Mythbusters: Ungrading edition
Won't students always give themselves an A?
Early this year, one of my blog posts — My first experiment with ungrading: Final review — blew up a bit. As its title implies, it was a reflection on my first semester of attempting to “go gradeless” in an upper-level geometry class.
As my post got passed around the Internet, I started to hear some surprising pushback about ungrading. These were sometimes genuine misunderstandings (probably based on hearing only brief secondhand descriptions of what “ungrading” involves). Other times, they seemed to be deliberately disingenuous attempts to smear ungrading.1
Whatever their origins, today’s blog post is dedicated to busting those myths, grounded in my own experiences using ungrading in a junior-level Geometry course aimed at future teachers. While I’m a novice ungrader, I’ve already seen how these myths don’t stand up to real experience. You can find even more evidence in the chapters of Susan D. Blum’s Ungrading.
In what follows, the term “ungrading” does not refer to all types of alternative grading. Rather, I’m using “ungrading” to specifically mean the practice of not giving marks on individual assessments — only feedback. That feedback is usually paired with individual check-in meetings and written reflections from students during the semester. At the end of the course, students propose their own final grades and give supporting evidence in a final portfolio.
Myth #1: Ungrading means instructors don’t care whether students are right or wrong.
I’m a mathematician, and I’m used to people having strong but wildly incorrect opinions about my profession. But I was wholly unprepared for the idea that an ungraded math class meant that I’d stopped caring about whether the math my students did was actually correct. Yet, that’s one of the criticisms leveled at me in some of the articles that responded to my original blog post. It’s also what people seemed to latch onto in social media replies to those same articles (e.g.: “Prediction: Building collapse will be common in 50 years.”)
I think this myth is rooted in the idea that the only way to communicate whether something is right or wrong is through a grade. I mean, how else could somebody possibly communicate that “The overall flow of your argument is great, and you’ve done an excellent job of showing that the sides of the triangle are congruent, but your proof doesn’t justify the use of the SAS Axiom” other than by writing “8/10 good”?
Oh, right. You write exactly those words and don’t write the grade, because those words are feedback. They communicate subtleties of logic, communication, and reasoning far better than points ever could hope to do.
In an ungraded math class, correctness of student work matters just as much as it does in any other class. In fact, the more I’ve used all types of alternative grading, the better I’m able to tell what students do and don’t understand. I think that the process of crafting careful feedback, rather than attempting to decide on a grade, especially helps me to better remember my students’ progress and growth.2
Myth #2: If there are no grades, students won’t do the work.
This myth is probably rooted in the nearly universal experience of grades as extrinsic motivation. Traditional grades are, almost always, either a carrot or a stick: rewards to encourage good work, or punishment to penalize bad work, late work, laziness, or “slacking”.3 Instructors who have only experienced grades as a motivational carrot and/or stick may have a hard time imagining any other situation.
And if that’s how we treat grades, it shouldn’t be a surprise that students react in kind.
Philosophically, this myth gets at my whole reason for using ungrading: To remove the perverse incentives that are brought in by “playing the game” of grades.
In my experience, once grades are removed, students do complete assignments, and they work quite hard on them. If assignments are well-designed and clearly meaningful, students will still engage deeply with them. That’s important for all assignments in any class. But students also engage with assignments differently, because their goals are different. Without grades, I saw students using homework for its intended purpose: learning, and demonstrating that learning. It wasn’t something just to be done because the instructor said so. As a result, students were much more likely to ask for deadline extensions. Many told me explicitly that this was so they could do a better job and learn more. (I offered “free” extensions as long as students asked, and they also used these wisely.)
I also saw a difference in pre-class preparation assignments. My class was inquiry-based, so I asked students to attempt problems before class, and then volunteer to present and discuss their solutions during class time. I didn’t grade prep assignments at all, but students still kept up with them. Why? Because they knew that they would matter — a lot — during class. Without completing the prep assignments, they wouldn’t have any idea what their classmates were talking about. They couldn’t contribute as well to discussions, and couldn’t present or share without clearly showing that they hadn’t prepared.
In other words, students saw the inherent value in the assignment, and also felt social pressure to be able to take part meaningfully in class. So they did the work.
It’s also true that students are used to — and expect — extrinsic motivation from grades. Ungrading isn’t a magic switch that can erase years of experience. Students in my ungraded class certainly knew that there would be a final grade, and that they would need to complete homework and other items in order to be able to provide evidence for that final grade. But because there was less emphasis on interim grades, they were able to focus more on actual learning along the way to that final grade.
One last thought: Might this myth play out differently in different classes, or with different students? It’s possible. But from my experience, if students can see the purpose of an assignment — its meaning and relevance in terms of the class — then they will indeed do the work.
Myth #3: If you let students self-assess they will always give themselves an A.
This myth usually appears with the speaker saying “well if I were in your class, of course I’d give myself an A. Why wouldn’t I?” The implication being, of course, that students are in it for A’s and nothing else (see above about grades being extrinsic motivation).
The most effective response to this is actual evidence, and luckily, I have exactly that. Students in my class really did assign themselves a range of grades, and those grades matched with my own judgment about their level of learning and growth (which, as I pointed out in Myth #1, I could see much more clearly than in traditionally graded classes). My students assigned themselves grades ranging from A to C-. Nobody assigned themselves a D or F, but then again, nobody should have earned a D or F, based on their actual learning. All of that is pretty much the same as in previous “graded” semesters.
When you give helpful feedback and focus assessments entirely on engaging in feedback loops, students really do build a good sense of how much they have learned. In practice they are astonishingly honest about it. I’ve read final grade reflections where I might as well have been reading my own notes about what a student did and didn’t understand.
If anything, I found that my students tended to be too hard on themselves, sometimes saying things like “I understand this, but it took me a long time to get there, so I don’t think I really deserve an A.” It’s really, really hard to work against years of indoctrination that you have to learn fast to earn a good grade, and that if you struggle at any point, you’re not good enough. (I did allow myself the option to assign a higher grade in this situation.)
Perhaps this myth is due to the overly compressed shorthand “students give themselves grades.” That’s a key part of ungrading, but it’s not the whole story. How do students give themselves grades? It’s not a free-for-all. The ungraders that I know spend a great deal of time thinking about what grades mean and how to communicate this to students. They just don’t use points or percentages to do so. Perhaps the lack of familiar points and percentages is the origin of the related myth that ungraded classes have no “structure” and their grades are a free-for-all.
The most common way to communicate the meaning of grades is to write some sort of narrative description for what each final letter grade means, in terms of course content learned, skills built, and so on (in many ways, this is exactly parallel to the idea that it’s easier to communicate correctness via feedback than via points). The instructor may generate these descriptions, or they may develop them collaboratively with students. These narratives guide students and focus them on what matters in the class, and they’re also useful for instructors for exactly the same reasons. Check-in meetings and self-reflections also help “tune” a student’s understanding and bring it into alignment with the instructor’s or class’s goals.
In most cases, grades aren’t simply assigned based on a student’s “say so” either. Rather, students present a portfolio of work along with descriptions explaining how the work shows that they’ve met their desired grade. Again, this practice varies, but asking students to reflect on their learning and to support their conclusions with evidence is, in my experience, a central piece of ungrading and an excellent way to develop metacognitive skills.
So yes, students assign themselves grades — with guidance and calibration from the instructor, based on concrete artifacts demonstrating how they’ve reached those grades, and with a great deal of feedback that makes their progress clear in a way that points never can. It’s all a bit more subtle than the sound bite makes it seem.
No grading system, ungrading included, is a perfect fix for what ails education (although there is plenty of evidence that they do make a positive difference!). It is definitely possible to hold genuine concerns about ungrading, or alternative grading in general. I expect that some people may base their belief of the myths in this article on better reasons than the ones I’ve described. But in the end, these myths don’t hold up to actual experience, and they often seem to be used as a quick and convenient way to dismiss ungrading without requiring deeper thought.
I’ve heard enough such myths that I suspect this will be the first in a series of blog posts. What other myths have you heard about alternative grading (not just ungrading)? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can put together!
Thanks to many, many folks on Twitter who helped generate some of the ideas in this post.
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My blog post eventually got “reviewed” by a couple of websites published articles filled with gleeful hypothetical questions that mislead readers into assuming horrible things, without actually making factual statements. I’m not linking to those bad-faith hit jobs here, but the articles did inspire some of the myths in this post.
This gets at another ungrading myth: Ungraders are lazy instructors who just don’t want to grade. Good grief, no! Giving good feedback on assignments is hard work and takes just as much time as traditional grading — even though it is much more pleasant work, in my opinion.
Notice the implicit assumption that’s built into these ideas, about the default state of human life — one in which we try to get the most by doing the least. That really isn’t what I believe about people, so why would I want to imply that through my grading system?