Untangling Grades from Feedback: Ungrading a Course

Oh what a tangled web we weave when we grade, mark and give feedback to students in university and college classrooms! Elaborate scoring schemes, points to earn, points to lose, detailed and lengthy rubrics, group project marking formats, deductions for late work, many assignments, tests, quizzes and exams…and on and on. Just so complicated in so many unnecessary ways. Why do educators do this?

Grading and reporting are NOT essential to the instructional process – according to research evidence. Grades often fail to provide reliable information about student learning.

“Grades awarded can be inconsistent both for a single instructor and among different instructors for reasons that have little to do with a student’s content knowledge or learning advances. Even multiple-choice tests, which can be graded with great consistency, have the potential to provide misleading information on student knowledge.

Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, in Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) 2014

There are many reasons why grading has become such a vastly complex and detailed affair in courses and programs with answers related to: requiring sufficient evidence to support grade appeals; marks serving as motivators for students to read materials and attend class; satisfying program expectations for achievement of learning for next courses/levels; discipline expectations for content coverage and acquisition of outcomes; accreditation/quality assurance expectations; managing student behaviour etc. Sometimes instructors employ complex and detailed marking/grading schemes because they are on probationary status and have been asked to follow the department’s policies – or have little pedagogical training to know otherwise. They may have never experienced a course without grades, marking and ranking/rating students!

Squamish Sea to Sky Gondola Experience - Bridge and Mountains By Liesel Knaack This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Squamish Sea to Sky Gondola Experience – Bridge and Mountains (L. Knaack)

But simply put: Grades are not important to the learning process.

Post-secondary educators need to untangle grading from feedback, see the clear line between the two and focus on appropriate and varied forms of feedback. Feedback (all kinds, all types, not all given by the instructor) is essential to learning! To comply with institutional requirements to have final course grades – work with students to determine a grade for a course based on the feedback and outlined expectations for learning. But to get there – you can do it without grading or marking!

Research on the effects of grading has slowed down in the last couple of decades, but the studies that are still being done reinforce the earlier findings.  For example, a grade-oriented environment is associated with increased levels of cheating (Anderman and Murdock, 2007), grades (whether or not accompanied by comments) promote a fear of failure even in high-achieving students (Pulfrey et al., 2011), and the elimination of grades (in favor of a pass/fail system) produces substantial benefits with no apparent disadvantages in medical school (White and Fantone, 2010). 

Alfie Kohn in the Case Against Grades, 2011

How did we get here with grades often taking over the focus of courses and the focus of learning for both instructors and students? How can we wind our way back out of this tangled web of rubrics, quizzes, endless comments on papers, gradebooks, grading policies, percentages, letters, numbers, marking and more marking! How can we ‘take back Saturday night’? How can we leverage digital tools and technologies to assist us in providing feedback (and I am not meaning the LMS’ gradebook or quiz features!)?

Let’s free ourselves of marking! Completely. Right here. Right now.

To ‘ungrade’ or ‘unmark’ your course, you need to start with confidence that you are aiding in the learning process by removing marking and grading – and in no way are negatively affecting students or you in the process. While it would be wise to consult your teaching and learning centre and any supervisory roles, ungrading a course should fit within good teaching practices at any institution. Ungrading a course has been done by many college and university instructors and by K-12 educators for years! The research is clear – ungrading a course changes the learning experience for the better. Your students will thank you and you will have hours of time back in your life – freed of marking and giving grades!

“But I also know that feedback needs to be absolutely separate from evaluation, that opportunities for revision need to be built into any task if we want meaningful learning, and that if we want students to learn to strive for quality (and hold themselves to high expectations) then we need to separate ideas of quality from ideas of grading. This last point is one of the most difficult for me to internalize, and certainly the most difficult for students to accept, because it pushes against the raison d’etre of the letter grading system as well as against the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary culture.”

Matthew Cheney in Pass No Pass (2018)

Start by looking at your course and sketch out a narrative of what the intentions and big ideas are for student learning. What do you want students to show you? In terms of the discipline and the level/year of the course, what should students strive to understand, apply, do, think, reflect upon etc. How would you describe what you look for in actions, behaviours, writing, speaking, language, analysis, evaluation, creativity in terms of student learning at three or four progress points (i.e. ‘not yet meeting expectations’, ‘meeting expectations’ and ‘exceeding expectations’? – or similar language). If you can create a description for students at these points of learning for your course, you give students an idea of their learning journey. These descriptions also can relate to grades for discussion at the end of the course.

Tribune Bay on Hornby Island, British Columbia By Liesel Knaack This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Tribune Bay on Hornby Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Once you have a narrative for what the stages of learning look like in your course, amp up the feedback opportunities for students and/or keep what you have for feedback but remove the values/grades/letters/numbers you assign. This means giving students lots of opportunities to hear from you, their classmates, experts, colleagues, and students in other classes about learning progress. Feedback should also entail many times for self-reflection – taking stock of their journey and sharing their own thoughts on progress. But wait – this doesn’t mean more time on your part to write out pages of comments or have meetings every day after class! Absolutely not. See the linked handout below for more feedback ideas.

A system of grading ranks and categorizes students; in doing so, it suggests that students should be the same, instead of encouraging students to build their unique strengths. And, most important, grading trains students to work only for the points or the grade, and in the process, the real excitement and value of learning is lost.

Jennifer Hurley in “Is Throwing Out Grades Too Idealistic? (2018)

Students will benefit greatly from feedback – lots of it and in varied formats. Feedback from students consistently shows they are on board and appreciate the removal of grades and focus on feedback. Study after study, blog post after blog post of faculty sharing their stories of going ‘gradeless’ has nothing but loads of positive responses from students. Give it a try. It will ‘free you’!

So the million dollar question…..
QUESTION: So how do you submit a final grade in a gradeless/unmarked course?
ANSWER: Ask the students to suggest a final grade – with evidence!

Well it isn’t that simple, but it does mean you have to plan for this activity from the start of class. Create a chart outlining the criteria and demonstrations of learning that form the course (e.g., assignments, projects, quizzes, professional learning components, portfolio pieces etc.). Explain each component and its relative emphasis/importance in terms of learning so students know where to focus more/less.

Ask the students mid-point in the course to temporarily assign themselves a grade and provide a justification for it. The reflective portion of this activity will be valuable. At the end of the course, ask the students to assign themselves a grade (A, B, C etc.) and provide justification for that grade. Have the students hand in their self-evaluation and rationale. Discuss with the students in short consultations. Let students know at the beginning of the course you have the right to make any adjustments to course grades – but you may find that students provide fair evaluations of their work.

All in all, going gradeless is a worthy venture.

But I have found that asking students to give themselves a grade also makes the why and how of grades a valuable subject of the conversations we have—valuable because they will go on to be graded in other courses and thinking critically about how and why grading happens helps that become more productive for them.

Jesse Stommel in How to Ungrade (2018)

Next Steps?

  1. Seek out your teaching and learning centre support staff. They can help you!
  2. Skim some of the readings, rants and reflections listed on this handout.
  3. Chat with a colleague about the notion of separating grades from feedback.
  4. Try unmarking/ungrading just ONE assignment as a first step!
  5. Ask your students to support you on this journey. They may surprise you in how helpful they can be!
Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, British Columbia By Liesel Knaack This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)