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: http://bit.ly/ungrade

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 https://wordpress.viu.ca/llewis

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)

First Gathering: Reflecting on Digital Pedagogies

On Tuesday, January 9th, 2019, all the members of the Digital Pedagogies Pathways Project (DP3) gathered for our first dinner to discuss digital pedagogies. Four members came in via Zoom and seven were gathered in a university meeting room (with the always important – food). We began by hearing from everyone for a few minutes answering these questions, “What are you thinking about? Where is your head at with regards to the readings? What are your reflections on Urgency of Teachers?” I knew they were coming with variations in how much they had read, comprehended and assimilated – so we began with questions about what was on their mind around digital pedagogies.

The responses were as diverse as the people in this wonderful group I have assembled to explore digital pedagogies. They are all adventuresome souls – but I am sure we all don’t know where we are heading or what we’ll learn about ourselves, our practice or each other. They are uncovering new language, different perspectives and what critical pedagogy is all about.

Some of Jesse and Sean’s writing is resonating with the group and some of it is challenging our perspectives or just not clicking at all. I am reminded that this isn’t a book of best practices or research about what works best for teaching with technology. Far from it. It is a collection of blog posts written over six and a half years by two colleagues/friends immersed in teaching and learning in post-secondary education institutions. It is their thoughts (many published on Hybrid Pedagogy – an open access journal on learning, teaching and technology) that dive into topics such as online learning, instructional design, pedagogy, critical pedagogy, digital pedagogies, MOOCs, learning management systems, writing, teaching, learning etc.

Daisies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Daisies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Some of the group’s responses included: learning about the definition of digital pedagogies, “chalkboard pedagogies” (we didn’t call it that then, so why are we calling it digital pedagogies – isn’t it all just pedagogies?), “forking education” – what are the provocative thoughts in that blog post that stir our minds for addressing some key learning issues, “manifesto for online learning” – how do these ideas resonate with those who teach online or those who are just getting into it?, and grading and assessment (oh don’t get us going on assessment and depths we all could go to on this topic)!

I sat there and listened to their opening thoughts making sure everyone had a chance to speak, but soon realized that eleven people sharing for just a few minutes can quickly add up to an hour of elapsed time! Our group is diverse with faculty members from trades to nursing, graphic design to social work, education to kinesiology, education assistant and community support worker to adult basic education – we even have a nursing instructor/teaching and learning support faculty member from North Island College. One of my teaching and learning centre staff rounds out the group.

One member indicated that there aren’t many references or research cited throughout the book – true. While some professions focus on taking cues from the literature and well-established research, this area of digital pedagogies is rather new (past 10 years I think Jesse and Sean feel) but they quote or refer to well-known writers and researchers such as, Audrey Watters, bell hooks, Henry Giroux and Paulo Friere.

Urgency of Teachers is a collection of thoughts, provocations, published blog posts, keynote speeches – snapshots of Jesse and Sean’s explorations into teaching, learning and technology. I consider the book as a collection of topics to discuss – agree or disagree, feel intrigued about or not, want to debate or dive deeper – it was up to you. It is an easy book to access – short blog post chapters, different topics, easy to digest, read in any order – but then good ideas to discuss and explore.

I encouraged the group to not only read the book, but also some of the articles on this website that flesh out some topics a bit more. I read every article on this site before I created the link and located a key passage. I even did searches for additional readings and often stumbled down some rabbit holes reading for hours on end about various topics. So I sat there listening to my group reflect on the book and their perspectives on digital pedagogies and teaching with technology – quietly hoping they will soon read a bit more so we can dive a bit deeper.

We meet three more times before we head off to the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto in March. I am sure we’ll have some good conversations exploring those topics and areas of teaching and learning that provoke us, challenge us, encourage us to look further, and reflect on our own practices. But for now, we are off to a good start!

Lilies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Lilies, Ladysmith, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Are We Giving Students (Digital) Agency?

Do we regularly engage students as collaborators, co-designers, co-developers, partners in the design of learning experiences leveraging digital tools and technologies (e.g., courses, assignments, activities, assessments)?

Are students creating and contributing to digital content and/or given multiple ways of showing what and how they are learning while having choice and ownership over their digital learning experiences?

Do our students have agency and responsibility in their learning processes and take on a key role in driving the direction and depth of classes and courses?

Are we giving students (digital) agency in their learning experiences in post-secondary education?

Student Agency: providing a learning environment in which students develop ownership over their learning journey to work towards deeper and more meaningful learning experiences, therefore the student assumes the role of the agent; (the one with the active role in learning) L. Knaack

Digital tools and technologies provide many opportunities for students (of all ages) to find and use information, apply and analyze knowledge and skills, as well as create and share learning. Most often courses tend to focus on the finding/using, analyzing/applying pieces via digital tools and platforms. When educators give students more creation and sharing experiences that extend beyond the learning management system and traditional formats of assignments – they give students digital agency.

Students have little agency when it comes to education technology — much like they have little agency in education itself.

The importance of giving students responsibility for their own domain cannot be overstated. This can be a way to track growth and demonstrate new learning over the course of a student’s school career — something that they themselves can reflect upon, not simply grades and assignments that are locked away in a proprietary system controlled by the school.


Audrey Watters in The Web We Need to Give Students
View from Mount Prevost, Duncan, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
View of Suburbs of Duncan, Mount Tzouhalem, Saltspring Island from Mount Prevost, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

One example of giving students digital agency is the Spoken Letters Project done by Vancouver Island University‘s Bachelor of Social Work students. This is an example of a non-disposable assignment. Through an inquiry project, students were asked to read survivors’ stories from those who attended residential schools in Canada and create a spoken response back to them. Students had choice in how they’d like to respond using a variety of formats – poems, song, voice, images – shared via a video. The spoken letters/responses were publicly posted on a WordPress site and shared with the Elders and First Nation’s people who had told their stories. What a learning experience!

Another example of giving students digital agency is Robin DeRosa’s Interdisciplinary Studies program at Plymouth State University. In 2014, Robin and colleagues developed an open pedagogy approach to the curriculum giving students more agency and flexibility around their learning. Students can develop their own eportfolios through obtaining a domain of one’s own, contribute to a program-created OER textbook and engage in a professional learning network to grow their own custom connections over the course of the program.

Digital space allows for (and even demands) a new level, and a new kind, of participation. There is no “head of the class” in an online learning environment, not even the illusion of one. Students must, instead, construct their own strategies, without a recipe, in the moment. And they should even be called upon to help map the terrain in which that can happen.


Jesse Stommel in Participant Pedagogy

Educators need to move beyond the learning management system (LMS) and give students opportunities to investigate, produce, share and create a digital presence that represents their learning. What if we moved from the language of ‘submitting’ an assignment to ‘publishing’ an assignment, or from ‘posting’ a discussion response to ‘sharing’ a set of thoughts in a blog or web page? What if we moved from assigning grades to ungrading a course and having students be part of creating the expectations for learning? What if we encouraged students to move beyond the slideshow or research paper and build portfolios of their learning, including audio, video and images of their experiences along with critical reflections of learning?

So now we have a perfect storm. We’ve doubled-down on courses and the LMS, we’ve bought into the notion that what technology afforded us for teaching and learning was standardization of experience and pedagogy, and we’ve abandoned the nascent spaces that might have let us continue to explore the Web as a flexible, open, and powerful platform for teaching and learning.


Martha Burtis in Making and Breaking Domain of One’s Own: Rethinking the Web in Higher Ed

Other examples of supporting digital agency may include activities and assignments such as: using wikis or blogs to engage in peer review and collaborative writing activities, engaging students as editors of an undergraduate journal, building portfolios of learning experiences, creating an open online textbook, provisioning students with domains of their own/web space, or fostering a network of open student reflections,

Anytime we can put students in the driver’s seat and give them control over their learning experience – we give them agency. We give them a chance to be responsible and be an active learner in the course, class, program or degree. Anytime we can provide digital experiences that move beyond the tool/technology/platform/system and engage students in creating, documenting, capturing and sharing their learning – we are giving them digital agency.

Tree, Ruckle Park, Saltspring Island, Gulf Islands British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Ruckle Provincial Park, Saltspring Island, Gulf Islands, British Columbia (L. Knaack)