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.