November 4, 2021

Power of P/NP

Reading through the questions/comments from people signing up for the Ungrading EdCamp this week, I wanted to say something about this item in thread about “Everyday advocacy" for ungraders: How to challenge the systems that are in place in HE institutions to make the process possible.

The single best change I think we could make in higher ed institutions is to switch to far wider use of P/NP. We saw a lot of schools adopt temporary P/NP policies in the pandemic, and I have to admit that I was bitterly disappointed to see those P/NP policies rolled back, sometimes after just one semester (that's what happened at my school). Still, the fact that so many schools publicly acknowledge the viability and usefulness of P/NP grading was a real watershed moment, and I tried to document that as it was happening, bookmarking hundreds of school policies as they were posted online. I also did a presentation about pandemic P/NP grading which you can read here, right in that pandemic moment -- April 2020: Ungrading in the Pandemic; Ungrading in the Classroom.

At heart, the U.S. university degree system is essentially a P/NP system: students GRADUATE; they get their degree. They don't get an "A-class" degree or a "B-class degree" etc., and their GPA is not printed on the diploma. Although the GPA exerts a horrifying influence on many university procedures and is used by gatekeeping in so many wrong ways, the graduation process is basically a P/NP process, and that's what makes me hopeful that we could ultimately move towards an all-P/NP approach.

If there has to be a GPA for gatekeeping purposes, I would advocate for an approach where there are A-B-C letter grades (no pluses, no minuses), and no D, no F. If a student has not passed a course satisfactorily, there is simply no record, NR. I learned about this from Kristin Wobbe at Twitter; it's the system they use at Worcester Polytechnic. You can read more about that here: WPI Grade System.

That's basically the approach I used in my classes: very broad swathes of A-B-C (based on the students' own personal "need" for a particular grade), with me working hard to make sure everybody passed. I didn't care about the As, Bs, Cs at all; the students handled that on their own — my goal was just for everybody to pass. I would have preferred just P/NP (like during the pandemic semester of alternate grading), but at least A-B-C was not too horrible; I'm very fortunate that my school did not have pluses and minuses, so all I had to do was carve out the A-B-C territory and let the students set their own goals inside that simple framework.

Anyway, the pandemic gave me a kind of hope that I had never had before that we might see real advances in the use of P/NP at the institutional level. Yes, those hopes were dashed as schools quickly rescinded their pandemic policies (even though we are STILL IN A PANDEMIC)... but if it happened once, it can happen again, and P/NP grading is still on my ungrading wishlist.

You can see the other items on my ungrading wishlist here:

What's on your ungrading wishlist? I'm looking forward to learning what is going on in other classrooms and at other schools in the EdCamp this week!

November 3, 2021

Ungrading is FUN-damental

I'll be participating in the #Ungrading EdCamp starting tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 4), and David Buck shared a list of the questions and comments that people shared via a Google Form he had set up, and I'm going to write up some blog posts responding to ones that I really connected with, like this one:
I'd like to see more discussion about why #ungrading can be a highly effective way to reduce day-to-day stress for faculty and minimize potential conflicts with students. Most public discourse about ungrading focuses on the benefits to students, which is totally cool of course, but I want more instructors to know WHY ungrading can make their teaching more fun, as well as more effective.
I can really connect here because my primary reason for ungrading was selfish: I was pretty sure that ungrading would have big benefits for my students... but first of all, it was self-preservation. Having to put grades on student writing was literally making me sick. I agonized over every single grade because I honestly had no idea what grade I was supposed to put on a piece of writing! In grad school, I had taught foreign languages (Latin, Greek, Polish), and in those kinds of classes there would be quizzes, tests, and the arbitrary but not-so-agonizing percentages that you could use to assign grades.

But grading a piece of writing? How could I put some number or letter on a piece of writing?

If I put a B or a C on a piece of writing, the only message a student would take away from that was negative... and if I put an A on something, it was kind of like saying "all done; no more learning on the agenda here."

Those would be exactly the WRONG messages that I want to send to students, where I want to always build on the positive (while grades lower than A are mostly all about the negatives and a deficit approach), and always keep things moving forward... because as a writer, I know that all kinds of writing can be improved, assuming we have the luxury of time to keep working on it: no matter who the writer, no matter what the writing, there is always more that we can do and learn, A grade or not.

So, for my own sanity, I had to stop putting grades on student writing in order to focus on feedback instead. (Before "ungrading" became a thing, I would sometimes call this approach all-feedback-no-grades.) With some help and ideas from students, I came up with a system so that they could determine very easily a final grade for me to submit at the end of the semester... and the students' totally positive response to ungrading over the years made me very happy of course; you can see their ungrading comments on end-of-course evaluations here.

But even if their reaction to ungrading had just been ambivalent instead of enthusiastic, that would have been okay because I started ungrading for me, so that I could actually be a teacher instead of a judge (or, worse, a cop).

If you're curious about the details, you can read more here:

I'm old enough to have grown up with RIF: Reading is Fundamental, so I'll adapt that to say Ungrading is FUN-damental. I want to be having fun together with the students. Ungrading is what makes that possible.