Teaching Hub

Teaching how to do college: do grades help students learn? Part 2 of 2.

A masculine-presenting person of color showing a big smile while sitting on a green lawn holding papers in both hands and a laptop on their lap.The person’s expression of glee is what I hope students in my courses feel about learning!

by Lisa Beck, Psychology

Another option, especially after having the above “let’s get curious” conversation with students part 1 of my post, may be to creatively remove the grading fixation altogether. This leads us to the spectrum of possibilities commonly referred to as “ungrading,” which has become quite the buzz word and hot topic in higher education over the past few years.


According to Amy Kenyon, the Assistant Director for Teaching Innovation at Duke University’s Center for Instructional Technology:

Ungrading is a practice which eliminates or greatly minimizes the use of assigned points or letter grades in a course, focusing instead on providing frequent and detailed feedback to students on their work, in relation to the course learning goals. Ungrading is a form of ‘grading for growth,’ in that the primary purpose of the assessment is to help students learn and improve their knowledge and skills, rather than to create a summative score that students use to compare themselves against an external credential.

I think of ungrading as a spectrum of highly intentional approaches to student evaluation. For instance, a course could be designed to use students’ self-assigned grades, labor-based grading contracts as recommended by Dr. Asao B. Inoue, or unlimited attempts to encourage repeated practice. My statistics course uses this last option to center process-based learning rather than memorization. I would love to use student projects and extensive drafting and feedback for the course, but the class size does not allow for that. So, we use technology that allows students to repeatedly work problems, access real-time guidance, and encounter realistic research methodology. While students earn “points” from these assignments, the repeated practice is what I emphasize in our course. And of course, it’s stats, so there is an objective right answer when calculating a standard deviation for a data set, and in class we get to focus on the subjective nature of data gathering, interpretation, and presentation.

I get most excited about the possibilities of ungrading in seminar and graduate courses. In these courses, feedback is frequently utilized. With fewer students, I can give more direct, detailed, and personalized feedback. We don’t have to rely on standardized methods of evaluation to maximize efficiency. The working relationship developed with students in these small sections is often better informed by additional context about their baseline knowledge and awareness as well as the ways in which they engage in learning and with our course. As we utilize these techniques, we can also de-center the role of the “expert.” This does not mean that we do not incorporate science or various pieces of evidence. However, it allows for us to co-curate a course, allowing students to hold responsibility for the course, emphasizes that we all have something to offer in learning together, and thus sets up the expectation that we all provide feedback to one another. For my courses, this has looked like students getting feedback from a combination of myself and/or multiple peers that rotates week to week.

In smaller sections, we are also able to increase our discussions of metacognitive (thinking about our thinking) approaches to self-assessment. One of my go-to assignments in these courses is a midterm and final learning letter. This assignment, framed as a letter to me, asks students to engage in thorough self-reflection and cite their own efforts throughout the semester to respond to a variety of prompts about not just what but how they learned. It is undoubtedly the most enlightening and heartening assignment I have reviewed. Students will often reference moments that I would have thought little of, just to describe the lasting impact it had on them and on their thinking or questioning of a topic. In these letters, students also assign themselves a grade on the typical system based on what they know about their own efforts and growth over the course of the semester(because we still have to submit final grades). I have yet to read a submission in which I felt like a student inflated either factor of effort or growth.

As I noted in the discussion of my statistics course, one of the big challenges that I continue to mull over and innovate around is the commonly occurring large class size here at The Capstone. Frequent and individualized feedback is the cornerstone of ungrading, even mentioned in Kenyon’s definition above. This does not realistically translate to scaling up these practices. I am trying to think of this challenge as a big boss level of a favorite video game (we learn from video games, too!), and I am excited to hear the approaches my colleagues are taking!

So, have you tried some form of ungrading or reducing the influence of points in your courses? How did it go? What are you workshopping?

In addition to the in-text hyperlinks, here are some other links that continue to help me on my ungrading journey: