Digital Pedagogy Lab: Toronto – Radical Assessment & Ungrading

Unpacking the words:

  • Digital pedagogy is the study and use of contemporary digital technologies in teaching and learning. Digital pedagogy may be applied to online, hybrid, and face-to-face learning environments. (Wikipedia)
  • Critical Pedagogy: Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Wikiversity)
  • Ungrading: SO this is a tricky one. There are many blog posts, articles, books on how to “Ungrade” and why grading isn’t the best (Jesse Stommel has excellent posts on this) but I am trouble finding a good definition of “ungrading”.

So, what were my takeaways?

Ask Why. Why assess an assignment? Why assign an assignment? Why grade the way you do? Why are things worth the amount they are worth? Why test a concept? Why test so much? Why that question?

By asking why, you are not necessarily deciding NOT to do something, you are critically thinking about how it will benefit a student’s learning and understanding. Will it enhance understanding? Will it allow for a different viewpoint? What else is going on in the student’s life? (I recognize it is not always possible to know the answer). It is also important to examine the effect it will have on your own life. Do you have the time to assess it? How much other work do you have?

Get students involved in their learning. In Adult Education/Higher Education we work with adults. Talk to them about grading. If you have to mark something explain why – is it because it is important? Because the institution requires it? Explain why you are doing/requiring what you are doing/requiring in the class. As an adult, I prefer to know the reason why I need to do something, what benefit it will provide. Why are students any different?

Would I go again?

I am not sure that I would! Unfortunately, because of the name, I thought there would be more doing and practicing. I associate “labs” as hands-on learning. This was more of an unconference. While I have attended unconferences and loved them (IIE does a great one) I was not looking for that for this. I was looking to increase my education and knowledge on a specific topic rather than getting bogged down in definitions and how the university/college system is failing
Here is a Google Doc of what we did:

One fabulous person I met was Rajiv Jhangiani (on Twitter @thatpsychprof. Give him a follow). Truly an inspirational speaker.

This blog was originally posted May 16, 2019 on

Perspectives and Practices in Digital Pedagogies

The Digital Pedagogy Pathways Project members developed this collection of perspectives and related practices (practical applications) after reading Urgency of Teachers by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris.


Develop a “pedagogue’s mindset” by building capacity of faculty and instructors to critically reflect on practice for the purposes of improvement of teaching and learning.


  • Facilitate “critical friendships” through a twinning or mentor/mentee relationship between people who volunteer–scaffold how to be a “critical friend”
  • Teach a variety of ethnographic approaches to exploring pedagogy
  • Provide professional development opportunities for learning strategies such as reflective practice
  • Sponsor reading circles such as materials related to pedagogy.
  • Facilitate “open educational” practices–facilitating colleague observations and visits.
  • Develop collaborative action research projects.
  • Host a Ted Talk – on a related topic to digital pedagogies – to capture and share with others to present various perspectives


Build community and opportunities for collaboration with like-minded people.


  • Connect with others in your field that are currently creating and advocating the use of open resources for both instructors and students
  • Connect via Twitter. Search using hashtags # connected to the topics and discussion related to the book, Urgency of Teachers specifically the authors @jessifer @slamteacher
  • Share relevant open educational resources (OER) with fellow instructors (plant the seed of OER by sharing great resources)
  • Select a few early adopters and get out there to capture their stories!
  • Adopt “open practices” that share what we do–as we do it–to improve teaching and learning
  • Invite/accept opportunities to web conference with others you find online


Provide foundational knowledge of digital learning such as “where do I start?” strategies


  • Community of Inquiry model – Introduce faculty/students to the three elements of an educational experience: cognitive, social and teaching presence. Retrieved from
  • Research approaches and levels of engaging with “ungrading”, student self-assessment. Identify variety of “entry” points


Provide students with opportunities to develop digital agency


  • Allow students to develop a digital portfolio of their learning throughout a program to showcase and personalize their reflections, growth and examples of learning (they become agents of their own learning, choosing samples, reflecting on growth and designing it as they wish)
  • Ungrade a course (untangle grades from feedback and reduce/remove marks/values on student learning) and allow students to give and receive feedback via digital means on their learning
  • Create safe opportunities for exploration & failure (both with technology and with learning) and model this whenever possible (don’t be afraid to try new technology in front of learners – even if you struggle)
  • Allow students to select or propose alternative media for evidencing learning: podcast, images, video, text, multimedia
  • Provide helpful feedback to students and focus on the value of it, and how it fits within their learning journey


Care about our students (digital identity, location and processing of info, inclusive) and access to learning. Those in digital spaces as have different needs, wants, and perspectives.


  • Ask students about their experiences online to help understand assumptions, perspectives, and background in online. Honour their prior learning experiences
  • Use blogs to allow for class reflections to expand learning in the moment and to work to find ways to have both students and instructor active engagers in the process
  • Clarify for students about the expectations for what is acceptable for ‘videos put online/sharing’ – have the instructor demonstrate this first to show it doesn’t have to be perfect
  • Allow for “practice” in a safe space before going public. Create awareness of implications of but the digital footprint is guarded a bit more closely (digital identity learning!)
  • Engage in conversations with students about what they choose to transmit, share, store etc on the Internet to be respectful of personal requests and needs (added level of care to think about where students’ information (personal identifiable info) is stored and is processed
  • Incorporate UDL (Universal Design for Learning) in materials developed for use online or face-to-face classes.
  • Consider exploring the digital divide in a class (who has access, who doesn’t)
  • Consider equitable ways for students to explore tools and technologies so that the experienced ones aren’t always making the perfect video /slides – and are not intimidated or feel aren’t capable of doing it so are with less confidence – maybe let students in groups explore technology/tool/software together first and feel more comfortable – provide them guidelines on how to work together (focus on inclusion)
  • Are our courses accessible?


Honour physical location and social space in online courses


Provide acknowledgement, introductions of where students are located in physical and social spaces


Explore digital experiences options beyond LMS and invite students into creating networked learning.


  • Use open source technology to develop a student resource that can extend understanding of topics during the course and provide students with a “textbook” takeaway after the course is over
  • Teach about the collaborative development, definition and/or use of hashtags (#) (similar to keywords) to organize shared participatory sharing/creation of information seemingly online chaos of tools like Twitter


Create a hybrid course approach to redefine the “classroom” experience.


  • Guide to Blended Learning. Provides a theoretical foundation as well as concrete examples for different blended learning pedagogical approaches. OER retrieved from
  • Split classes into online and in class sessions to allow for flexibility of schedules and encourage self-regulation.
  • Do the same for office hours – offer virtual and physical spaces where students can reach you (within a schedule because online learning shouldn’t mean you or your students expect to be available 24/7)


Give learners meaningful choices


  • Allow learners a meaningful role in creating the syllabus- even just one part of it.
  • Use blended or online learning spaces to present multiple ways of learning and let students move through content as suits their needs (Turn off content tracking)
  • Move away from grading everything by adopting a grading contract in collaboration with students

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)