Ungrading in Crop Ecology
Reflecting on a first attempt at going gradeless
Today’s guest post is from Victoria Bhavsar, who is the full-time director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at California State Polytechnic University Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona or CPP). CPP is a member of the California State University, and is a Hispanic-serving institution with a primarily undergraduate student body of around 23,000. Her original training was in forage & livestock systems, with a doctorate in soil science. She notes that “it’s always a pleasure and privilege when I’m asked to teach in CPP’s Plant Science department.” She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I believe that the joy of learning, the freedom to grow, and the benefits of education are basic human rights at a university. I want every aspect of our class to uphold these values.”
“Traditional grading does not give joy, offer freedom, or confer much benefit. It is a tool of the Industrial Revolution and we should have better systems by now.”
That’s part of the pitch I made to the students in PLT 4010 Crop Ecology at Cal Poly Pomona in Spring 2023.
Here’s the rest of the pitch:
One of the most significant professional skills you can develop is the ability to assess and evaluate your own work, and to talk to your boss about it. In this class, you'll learn to assess yourself and have a lot of chances to talk to me about how it’s going.
For some years, I’d tried to apply specifications grading to my other class (PLT 2310 Basic Soil Science). Crop Ecology, which I’d never taught before, was an advanced capstone-style class with only 12 students, meeting once a week. I pounced on this opportunity to try “ungrading” as I understood it with what felt like a manageable class situation.
This blog post will describe my system and assignments, how it all turned out, if I think I kept the promises to my students, and what improvements I plan for Spring 2024.
The necessary evils of final grades were conferred by considering the students’ entire body of work throughout the semester, with delineations:
A broad range of more than meeting minimum expectations but not outstanding: B
Meeting minimum expectations: C
Not meeting minimum expectations: D or F
The body of work considered included:
Active, consistent, timely preparation for class, including guided notes on our substantial readings
Active and consistent participation in class
Two major projects: A systems analysis project and a research plan to address a crop ecology question or a management plan to address a crop ecology problem
I had also planned to consider two smaller writing and discussion projects, but these morphed into informal activities wrapped into preparation and participation.
One big problem to mention up front is that the two major projects were meant to have milestone deadlines that allowed for peer feedback and provided a manageable workload. In fact, I allowed total flexibility in project deadlines. This resulted in most students missing every deadline, therefore missing out on feedback and having a big stressful workload at the end (which I’d specifically wanted to avoid!).
The syllabus: Plans vs. Reality
The syllabus said: Each project or aspect of the course that contributes to the overall course grade will have clear standards of quality for success.
What happened: I tried to articulate standards, especially for the major projects. See more about those projects below. However, I wasn't clear enough in general and especially not clear enough for the projects. We had a lot of in-class and individual conversations about “what I wanted.”
The syllabus said: Both your peers and I will give feedback on your work as you progress through your major projects. You’ll have plenty of chances to revise and improve. I will let you know very directly if I have concerns about your work or your contributions to the course.
What happened: They got plenty of feedback from me, but did not get or give peer feedback on the projects because of the deadline issue; we just didn’t have class time available when submissions came in 2-3 weeks later than planned. In addition, students who were very late (4-5 weeks!) in submitting drafts did not have time to revise in response to my feedback.
Self-grading on the projects
The syllabus said: When the project is finished, you will use the standards to give yourself a grade on the project. If I disagree, I'll tell you.
What happened: Students did not have a chance to give themselves a grade on their projects, in part due to lack of clarity and in part to missing the project milestone deadlines.
The syllabus said: Over the semester, you will accumulate a body of work and contributions. You'll make an argument for your final grade, based on evidence from your work and the standards for success. You and I will meet individually to come to agreement on your final grade. Am I worried that everyone will just give themselves an A because they can? No. I expect that everyone will EARN the grade they want, and if that's an A for everyone, great!
What happened: The idea of “arguing” for their final grade was initially stressful, as students needed time and convincing to understand “argue” as “explain or advocate.” Eventually most students relaxed, enjoyed not worrying about accumulating points, were surprised to learn that I evaluated them more positively than they did themselves, and we had no trouble coming to agreement.
Our final conversations occurred the week after final exam week. At that time, I offered every student the opportunity to do a final revise-and-resubmit if they wanted a higher grade; we’d agree on a hard deadline in the next few days and if necessary I would submit a change of grade form. Only one student assessed her projects and class contributions as better than I did, but ultimately did not revise-and-resubmit because she was graduating. Another student had procrastinated so badly throughout the semester that his final projects did not meet minimal expectations (i.e., D-level work). I said "It’s Tuesday. I have to submit grades by Friday. Turn in good work in time for me to make that deadline." He finally supplied decent projects with the impetus of a real, flatly final deadline. Coupled with his consistent high-quality contributions in class, his final grade of B- reflected more than meeting minimal expectations, if not by much.
These major projects represented a large portion of the body of work considered. To see the original assignments in full, please email me.
The Systems Analysis Project was “a critical analysis of a farming system research project of your choosing, through a crop ecology lens, with special emphasis on the system’s reaction to climate change.” Students were to investigate a systems research project and provide both information and analysis, which I described as: “Information is reporting what others say, often summarizing and essentializing along the way; analysis is drawing and explaining your own conclusion regarding the quality or import of the project.” I provided a bulleted list of items to address. Students could write a paper or create a poster; in the end, every student chose a poster.
The Systems Research Plan or Management Plan Project gave students a choice between designing a small research project or proposing a course of action for a farm to address a problem. In both cases they were to “use crop ecology principles with special emphasis on the system’s reaction to climate change.” All but one student chose a management plan.
For both projects, here are the original standards:
Outstanding (basically an A):
All required information and analysis is present
Analysis and insight draws on understanding from previous classes or other experiences as well as this one
Presentation is mostly understandable to a college-educated person who is not a plant scientist – organized, terms are defined, the person does not have to mentally fill in gaps in information
To the extent possible, variety of information sources for both research and farmer perspective, with a variety of author identities (men, women, people of color, etc.)
All sources correctly cited
Minimum requirements (basically a C):
All required information and analysis is present
Presentation is understandable to a plant scientist who can follow a less organized presentation or mentally fill in gaps
All sources cited
The projects certainly needed more development on my part. I’ll grudgingly forgive myself since this was the first time I’d taught this class and it was not certain the class would run due to low enrollment so I put off the work a bit. I just had not thought things through and we wasted a lot of time figuring it out, which is embarrassing.
Reflections and future plans
In the end, did I keep my promises to my students? Did I provide a class that gave joy, offered freedom, and conferred benefit? Did I help them learn that significant professional skill of being able to assess and evaluate their own work and talk to a boss about it? For most students, to the best of my ability the first time teaching this class, I believe I did.
One student said: “This class was out of the blue but a breath of fresh air and I appreciated the challenge.” Another said: “Ungrading made me nervous, I worked a lot harder because I never knew where I stood. But now I’m not afraid to try for a master’s degree.”
Of course I want to keep the promises better next time. Here’s what I’ll improve for Spring 2024.
More transparent major project assignments: I’ll provide MUCH better project instructions and rubrics — and work samples, now that I have some from this first class.
Start major projects earlier and provide serious accountability while not having fail-points: I treated deadlines so loosely because I did not want students to fail just because they missed an early project milestone. The natural result was that they prioritized work for classes where deadlines affected their grades more seriously. (We should acknowledge that faculty often make exactly this calculation in their own work!) Students recognized this as a genuine dilemma: They liked the relaxed nature of the class, but realized they did not do their best work. One student suggested: “Start the big projects by Week 3 with a SERIOUS due date by Week 8, definitely before Week 12. Have a ‘lateness costs you’ policy similar to a workplace. Your boss is not happy when things are late. On time and good is the best. On time but bad leaves time to recover. Late and good is marginally acceptable. Late and bad? Nope.” I want to provide supervisory support for students to calendar work time, break projects into manageable parts, and decide on penalties for lateness. I have scheduled the Spring 2024 class to meet twice a week, so there is one day for content and one day for workshopping projects.
Apart from ungrading, I’ll close with contrasting quotes (edited for length) from our major texts. The best promise I kept to my students was through these readings – to show them different ways of looking at our wide, green world.
The essential goal of farming systems is to provide food, feed, fiber, and fuel. Growth of population and income and scarcity of water will be major driving forces in the future. (Connor et al., 2011, pg. 8)
Experimentation is another means to understanding. An account of [my] informal experiments would be rejected by a scholarly journal, but that does not mean that the conclusions are invalid. If the differences between two groups are so subtle that they can be inferred only from large experiments and complex analysis, then probably they’re not important. (Madison, 2016, pg. 12)
At the height of the summer the lessons of reciprocity are written clearly in a Three Sisters garden. The corn stands eight feet tall. The bean twines around the corn stalk, never interfering with their work. Spread around the feet of the corn and beans is a carpet of big broad squash leaves. Their layered spacing uses the light, a gift from the sun, efﬁciently, with no waste. [T]he placement of every leaf speak[s] their message. Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others, and there will be enough for all. (Kimmerer, 2013, pg. 131-132)
Cal Poly Pomona resides on the traditional territory and homelands of the California Indians. The Gabrieleno/Tongva and Tataavium people are the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar. This land remains the shared space among the Kizh, Serrano, Cahuilla, Rumens/Ohlone, and Luiseno people. I acknowledge their spiritual connection and rights as the original stewards and traditional caretakers of this land. I thank them for their strength, perseverance, and resistance. I am a guest on these lands.
Connor, David J., Robert S. Loomis, and Kenneth G. Cassman. 2011. Crop Ecology: Productivity and Management in Agricultural Systems 2nd Ed. London, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Kimmerer, Robin W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Madison, Mike. 2016. Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Thanks for reading Grading for Growth! Subscribe for free to receive new posts every Monday.