Grade or Ungrade?
For various reasons, institutions or teachers might choose to shift from traditional grading to ungrading methods. Some of those reasons are that they think ungrading is more equitable, less biased, and rightly focused on learning rather than grades. Perhaps three of the most outspoken and well-known antagonists of traditional grading are Alfie Kohn, Susan Blum, and Jesse Stommel. In addition, Robert Talbert and David Clark are up-and-coming voices for alternative grading methods. Ungrading is not a new idea or practice in education, but it has been gaining in popularity. Therefore, it is important for teachers to understand what it is, especially if they are considering implementing it on their own or are being required to do so.
Since the fall of 2021, I have been taking online graduate courses and, so far, all except one of my instructors have used some form of ungrading. Other names for ungrading are “labor-based grading,” “contract grading,” or “specs (specifications) grading.” Each form is similar in that teachers usually do not give points or a letter grade for submitted assignments, but they do provide a final overall grade–sometimes based on students’ self-grading–at the end of a course. However, there are some nuanced differences in the various forms of ungrading.
With labor-based grading, if students complete an assignment according to the instructions, then they pass the assignment. Generally, instructions are broad and allow students leeway in deciding the content and form. For each submitted assignment, instructors typically provide minimal feedback in a sounding board fashion that tends to focus on praising what they think students did well in addition to sharing alternate viewpoints and suggesting or guiding students’ next steps.
In contract grading, teachers usually provide lists of assignments for students to complete relative to the final grade they want to receive for the course. So if students want an A for the course, then they complete all of the assignments required to receive that grade. It is a non-binding contract with the teacher because students who originally intend to go for an A can usually change their minds during the course and do less work to receive a B instead. Contract grading is similar to labor-based grading in that students’ grades are based on the amount of work they complete. But with contract grading, students are given the option, within reason, to decide how much work they want to do, and they are not all expected to do the same amount. With contract grading, teachers tend to provide more substantial feedback on submitted assignments than they do in labor-based grading, especially if part of the contract involves students making revisions on assignments.
Specs (specifications) grading is a pass/fail system. A teacher details what all students must do or accomplish to pass assignments and the course. The focus is on students meeting measurable objectives to demonstrate their mastery, and they are often allowed multiple attempts to do so. For example, students might have to achieve at least 8 out of 10 correct responses to pass a quiz. For written assignments, teachers often have to provide substantial feedback to justify their pass or fail rating in the absence of a point system. In specs grading, the emphasis is on students meeting learning outcomes.
On its surface, ungrading might sound like some sort of assessment utopia where all students are learning and teachers are not marking homework, wrestling with judging the quality of students’ work, or risking receiving poor evaluations for giving low grades. However, ungrading does not mean not grading. It is just a different kind of grading that comes with its own challenges.
Even if teachers abandon a traditional points- and letter-grading system in favor of a form of ungrading, they still will have to make some judgment calls to provide a final letter grade or pass/fail decision. Ungrading is not the time- or stress-relieving grading method that teachers might have thought it would be, and they may end up having to give low or failing grades anyway. Additionally, it is still possible for students to pass a course without having learned much, if anything at all, except how to game the ungrading system.
The field of education has not been immune to fads or bandwagons advertised as helping students that have ended up hindering learning because they were poorly thought out, wrongly understood, or improperly implemented. A decision to use traditional grading or adopt a form of ungrading requires careful, well-reasoned consideration because it is ultimately students and their learning that are at stake.