Undo the harm done by grading
Both teachers and students are very aware of how harmful grades can be. Just ask students, and they will tell you: grades are stressful, grades are unfair, etc. Teachers also suffer from the stress of grading and its inherent unfairness. Nobody really likes grades, but we’ve always done it that way, right?
Well, just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean we have to keep on doing it! Over the past two decades, an “ungrading” movement has taken shape among K-12 and college educators who are looking for ways to stop putting grades on student work, shifting from number/letter grades towards supportive feedback that focuses on student learning. Yes, most of us still have to turn in a final grade for each student at the end of each term, but it’s possible to generate those final grades without putting grades on each assignment.
Completion-based grading: one way to ungrade
The specific ungrading approach that I used in my classes for 20+ years was “completion-based grading” where students earned points for each assignment they completed, based on specific, objective criteria for the assignment (length, contents, formatting, due date, etc.). When each item on the list was checked off, the assignment was complete, and the student received credit for their work.
If the assignment was something small, such as posting comments at the discussion board, then the student moved right on to the next assignment. But for something more substantial, such as the weekly work they did on their semester-long projects, I would then provide detailed feedback, and students would also receive feedback from their peers. That feedback then became the basis for a follow-up revision assignment, which likewise had its own specific, objective criteria for completion. By the end of the semester, students had projects they could be truly proud of based on learning and growing week by week; you can see their projects online here.
As for the end-of-semester grade, it was based on the total points that the students had accumulated, and they could track their progress week by week to make sure they were on target for the final grade they wanted to achieve.
Using the LMS (VLE) for work completion
You can use the Learning Management System (a.k.a. Virtual Learning Environment) so that the students are able to keep track of the work that they complete on their own, allowing you to focus all your time on providing the feedback. Just create a “quiz” for each assignment with a single true-false question (“I completed the assignment”) containing the checklist for that assignment. When the student answers “true” (confirming that the checklist is complete), that answer is recognized as correct, and the points go into the Gradebook automatically. I successfully used this approach, which I called “Gradebook Declarations,” in three different LMSes at my school over two decades — Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and Canvas.
For more details about the Declaration system and the calculation of final grades, see the chapter that I contributed to Susan Blum’s recent book, Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). My chapter is online at Ungrading.LauraGibbs.net.
Feedback, not grades, are what lead to growth
When I presented the “ungrading” system to students in the first week of class, I explained the emphasis on feedback, not grades, in the context of Carol Dweck’s research into growth mindset. I then reinforced those ideas with LOLcat graphics that I created — “growth mindset cats” and “feedback cats” — interwoven throughout the course using randomizers in the class announcements and other course content. You can see the randomizer in action here. Just refresh that announcements page to see a growth mindset cat displayed at random.
Embrace challenges; link to blog post.
What students say
For me, the most important measure of ungrading success was the students’ response, and over 20 years of teaching without grades, the students’ response was wholeheartedly positive. Here are just a few comments from my students as reported in the official end-of-semester course evaluations:
- The class was graded in a way that emphasized what we learned, rather than a letter grade.
- I really like the emphasis on learning the material and doing your best, rather than just trying to get the work done so you get a certain letter grade.
- The grading style of the course is perfect for the content. You get the grade you deserve, and working harder means a better grade.
- I wish more courses were like this. It allowed me to be less stressed about getting a good grade and instead I was able to put more energy into learning and working hard to create quality content.
- I liked the ability for students to work according to what grade they want to achieve, and to keep close track of their progress throughout the course.
- Completion based grading really helped give freedom for students to try new things in their writing without worrying about how it will affect their grade.
- Emphasis on growth mindset made me want to do the work for the class and really get something out of it.
- The course pushed me to learn rather than meet a grade.
- It was so nice to have certainty about what my grade would be. This course was ideal in that you get out of it what you put into it. If you work hard and put the effort in, you’ll get the grade you want.
- Grades were entirely based on completion, so long as you put in the work you didn’t have to stress about grades.
- There was an emphasis on learning the course material rather than worrying about grades.
- We could focus more on the stories and our writings more than our grade.
- I loved how the grading was based on whether or not you did the work thoroughly, so as long as you were willing to work, you could get a good grade.
Connect with the ungrading community
I hope that the students’ endorsement of completion-based grading will have made you curious to learn more, and the best way to do that is by connecting with other educators who use ungrading in their classes. The hashtag #ungrading at Twitter is always active, and you can also connect with the TG2 Teachers Going Gradeless network at TeachersGoingGradeless.com ….
… along with the Human Restoration Project at HumanRestorationProject.org.
You’ll find that there are many different approaches to ungrading, with the completion-based approach being just one possible option. Each teacher crafts their own ungrading approach based on their students’ needs and their institutional context, so you’ll find varieties of completion-based grading and the related approach called contract grading, along with specifications grading, conference-based grading, and more. That variety can be intimidating, but it’s only natural: the variety of approaches reflects the variety of educational situations, with no one-size-fits-all solutions. So, for both teachers and students, ungrading is an opportunity to grow and learn from one another… and there’s no limit to the learning we can do together! We don’t need grades to learn, but we do need each other. And yes, there’s a growth mindset cat about that too: Learn, and then share what you learned.
I’m always glad to brainstorm about ungrading approaches, and you can find me at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady (Online Course Lady). Thanks for reading!
Blum, S. D., (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.
Eodice M., Lerner N., & Geller A. E. (2016). The meaningful writing project: Learning, teaching, and writing in higher education. Utah State University Press.
Kohn A. (2018). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (s5th anniversary ed.). Houghton Mifflin.
Sackstein S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school. Times 10 Publications.
Laura Gibbs (Ph.D.) recently retired from 20+ years of teaching courses in mythology and folklore at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of the Creative-Commons-licensed “Tiny Tales” folktale book series, along with folktale scripts for readers theater, which are available free online at LauraGibbs.net.