Jan 10Liked by David Clark, Jayme Dyer

Love this! And it couldn't have been more timely, as I am giving a workshop tomorrow entitled "Ungrading for Not Beginners: Is This as Great as I Thought?" (which follows "Ungrading for Beginners: The Joys of Doing Everything Wrong" 30 minutes before it.)

It's funny—every time I am interviewed about ungrading, I get asked some variation of "And can you now explain how ungrading reduces inequities in the classroom." And I always respond, "No." Which produces awkward silence. But just like ungrading is helping us to wrestle with untested assumptions about traditional grading, whatever is beyond ungrading has to help us do the same with ungrading. And assuming that ungrading does anything for equity at this point in the life cycle of the tool is just that, an assumption.

I *hope* the thing we're (re)learning from all of this is that there is no golden ticket or magic pill in teaching, no matter how hard we look for one. It will never not be a process of trying, reflection, refining, and trying again, no matter what we label our various machinations.

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Jan 8Liked by Robert Talbert, David Clark, Jayme Dyer

This is such important and thoughtful information--thank you, Jayme. It's a definite issue that many of us are drawn to ungrading BECAUSE of equity issues, but new equity issues can certainly emerge. Being mindful of the full picture is crucial!

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This is a very important reflection, thank you. It’s certainly true that grades play an oversized role in undergraduate students’ lives because of the preponderant role of grades in establishing perceived merit (with emphasis on “perceived”) for a wide variety of opportunities. Given the need for faculty to provide final grades, I absolutely agree that collaborative grading is perilous because students who have been conditioned to think that they are inherently less qualified or accomplished (your excellent example of the student who characterized herself as a “B student”) will often underestimate their accomplishments and grade themselves lower than students who have experienced more privileged status / encouragement. I agree (and I recall colleagues who had started collaborative grading before me alerting me to this) that students who are BIPOC, women, disabled, poor, and/or some intersection of historically marginalized identities will often “grade themselves down” unfairly because their perception of their own strengths has been stifled.

I appreciate your extensive discussion of other equitable approaches to assessment and I know I’ll learn from them. However, while I don’t think any of us can truly evade our implicit biases, I do think there are ways to minimize negative consequences of students’ tendency to “downgrade” themselves, though I think they require embracing the idea that grades are never an objective or equitable measure instrument and as a “necessary evil” they always deserve to be approached with harm mitigation strategies.

How explicitly an instructor might do that certainly depends on their privilege and power in the institution. Some of us can “get away” with giving every student who completes a minimal amount of work in the class an “A”, as long as we’re comfortable with their ability to succeed in subsequent classes for which our course is a prerequisite. More subtle is the choice to “round up” by default when we as a faculty member are on the fence, and/or if we perceive that the accomplishments that we have objectively perceived in a student’s work are being minimized when the student self-reports. This latter approach requires there to be a “paper trail” of student work that the instructor has engaged with and on which they have provided feedback, etc — something in my view entirely compatible with student self-assessment and/or collaborative assessment.

This is not to minimize in any way your observations and solutions — rather to propose that if grades are a problem, finding a way to minimize the problem should not exclude considering grades inherently flawed and therefore working in ways that might be perceived as “grade inflation” or in any case assigning the high grades students need to succeed — as long as the instructor has the privilege and authority not to face disciplinary action by an academic hierarchy that regrettably continues to depend on the construct of grade-based meritocracy.

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Thoughtful article.

I would argue the implicit bias present in ungraded courses is also present in graded courses ... and shouldn't be a reason NOT to ungrade!

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Speaking as a community college writing professor, I appreciate the author's concern with equity and efforts to employ fairer grading practices (specifically with regard to multiple grading systems).

That being said, I find myself differing both with the arguments offered and the conclusions reached. Given the seriousness of the author's claims, I feel compelled to respond.

According to the author, "there is an inherent problem to determining final course grades holistically," that is, without assigning intermediate grades, because grades determined in this way are "liable to be influenced by implicit bias." Through the influence of this bias, the author argues, ungrading "perpetuate[s] systemic inequities" in a way that is ethically unsupportable, such that she "cannot and will not do it any longer."

In my view, there are several problems with this argument.

1. For the author's claims to have force, there would need to be a compelling argument that assigning intermediate grades significantly reduces the impact of implicit bias relative to non-grading alternatives.

The problem is that no such argument is made. There's no serious discussion of the non-grading alternatives to intermediate grading, which are dismissed as if they amounted to little more than surfing on vibes. And there's no serious discussion of how the practice of assigning intermediate grades mitigates the problem of implicit bias. It's simply presumed that it does, or at least, that implicit bias is not a problem for grading in the same way that it's a problem for ungrading. Critiques of the assumptions at work here may be found elsewhere on this site.

2. The author's account of bias focuses almost exclusively on *implicit* bias, which is understood to be:

(a) "by its very nature, not something instructors are actively aware of"

(b) something that "cannot be erased, or consciously changed"

(c) something that is personal in nature: "we all have it (I do! you do!)"

(d) something that is ethically determinative: "the equitable – the ethical – thing to do is avoid situations where your implicit bias can 'act out' in the world by perpetuating systemic inequities"

The problem is that implicit bias is only one form of bias. While it is a significant problem, making it the exclusive focus of analysis comes with significant costs to our understanding, particularly if it leads us to neglect

(a) meaningful possibilities for awareness and action

(b) problems of structural as opposed to personal bias

(c) the ethical complexities of our work as teachers

This brings me to the crux of my argument.

3. As I have noted, the author identifies implicit bias as something that is ethically determinative, such that "the equitable – the ethical – thing to do is avoid situations where your implicit bias can 'act out' in the world by perpetuating systemic inequities."

What would this avoidance entail? As the author suggests, implicit bias potentially comes into play in any situation where (a) student work is assessed "non-anonymously," and (b) assessment involves a "judgment call," or subjective evaluation. If we accept the author's argument, it would be our ethical responsibility to avoid such situations.

But the problem is that such an avoidance would come at a heavy cost. The more we prioritize anonymity, the less space we leave for personal and inter-personal engagement, which are necessarily non-anonymous. The more we prioritize objectivity (or "objectivity"), the less space we leave for higher-order thinking, which necessarily involves judgment calls. In short, the more we avoid situations where implicit bias comes into play, the less space we leave for things that we know are essential to meaningful, effective, *and* equitable education.

This is where the ethical complexity comes in. While recognizing the problem of implicit bias, we need to understand that the space where implicit bias comes into play is the same space where everything we have been learning about learning requires us to go. We can't *avoid* that space without sacrificing quality *and* equity. (At best, avoidance effectively involves trading personal implicit bias for the structural biases of a depersonalized education system, and that's seldom a trade that works out well.) Instead, we need to enter that space responsibly - and among other things, that involves treating it as a space of learning for ourselves as well as for our students.

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Have you tried indexing students' self-evaluation to a course rubric aligned with your learning outcomes and practicing that work through exercises in assessment norming? How did that work out for you?

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