Sharing rationales and managing expectations

On the one hand we hear a lot of talk about co-creation, dialogue and partnership with students in HE. On the other we witness the (in many ways the completely understandable) persistence of uni-directional, risk-averse and more conservative approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. In academic development and digital education it is not uncommon for us to hear something on the lines of ‘I tried X, students hated it so I reverted as swiftly as possible to the tried and tested‘.  The myth of academic autonomy and marketisation of education along with both actual and perceived expectations of students contribute to stifling drives to innovate. Too often when we do change things up a bit we miss a simple way of managing these expectations consequent of the current drivers: rationalising our approaches. In this short video my colleague, Dr Alex Standen, says why she thinks this is fundamental.



Can ‘ungrading’ change the way students engage with feedback and learning?

Dr Eva Mol; Dr Martin Compton- summary of paper presented at UCL Education conference 6th April 2022

‘Ungrading’ is a broad term for approaches that seek to minimise the centrality of grades in feedback and assessment. The goal is to enable students to focus on feedback purely as a developmental tool and to subvert the hegemony and potentially destructive power of grades. Fundamentally, ungrading is, at one end of the scale, completely stopping the process of adding grades to student work. A less radical change might be to shift from graded systems to far fewer gradations such as pass/ not yet passed (so called ‘minimal grading’). You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it

In addition to the summary offered in this post we began with the definition above and encouraged colleagues to consider critiques of the existing grading-dominated zeitgeist in terms of reliability, validity and  fairness. Grades become a proxy for learning in the minds of both students and lecturers and huge distractions away from the potentials of feedback and genuine dialogue about the work rather than the percentage or grade letter appended to it.

Grades can dampen existing intrinsic motivation… enhance fear of failure, reduce interest, decrease enjoyment in class work, increase anxiety, hamper performance on follow-up tasks, stimulate avoidance of challenging and heighten competitiveness (Schinske & Tanner, 2014)

We summarised the range of possibilities for those interested from simply talking about threats and potential detrimental effects of grades (as well as perceived benefits) through to wholesale, systemic change.

  • Scepticism/ discussion/ dialogue
  • Piloting no grades on small or low stakes work
  • ‘Conceal’ grades in feedback
  • Discussed (even negotiated) grades after engagement with feedback
  • Designing out grading
  • Students collaborate on criteria
  • Grade only for final summatives
  • Minimal grading (e.g. Pass/ fail)
  • Remove grades for early modules or years
  • Students self-grade
  • All students graded ‘A’
  • Institutional level – no grade policies

One of my ungrading experiences (Eva Mol)

These are based on teaching I did at Brown University (Providence Rhode Island), with a classroom of graduate and undergraduate students from archaeology and philosophy. I decided to give them all an A (highest mark possible) before the class started.

What did I learn about students?

  • Initially it was a shock to get students out of the system of marks! For most it is really their only mode of thinking about progress and learning, they wondered why take a course if there was no mark (which I think is very disconcerting).
  • However, this shifted quickly from shock to viewing the class as a few hours of relief from the system, followed by less anxiety, more experimentation, and students thinking freely and critically both about the system, as well as what they wanted to achieve in a course.
  • Much more engagement with the content of the course material and weekly readings
  • Discussions were more lively as there was less performance anxiety, students were more personal as well.
  • They set their own personal goals for the class, and I as instructor helped them achieve it. These were a variety of things: speaking at a conference, writing a blog, writing an article. At the end, they realised they got much more out of a course than they ever could with just a mark.

What did I learn as a teacher?

  • It is not less work! I still had to read what my students wrote, correspond to emails, give feedback. But it is really different and much more enjoyable work: when not reading in the context of how writing scores against a grading scale, you can allow yourself to appreciate what students accomplished in their writing.
  • Comments on feedback were much more rewarding because it was not to justify the mark for the administration, but how you can help students improve, and because there is no mark involved, students read feedback.
  • It made me a more engaged instructor, more flexible, creative, and more relaxed.
  • Because I could be flexible, I was much better equipped to deal with building in equity and inclusion.
  • It also forced me to critically reflect on the relationship between grading and teaching, contextualize how we have normalized the artificial frame of numerical feedback, and look for alternatives aimed at my personal pedagogy.

I felt empowered to question all aspects of the folklore. Why am I assigning a research paper even though it’s always a disappointment? Why do I care whether students use MLA formatting correctly down to the last parenthesis and comma? (I don’t.) Why should I worry about first-year writing as a course meant to prepare students for the rest of college? Why can’t I have autonomy over what I think students should experience? (Warner 2020, 215).

Now is the time

The pandemic showed that we can change, if necessary, perhaps now is the right time to reflect on the system. We have an opportunity to shift the way students feel about their own learning and move away from more traditional words associated with grading.

The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy. (bell hooks 1994)


References and more about ungrading

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge.

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

Blum, S. (2019). Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning (or Education or School)? An Immodest Proposal for an Integrative Anthropology of Learning Whose Time Has Finally Come. American Anthropologist 121(3): 641–54.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Inoue, A.B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.

Rust, C. (2007), Towards a scholarship of assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 32:2, 229-237

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. Cleveland, OH: Times 10 Publications

Schinske, J., and K. Tanner (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE – LIfe Sciences Education 13, (2), 159-166

Stommel J., (2017), Why I don’t Grade.

Warner, J., (2020). Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading, in S. Blum, Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press, 204-218

Wormeli, R. (2018). Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. 2nd ed. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.