Alternative Grading and Ungrading

person checking test papers

Our Cromwell Learning Community focused on alternative grading practices and principles (also called “ungrading”) will hold an initial conversation over lunch in Hodson dining hall on Wednesday, September 27, 11.45 am – 12.45 pm. Dylan Poulsen, who has been recognized for developing the alternative grading practice known as “specifications grading,” is a member of the group.

In addition to sharing thoughts, principles, and practices for grading and ungrading that we have developed in our own teaching, this learning community will also consider some recently published work on alternative grading in higher education. Two works in particular. Grading For Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices That Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, by David Clark and Robert Talbert. Undoing the Grade: Why We Grade, and How to Stop, by Jesse Stommel. We will initiate discussion with Stommel’s introduction (available online from his blog). This excerpt from that introduction frames what’s at issue for Stommel and some of the territory this learning community can explore. A primary goal for the group is to support further exploration of the research and principles related to alternative grading practices. Stommel is also offering virtual office hours in Fall 2023 for discussion of the book.

An Introduction to Ungrading (Jesse Stommel)

The word “ungrading” means raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply “not grading.” The word is a present participle, an ongoing process, not a static set of practices. Ungrading is a systemic critique, a series of conversations we have about grades, ideally drawing students into those conversations with the goal of engaging them as full agents in their own education. For me, there aren’t a discrete set of best practices for ungrading, because different students learn in different ways at different times with different teachers in different disciplines at different institutions. So, the work of teaching, the work of reimagining assessment, is necessarily idiosyncratic.

Most important to the work of ungrading is that we start by asking hard questions of our traditional approaches to assessment. There is a meaningful distinction to be made between grades and assessment. But at this moment, I’d say our approaches to assessment, our syllabi, the work we ask students to do, the shape of academic labour, is increasingly structured by grades. Rather than wondering at how we fit our pedagogies into systems that have become increasingly standardized and quantitative, we need to look askance at those systems, and find ways to dismantle barriers to teaching and learning.

Grades are inequitable. As they are increasingly centered at our institutions and within our educational technologies (like the learning management system), the inequities of grades are exacerbated, and our most marginalized students are further marginalized. This is one reason it’s imperative that we rethink our approaches to assessment. The work of teaching is also precarious. The majority of teachers in higher education work in contingent, adjunct, or sessional positions, but increasingly the work of all teachers at all levels of education is not adequately supported and is structurally devalued. And so, teachers are rightfully skeptical of approaches to assessment that increase our labor with little benefit to us or students. Teachers are rightfully skeptical of approaches to assessment that create a culture of suspicion and competition, while further fracturing the already strained relationships between students, between teachers, and between students and teachers.

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