4 Focus on Feedback: How I Stumbled into Ungrading Practices and Gave Students Agency over Their Writing
by Erin Nunnally
December 24, 2020
One Tuesday a few years back, I planned to lead my developmental English 097 class in an exercise to review the feedback I’d given them on their first researched essays. One problem: ten minutes before class, I realized that while I had entered number grades, I hadn’t given them any other feedback to review.
In developmental courses, students do not earn college credit; rather, they are placed into them through testing and must complete them in order to move ahead to the college-level writing course. While I have had the outlier of a student who signed up for a developmental course in order to better prepare for college-level writing, most students don’t have that choice to make. While this may seem like a recipe for resentment and sometimes can be, I’ve found that most students in these courses want to learn. Yes, they want a good grade, but they really do want to learn skills and strategies so that they can proceed to college-level writing, English 121 at our school. These students are often self-aware and admit that they had a hard time or a bad experience in high school English courses or that they have been out of school for some time and are rusty in both writing and technology, which makes for the doubled challenge of learning both to write and to navigate the LMS. While being in this course means that these students do have more work to do, this self-awareness is something they seem to come in with and may have played a part in the successful learning I’ll describe here.
So I’d forgotten to give my class feedback, thus blowing my lesson for the day. I needed a new plan on the fly. I had a few minutes to spare, so I walked down the hall to our kitchen to grab a coffee, and in that short walk it hit me. This fumble of mine was actually brilliant. I wouldn’t ask students to tell me what they thought of what I thought of their essays. Instead, I’d ask them to look at their essays and see if they could identify strengths and weaknesses that warranted my grade. I would have them look at the grade I’d given and then look at their essays and the assignment requirements to determine what they had done well and what they had missed. Most importantly, they would be free to disagree with my evaluation. They simply needed to provide evidence from both the prompt and their work. It ran counter to everything I thought I knew about teaching, but class was starting in two minutes, and it was all I had.
This lesson plan obviously involves grades, but in my defense, this was years before I would hear the terms “ungrading” or “mastery based learning.” Now, having been introduced to this approach through faculty groups and Twitter chats, book clubs and colleagues, I see even more value in that accidentally awesome lesson plan from years ago. The real value of ungrading is in giving students agency over their work and their education. During that class period, I had asked students to look at a grade, but what I was really asking them to do was look at their work and determine where they had mastered skills and where they needed to put in more time and effort to master others. Those are the basic goals of the ungrading movement, and it only emphasizes the urgency of this practice to me that I stumbled upon a version of it and saw the true value organically. Even though in this instance I had given numerical grades, this became an opportunity for me to allow students to reflect on their work and on what evidence they had provided in their essays to show their mastery of skills.
The first thing we did that day was review the assignment prompt itself. Then I helped students get set up to do this work by inviting them to print the assignment, their essay, or both so that they wouldn’t have unnecessary barriers and could look back and forth between documents and mark things easily (this removing of barriers, however small, is, I’ve come to realize, key to education, developmental or otherwise). I realized that I ran the risk in this exercise of students simply telling me what a “70” or a “90” objectively meant, but by the time we regrouped and started discussing, I could tell this was maybe one of the most productive classes I’d ever run. Students had indeed looked at the number grade, but they quickly shifted their focus to the quality of their work and soon the numbers didn’t matter at all; they cared about learning and improving.
In our discussion, I asked students to share one strength or weakness they discovered. Students were able to point out specific goals of the assignment they had accomplished well and share what steps they’d taken to achieve that; they were also able to explain how they had left out requirements and made similar choices that they now saw weakened their arguments. There were moments of clarity about how they should have used sources we’d spent weeks finding, how they might have incorporated strategies for engaging their audience that we’d seen modeled in course readings, and how they should have taken extra time to make sure things were organized well. They spoke of specific class periods and readings and preparation work we’d done and made connections to the resulting essays they had now. What really struck me is that individual students were able to look at both strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t have any students who couldn’t find at least one area to work on, and I also didn’t have students who were totally self-deprecating. Everyone found a bit of both. Moreover, they saw real value in doing this. Not only could they show how their work stacked up to the assignment guidelines, but they also began to reflect on how looking back at previous work and at the assignment prompt after the essay was finished helped them to continue their learning and gain a deeper understanding of their writing process and the piece they were working to produce.
Because the essay grades were generally in the lower range, I offered students an opportunity to revise their essays in light of this class discussion and these new revelations about taking time to produce better work. While not everyone did revise, all did learn an important lesson that day about thinking critically at all steps of the writing process, and I learned an important lesson about giving students more time and opportunity to reflect on the prompt and their work before being assessed or graded. We in academia talk about the importance of deadlines to help students prepare for the “real world,” and while it’s true that deadlines exist for good reasons and that we can’t continue to grade work from week one throughout the semester, it is equally important to understand that the very goal of the academy is learning. That takes time and practice, and if we can allow our students more flexibility in those things, we are doing them a great service that will produce longer-lasting and better results.
At the end of the class period, I had students submit what they had written about their grades and the quality of their work. I did not grade this piece of writing but responded to it in the LMS with my own feedback that mostly agreed with their assessments of their work and progress. It was here that I really got to dig in and see that self-awareness in action for each individual student. And as I’ve since heard from ungraders I’ve met, students didn’t inflate the quality of their essays. If anything, they were too hard on themselves – for better or worse, the mark of a true writer, yes?
The ability to think through one’s own learning and the steps needed to master skills are outcomes that I and my developmental students came to value more than grades themselves. Again, some of that may have had to do with the nature of the developmental course itself. Because of their placement into the course, these students had a stronger self-awareness than other students might about the importance of learning in order to progress. They all came to see that they needed this class to sharpen skills that would make everything ahead easier by giving them such a strong foundation on which to build. In short, they weren’t worried about the number or the letter so much as they were worried about their knowledge and how to improve their performance in the future.
While I am not a full ungrader yet, I have since used this and similar strategies intentionally in my courses. I was initially uncertain about relinquishing control in this way, but I’ve found myself keeping an eye out for an essay students struggle with so that I can bring in this strategy and offer them meaningful help. What I’ve come to learn through these practices and through my introduction to ungrading is that allowing students the structured opportunity to review their own writing in addition to getting reviewed by peers and instructors allows them to grow in their critical thinking and self-awareness, two skills that students should take with them from any class, regardless of content or level.