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‘Ungrading’ doesn’t necessarily mean no grades. So what does it mean?

March 21, 2022

Associate Professor Emily Luxon talks about how ungrading works in her classroom and why it’s making her courses better.

A collage graphic showing a young woman with a thoughtful look on her face, jumping from step to step, as she works toward better and better ideas.
A collage graphic showing a young woman with a thoughtful look on her face, jumping from step to step, as she works toward better and better ideas.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Count “ungrading” among those academic terms with potentially confusing names. While it is true that sometimes ungrading means faculty are doing away with letter grades altogether, more often instructors are doing something less literal. Associate Professor of Political Science Emily Luxon, who’s been experimenting with ungrading practices for the past three semesters, likes to think about the upsides of ungrading as growing directly from one of traditional grading’s main downsides. “We actually have research showing that when you put a grade on something, even if you provide feedback with it, learning stops,” Luxon explains. “Students see the grade and see the assignment as done. So if the goal is to foster learning, and create a space where students can practice and learn from their mistakes, putting a final judgment on something ends that process.”

A headshot of Associate Professor Emily Luxon
A headshot of Associate Professor Emily Luxon
Associate Professor Emily Luxon

Seen this way, ungrading isn’t so much about the absence of letter grades as it is creating opportunities to keep the learning process going. In the context of a college classroom, there are lots of ways to do this, and many ungrading practices actually involve grades (or points), or at least eventually build up to them. One of Luxon’s go-to ungrading practices is giving students a chance to revise their work. When she gives students an assignment, she’ll lay out clear criteria for what it takes to satisfactorily complete it. If a student nails it on the first try, they’re good to go. But if what they turn in needs more work, she’ll give the student feedback for how to improve, and then the student is asked to resubmit it. (She likes Canvas’ voice memo function for feedback because it’s quicker than typing and conveys tone better, which is important when offering critique.) The idea is that if the student has to take the feedback and actually implement it in the form of a second or third try, you’re ensuring that they’re learning something from the process — not just reading the instructor’s comments (or not) and moving on. Notably, once a student completes the assignment, they get full credit whether it takes one try or three.

In a case like this, credit or points can take on some of the quantitative quality of a traditional letter grade, and cumulative points in the class do eventually factor into an overall letter grade in Luxon’s courses. But other ungrading practices she uses work on a different plane altogether. At several points throughout the semester, Luxon asks students to assess what they think their grade in the course should be — and support that assessment with evidence. So why do this? Luxon says this compels students to really take a clear, honest look at the quality and quantity of their work, which has the effect of revealing to both them and the instructor the amount of work they’re putting in and what it is they think they’re learning. Often, she says instructors complement this with their own assessment of the student’s work, which sets up an opportunity to talk about it. “A student might give themselves a ‘B,’ but I might see their work as an ‘A.’ Or they might say it’s an ‘A’ and I think it’s a ‘C.’ But then you have an opportunity to help a student see why it’s not an ‘A,’ at least not yet, and help them discover a pathway to get an ‘A.’ Or I can help them see more value in their work than they were giving themselves credit for.” Luxon says this example also reveals one of the other huge benefits of many ungrading practices: They tend to create learning experiences that transcend the course material. “Being able to give a realistic self-assessment of your work, and see whether something you’re doing is ‘done’ or isn’t quite there yet and still needs more work — that’s a really important skill that’s going to help somebody no matter what field they end up working in. And that’s not a skill you get to practice when you turn in an assignment, get a grade and that’s the end of it.”

Luxon says ungrading also leads to a lot of self-assessment among instructors. Because it shifts the emphasis away from judgment and toward the creation of more meaningful learning experiences, she’s constantly thinking about whether her assignments are designed to do what she wants them to do. For example, she’s mostly backed away from blue book exams — a staple in social science courses — because she felt like they were mostly measuring a student’s ability to “tell me what I said in my words.” For sure, there’s a time and a place for demonstrating that kind of technical language, and if that was the goal, she can design an assignment specifically for that. But often, she’s most interested in whether students are grasping the concepts. Now, she has more assignments tailored for that particular purpose. In one assignment, for instance, she asks students to go online and find an image or GIF that’s an example of the concept they’re talking about in class — and explain why. Not only is this kind of creative application of a concept a much more direct measure of comprehension, it’s also a less stressful, more fun and more memorable experience for the students — three things that have been shown to boost learning.

Luxon’s courses feature dozens of smaller assignments like this, and one concern she hears often from students is that the sheer number of assignments can feel overwhelming. She admits her courses look “daunting” in Canvas, given their packed calendars of deadlines and assignments. But when students realize that a lot of them take five or 10 minutes — or are smaller, more manageable pieces of what would otherwise be a larger, higher-stakes assignment — they tend to appreciate the approach. Most of the feedback she gets is positive. Some of the things she hears often from students is that they’re learning more, they don’t have to “guess” what she’s looking for, and they like being able to make revisions. They also say her classes are less stressful than their other courses.

Luxon likes her courses better too. She says they’re far from perfect, and she’s still making tweaks all the time. But she feels like her students are indeed learning more this way — and she has a better understanding of how and why that’s happening. “One thing I’ve noticed is that if I have a student who is struggling, in the past, I didn’t have many ways to help them,” Luxon says. “With ungrading, I feel like I have so many more ways to help them. I have had students fall behind early and then still finish the class with excellent work. In previous versions of the class, that just wouldn’t have happened. I think ungrading adds just enough flexibility so students can achieve success in ways they weren’t able to before.”

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Story by Lou Blouin. Interested in learning more about assessment strategies that go beyond traditional letter grades? Check out our story on a UM-Dearborn professor’s experiment with labor-based grading.

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