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Dietlinde Heilmayr


Highlighting SPSSI Teaching Award Winners

An Attempt at Ungrading

Dietlinde Heilmayr, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Moravian University
Winner, 2021 Teaching Resources Award

As I watched students struggle through the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear to me that the virus and its effects were exacerbate existing inequities. It was during this same time that I read Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (Blum, 2020). Though I had long questioned the utility and fairness of grades, I now felt an urgency to change my practices.

This brief contribution is not intended to convince you of the pitfalls of traditional grades nor the merits of ungrading—for that, you can turn to the same scholars who inspired me: Susan Blum, Jesse Strommel, Alfie Kohn, and Asao Inuoue, to name a few. Instead, here, I hope to tickle your curiosities by providing an overview of my first experience with a full “ungraded” course.

I chose to adopt an ungrading approach in my First Year Writing Seminar (FYWS) course for two primary reasons. First, students in this course are all expected to complete the same assignments despite a wide range of educational backgrounds; I wanted to ensure all students completed the course feeling encouraged and excited about future writing opportunities regardless of past experience. Second, the writing center at my institution provided informational resources to support faculty teaching FYWS in adopting an ungrading approach, and thus I felt encouraged in the endeavor for this course in particular.

I used a labor-based contract grading approach, which seemed to me to be a compassionate and equitable approach to providing student feedback while still assigning grades at the end of the term, as I am required to do. I spent a full class period discussing with students the philosophy of the approach as well as the logistics, which I think is necessary for any radical divergence from what students have been trained to do throughout their educational experiences.

The challenges with ungrading were noteworthy but could be addressed with tweaks to the course. The grading contract I wrote before the semester began required students to complete all 9 writing assignments to earn a final grade above a C. While the intent of this was to motivate students to complete all the writing assignments, in practice this resulted in lower grades for many students than what I thought was appropriate. This required an end-of-semester pivot, in which I met with each student individually and discussed what grade students and I both felt was reflective of their effort and engagement. The second challenge was that some students invested their time and energy in their test-based courses rather than in our writing course, knowing that so long as they completed assignments they would earn full credit, even if it wasn’t their best work. This is a challenge that I need to continue to reckon with as I continue refining the course.

The benefits of the approach certainly outweighed the pitfalls, and I will continue to use a revised version of ungrading. Primarily, I found that students who did not have much training in writing felt encouraged and motivated, as they were rewarded for their efforts to learn and grow rather assessed on the first or even second piece of work they produced. Second, rather than spending time and effort trying to decipher a B paper from a B+ paper, I was able to focus on meaningful feedback that I knew students would read and respond to. Rather than writing comments to justify a grade, I was able to write comments that sparked curiosity and interest in students. 

I think the experience with ungrading was worthwhile one that caused me to further question the purpose, effect, and fairness of grades. As we hope to inspire both skills and enthusiasm for identifying and addressing real-world problems in students, we need to work within a pedagogical framework that inspires curiosity and risk-taking. Ungrading may well be one tool to help educators support creative and motivated thinkers of the next generation.

Blum, S. D., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. WAC Clearinghouse.

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