3 Balancing Ungrading Practices with Institutional Requirements

by Keith W. Mathias



December 21, 2020


How did I get here?

My discomfort with conventional grading methodologies has been brewing for quite some time. While I’ll admit to some initial skepticism when I first read Peter Elbow’s Everyone Can Write during my first semester of graduate school, I think much of that comes from the kinds of socialization Kevin M. Gannon describes in Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. He warns us that “[t]he higher education trope that sees students as adversaries until proven otherwise, that equates rigor with hazing, can suffuse almost every aspect of our practice if we aren’t careful. Indeed, it often does––and it comes to do so early” (Gannon 116). I see now that this is exactly what had happened to me. Even though I was claiming to value things like experimentation and risk taking, integrating lower-stakes assignments in an attempt to allow my students space to work through their ideas before submitting larger projects, I wasn’t truly putting my pedagogical money where my mouth was. I grew increasingly frustrated by the way that students who did not perform well on the first paper of a semester often “turned off” and “tuned out” for the rest of the course, with their poor performance often reinforcing their own negative self-images of themselves as writers. Or, as Gannon points out, it was kind of my own fault. He says:

In an irony that would be amusing were it not so maddening, we (speaking broadly) are often the architects of our own frustrations. Students narrowly focused on GPAs and careerism? Students who are reluctant to critically engage texts, ideas, or issues? Maybe they’ve internalized what a set of learning environments fashioned along the lines of [Paolo Freire’s] banking concept has told them is important. (48)

I wanted to move to a model which allowed my students space for failure––a necessary part of learning to do anything, let alone learning to write well––space for them to go back and try again. As John Warner says in Why They Can’t Write, “[t]raditional grading systems often distort the values many instructors claim to find most important” (218). I claimed to value experimentation and process and learning, yet assigning grades had the opposite effect. I wanted them to pay attention to their writing, to how much they were learning, but instead they paid attention to the grades they were earning.

This corresponds directly to something Alfie Kohn points out in his forward to the recently published UNgrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). He notes that:

an impressive collection of scholarship in educational psychology has distinguished practices that encourage students to focus on their academic performance from the practices that encourage them to focus on learning itself. The more their attention is directed to how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing. In fact, getting students to keep taking their temperature, so to speak, has a range of disconcerting effects––on intellectual development, curiosity, risk-taking, psychological health, and relationships with fellow learners. (xvi-xvii, emphasis in original)

I want to create the kind of environment where students are able to focus on what they’re doing––writing and speaking––rather than on how best to earn the points necessary for an A. And I want to create the kind of environment where students are doing the work because they want to, not because they’re being coerced into doing it by the threat of failure. Kohn also speaks to this, asking, “[i]f my curriculum and pedagogy aren’t sufficiently engaging, is that an argument to rely on grades to coerce students into doing what I want? Or should I gulp and ask some serious questions about the quality of my curriculum and pedagogy? (xviii-xix).

These questions really resonate with me, and I often think about how grades can rapidly shift the atmosphere of a classroom, often changing my relationship with students into an adversarial one. Part of this is, likely, due to the fact that many students have yet to learn “to see text as existing independently of the author and thus being capable of being changed and perfected by the author and others” (Bazerman and Tinberg 62). Bazerman and Tinberg’s claims about perfecting texts aside, this threshold concept is one that many of our students don’t come to our classes having mastered. They see any criticism of the work that they produce not as directed toward their writing, but directed toward their person. And contrary to what Bazerman and Tinberg suggest, they may be right to, because as Asao B. Inoue writes in Labor-Based Grading Contracts, “[w]e never just read a paper. We read students through their papers” (54).

Inoue’s work struck a chord with me this year as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arberry, and so many others, sparked months of protest and forced a public reckoning with the influence of white supremacy in the United States. His focus on antiracist writing assessment and the ways in which conventional grading codifies white language supremacy really pushed me to interrogate my own assessment practices and wonder how I might work toward a more equitable assessment ecology and overall classroom environment. Inoue notes that “all grading and assessment exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist, and White supremacist when used uniformly” (12) and asks:

[c]ould focusing on habits of mind like curiosity, openness, and engagement be a writing course’s way of making slaves of our students if we grade them by our standards and measures of what it means to be curious, open, and engaged? Do these habits of mind draw uncritically on White racial habits, thus potentially perpetuating White language supremacy if used as a kind of standard or set of expectations for students’ work in classrooms? And how do we know what those noncognitive dimensions of students’ learning look like? Might they look different in different students, different groups of students, different contexts and schools, different activities? If so, what use is it to name them as such.(50)

While I do not agree with Inoue’s conclusion that the only equitable and antiracist way to evaluate writing is through a labor-based grading contract, I do agree with his statement that “engaging with diverse ways of languaging and judging in the right kinds of assessment ecologies offers flexible and critical rhetorical training that can prepare students for a wide variety of communication situations” (24). To me, this sounds like exactly what our courses are designed to do.

What this all boils down to is something that Jesse Stommel articulates in “How to Ungrade.” He says that his philosophy comes down to “exactly two pedagogical approaches:

  1. Start by trusting students.
  2. Realize ‘fairness’ is not a good excuse for a lack of compassion.” (Stommel 28)

In general, I find these to be two governing principles well-suited to any classroom environment, but especially one largely influenced by our current state of affairs, teaching amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. If there was any time for us to seriously consider what we value in the classroom and our approach to education, particularly our approach to the impact that grades have on our students and their lives, it is right now.

But I have to…

Speaking generally, most of us in higher education don’t have the freedom to totally move away from grades, despite the myriad reasons to do so. We work within grade-granting institutions, we have to uphold standards of accreditation, and of special importance to those of us teaching at two-year colleges, we have to be sure that credits students earn from our courses will transfer to four-year institutions. Sometimes, these constraints exist on a level larger than our own individual institutions. For example, the state of Maryland requires that students in my first year writing courses complete at least 4,500 words (15-20 pages) of original academic writing, and that at least 70% of their course grade be based on this writing.

These are important concerns, not to be taken lightly or dismissed, especially for those of us (like myself) who are contingent and don’t have the security or institutional power to make large-scale programmatic changes to the ways that our courses and programs are built. Heck, the same can probably be said for most full-time faculty. The method I describe below is my attempt at balancing these institutional requirements with my ungrading practice.

… So how do I?

Methodological Inspiration 

The “nuts and bolts” of my approach to assessment is largely inspired by the work of Jesse Stommel and Laura Gibbs. Gibbs’s approach sees students completing what she calls gradebook declarations. She explains this in “Let’s Talk about Grading”: “When they complete an assignment, students record their work in the learning management system (LMS), using a ‘declaration’ quiz, which is just a quiz with a true-false question containing a checklist of the requirements for that assignment. When students click true as the answer, the assignment points go into the gradebook” (Gibbs 92). It’s a practical approach which acknowledges that, while she may not value grades and cares far more whether students pass the course than which grades they receive, students do often maintain an attachment to seeing points in the gradebook. This also allows her students to plan their approach to the course, balancing their available time with the grade they desire.

Stommel, on the other hand, relies heavily on self-assessment and reflection for his classes. He argues that “[c]ertainly metacognition, and the ability to self-assess, must be developed, but I see it as one of the most important skills we can teach in any educational environment” (Stommel 29). On his syllabus, he explains his approach to his students, telling them that “[t]he intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to” (29). While I absolutely agree that metacognition is an essential skill that we should be teaching our students, a total reliance on self-assessment does make it less clear to students how well they’re doing in the course.

So I propose a combination of the two. Gibbs’ approach relies entirely on her gradebook declarations and doesn’t do enough to emphasize the metacognition that I want my students to engage in. Stommel’s emphasizes metacognition but doesn’t result in any point values populating a gradebook, making it more difficult for students to know where they stand. Together, though, I think it’s possible to get the best of both approaches.

How it Works

At the end of each week, and after submitting work to Canvas, they will complete a Grade Declaration, which will place points into the Canvas gradebook and allow them (and advisers) to track their performance throughout the semester. For small assignments (weekly discussion in Teams, blogging projects, journals, etc.), these Declarations will just be a short true/false quiz. If the student participated in the discussion or submitted their blog, they click “True,” and they receive the points for doing that assignment.

For larger assignments (papers and speeches), the declaration will have two parts:

  1. A true/false quiz. The questions will cover the basic assignment requirements (length, research requirements, etc.), and each one will be assigned a point value corresponding to how much I would normally value that part of an assignment. For instance, I normally would deduct 10% of a paper grade for not meeting the minimum length requirement. The Grade Declaration question asking if the paper met the length requirements would be worth 10% of that paper’s total point value. This portion of the Grade Declaration adds up to half of the total assignment value.
  2. A self-assessment essay question. This question asks students to reflect on the course objectives measured by their essay or speech, and to explain how well they have met those objectives by citing evidence from their work. Then, they will assign themselves a point value for that portion of the assignment. Not only will this get students thinking reflexively about their work, but it engages them with the course objectives in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. Asking students to continually revisit these objectives as a part of their self-assessments places the overall goals of the course––something I think they often forget about after the first day of class––forefront in their mind.

Holding students accountable is fairly simple: check their Grade Declaration when reading/viewing and providing feedback on their work. If they claim to have written the required five pages but did not, I contact the student with their options: either I remove the points for not meeting the length requirement or they revise and resubmit the paper. Either they actively make a decision to lose points on the assignment, or they re-engage with their work and complete it. I used a similar system in two of my courses during the Fall 2020, and in my experience, this is a scenario that does not happen especially often. Similarly, I reserve the right to adjust the grades that my students give themselves in their self-assessments. Again, in my experience there’s only a slim chance that this will be necessary, but it’s a fallback just in case a student thinks that they can turn in a paper that somehow meets all the surface-level requirements but doesn’t meaningfully respond to the assignment.

What this does is free up time for me to spend giving detailed descriptive and formative feedback on student work. Instead of spending my time justifying a grade, my feedback is tuned-in to what a student might do on the next speech or how they might revise and resubmit their paper. Feedback becomes less of an autopsy of student work and more of a moment for genuine instruction. It looks forward, not back.

Other Institutional Concerns

Course, Program, and General Education Assessment

Another area of concern when it comes to ungrading is how well our assignments align with the requirements of course, program, and general education assessment. At the two institutions where I teach, for example, we have common assignments delivered across every section of a given course. These assignments must be worth a certain amount of the overall course grade, and must be assigned during a particular period of the semester. They are carefully designed to measure certain course, program, or general education objectives, and while I agree with Stommel’s argument for “emergent outcomes, ones that are cocreated by teachers and students and revised on the fly. Setting trajectories rather than mapping in advance the possible shapes for learning” (30, emphasis in original), I do find value in articulating what our courses should do and feel that, as I describe above, engaging students in a semester-long dialogue about those objectives can be a meaningful learning exercise.

Below you’ll find a model point distribution that I will be using for my English 102: Writing About Literature course for the Spring 2021 semester. The exact details of this will look a little differently when I actually write the courses, but you can get the idea of how the spread fulfills both the Maryland requirement to base 70% of the course grade off of writing and the institutional requirement to have the third essay of the semester worth 20%:

  • Weekly Discussions – 10 x 5 points each
  • Response Blogs – 10 x 10 points each
  • Essay 1 – 50 points
  • Essay 2 – 200 points
  • Essay 3 (common assignment) – 100 points

Total Course Points: 500

With a total of 500 points available for the semester, 70% of the course grade is determined by the three essay assignments, meeting Maryland’s requirement for this course. And with 20% of the course grade determined by the common assignment, the institution’s assessment requirements are fulfilled.

Advising and Emergency Situations

These last two concerns are perhaps the most specific to my own context.

The labor-based and mastery-based models that I was using for several of my courses during the Fall 2020 semester did not generate point values in the Canvas gradebook, which made it difficult for the college’s advising team to know how to advise my students––they didn’t have the framework to understand what I was doing and from their perspective it looked like I was shirking my duties as an educator. I feel like this system provides a way to make everyone happy:

By submitting Grade Declarations for all of their work, thus populating the Canvas gradebook with point values, the advising team will be able to see point values and know how a student is performing in the class.

Additionally, issues surrounding replicability arose: if for whatever reason I was unable to continue teaching my courses, whoever stepped-in to take over for me would need to quickly and easily pick up where I left off. So while the labor- and mastery-based models I was employing were perfectly clear to me, I needed to develop an assessment ecology that would provide both my students and my colleagues with as seamless an experience as possible:

If for whatever reason I am no longer able to teach my courses, whoever steps in to take over need only lead discussion and respond meaningfully to the work students are producing, much as they already would. They, like me, would also have the right to audit and adjust self-assessments and improperly filled-out Declarations if the need arose. I actually feel like placing so much onus on the students for assessing their own work removes some of the pressure of taking over the class because the students wouldn’t have to adjust to someone else’s expectations and standards (which, if we really think about it, is a pretty good argument for why this system works).


Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles and Howard Tinberg. “4.1 Text Is an Object Outside of Oneself That Can Be Improved and Developed.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2015, pp.61-2.

Blum, Susan D, editor. UNgrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press, 2020.

Gannon, Kevin M. Radial Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press, 2020.

Gibbs, Laura. “Let’s Talk about Grading.” Blum, pp.91-104.

Inoue, Asao B. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. E-book, The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado, 2019.

Kohn, Alfie. Forward UNgrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia University Press, 2020, pp.xiii-xx

Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” Blum, pp. 25-41.

Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.


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