and meet their own goals.

In my more advanced courses, students had an easier time identifying content-related goals, but I have also found surprisingly similar results in their reflections: They, too, want to overcome anxieties about speaking in class, concerns that they aren’t as prepared as their classmates, fears that they can’t keep up.

How did it go?

That first semester, students participated in class, did the readings, and wrote their papers. I read and commented on them, and if they chose to, they revised — as often as they wanted.

At the end of the semester, when they submitted portfolios of revised work, their reflections on the process and assessments of their learning tracked closely with my own. Most recognized their growth, and I concurred. One student, a senior, thanked me for treating them like adults. As for my interest in equity, I found that students who were less well prepared did indeed develop their skills; their growth was substantial, and both they and I recognized it.

The system takes time to implement, and I’ve revised it over the years. When I began, I was inexperienced at coaching students to develop their own goals for the course, at helping them to reflect, and at guiding them to think about assessment in terms of their own development rather than following a rubric. And I’ve found that students need time to reflect on their own goals for the class at the outset, at a midpoint, and again at the end of the semester so they can actually see how they’ve developed. They need encouragement to revise their work as well — my comments help, but so do pointed reminders that the process of learning involves revision, and the course is set up to enable it.

Students in introductory classes require a bit more direction in this work than advanced students, but most eventually take the opportunity to revise and reflect. Now, I see students from all backgrounds recognizing their own growth, whatever their starting point. They benefit from my coaching, but perhaps even more from the freedom to decide for themselves what really matters in their reading and writing. And I benefit too, from the opportunity to help them learn and grow without the tyranny of the grade.

This essay was originally published by the nonprofit independent news organization The Conversation. It was distributed by the Associated Press and appeared in more than 40 outlets, including PBS, Channel News Asia, and GHB News in Boston. 

The Conversation

A conversation with Elisabeth Gruner about her essay, her teaching, and how former students help shape her syllabus

Interview by Sunni Brown, GC’18

 

What feedback did you receive for your article on ungrading? Was it what you expected?

I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. I got a couple of dozen direct emails, over 50 comments on the site, requests to do podcasts and interviews, and dozens of reprints. For a month or so, it seemed like it was all I talked about.

Most of the feedback was very positive. I did get a few responses from people who clearly either hadn’t read the piece or were already primed to have a negative response, the ones that blamed me for bridges falling down or the decline of Western civilization, that sort of thing, but overall the feedback was very positive.

A stylized photo of professor Elisabeth Gruner in conversation with a student.
Elisabeth Gruner, right, in conversation with a student.

Did you get any feedback you didn’t expect?

The ones that surprised and touched me were comments from folks who said they wished they had been offered the option to be ungraded when they were in school or that they thought their kids would have done better in school if they had been ungraded. Those broke my heart a little because it really did demonstrate to me how many people are harmed by the practices we take for granted as normal. We don’t mean to do harm, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

I also recently picked up a letter — remember those? — from my campus mailbox from someone who has done research on teens and responsibility for 30 years. She wrote to endorse my work and encourage me to continue it. So that was a really nice and surprising bit of feedback as well.

Could you unpack the line “What I was really grading was a student’s background”?

Students come into classes with widely varying backgrounds, and those backgrounds can determine how “well” they do in the class. A student from a well-resourced high school has probably read more and written more than one from a less well-resourced high school and is likely to write a more fluent, more “professional”-looking paper right out of the gate. Or they may already have read some of the material I’m teaching. It’s inevitable that those experiences affect a student’s ability to succeed in a course. But I’d really like to know what they learn in the course — how they develop as a reader and a writer, what new awareness they’ve gained, how they’ve made progress on their goals — regardless of what they knew coming in.

Another way of saying this is to say that I have a lot of students who say, “I’m not good at English,” or, “I’m not a good writer.” I want them to be able to leave all that behind in my class and not worry about some label that they are bringing with them from the past.

Why does writing lend itself to this ungrading approach? Could it be replicated in other subject areas?

Writing obviously lends itself to this approach because revision is so central to the writing process. That said, most courses teach material that can best be learned iteratively, by repetition and revision.

Ungrading is part of a portfolio of alternative assessment practices that a lot of folks are using. Other related practices include specifications grading, contract grading, and mastery grading, all of which, like ungrading, focus far more on the student mastering the material or meeting certain specified outcomes on their own time rather than on high-stakes testing at a single point in the semester. I know a lot of folks in STEM disciplines are exploring those practices because, again, the point is helping the students learn the material rather than focusing on their performance on exams or tests and then moving on, no matter what the outcome of the test.

This approach emphasizes revising. What do students learn from that process?

Ideally, of course, they learn the material by engaging with it repeatedly. So the material could be content area knowledge — who wrote what when, which literary techniques are characteristic of a period, how are sonnets constructed, etc. — as well as the expression of that content area knowledge in a well-organized, clearly written analysis — or a creative response to it. I assign different kinds of writing in different situations. But in any case, the opportunity to revise is always an opportunity to rethink, to reengage, to explore more deeply.

That said, not all students revise everything, and that’s OK. It’s up to them to decide what work will benefit from revision. Sometimes they are better off focusing on the next assignment and taking the feedback they’ve received on one piece and applying it to the next. That’s their decision.

I often felt that there was a disconnect between what I was learning and the grades I received.

Could you talk a bit about your own experience being graded as a student and if that has influenced your approach to your own teaching?

Honestly, like a lot of professors, I was a pretty good student, but I often felt that there was a disconnect between what I was learning and the grades I received. I learned more when I got more feedback, but I rarely got feedback when I got good grades — and I knew my work could still use improvement. But I think my professors thought that my good grades didn’t require justification, so they just didn’t write much — or anything, sometimes. I also had friends who were really smart and worked really hard whose grades didn’t always reflect that, and I found that frustrating — and unfair.

All of my best learning experiences as an adult have been in voluntary situations where I wasn’t graded, and I think I realized that there were elements of those experiences that I could transfer to the undergraduate experience.

What are some of the driving factors for you as you craft a class — writing the syllabi, etc.?

Mostly, I want to keep things interesting. I love reading and writing, and I think they have great value for students — even, and maybe especially, for students who aren’t majoring in English. So I try to keep things engaging and clear and supportive. I often have specific former students in mind when I write my syllabi. I remember books they responded well to or papers they particularly enjoyed or problems they had that I didn’t anticipate and how I could have done better for them, and I try to craft a syllabus to accommodate as many of those stories, those memories, as I can.

I also encounter new texts, new techniques — for example, over the summer, I attended two conferences and a workshop, and I learned new things at each of them that I’d like to bring into my classes and try out. I’ve talked to colleagues at other institutions, heard about things that they’ve done, and considered how I might try them. For quite a while now, I’ve been particularly focused on inclusion — trying to make sure that all of my students feel included in my classroom, can see themselves in the material I teach and the assignments I craft. I don’t always get there, but I think the more I work at that, the better I do, and ungrading has been part of that journey.

It sounds like you are committed to reexamining and even reinventing your approaches on a frequent basis. What drives you to do that?

I have a very short attention span. Seriously, one of my favorite things about teaching at the University of Richmond has been the opportunity to reinvent myself over and over without having to look for a new job. It is an immense privilege, and I’m so grateful for it. I have loved the opportunity to explore new things, to experiment, to invent new courses (as well as new approaches to old ones), and to work with a student body and a faculty that is increasingly diverse and engaged. I am just trying to keep up.