Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) is a 2020 collection of essays edited by Susan D. Blum that offers perspectives on ungrading from instructors teaching in multiple disciplines, in K-12 and higher education settings, and in online and in-person modalities. The essays illustrate a spectrum of ungrading practices that range from student self-assessments to peer assessments to a system of continuous revise and resubmit for class assignments. As an English professor working at a university with both an access mission and burgeoning graduate programs, I might teach face-to-face composition courses and literature surveys plus an online course for our new graduate certificate in teaching college writing all in the same semester. So I very much appreciate that this volume speaks to a variety of pedagogical circumstances, and I think other readers will likely find some aspect of their teaching situations represented.
The collection begins with a foreword by Alfie Kohn and introduction by Blum that argue grading is a flawed enterprise at best. Kohn asserts that grading stifles intellectual curiosity and centers the pursuit of good grades as the goal of education rather than genuine learning (xiii). According to Kohn, grades pit students against each other in a Machiavellian competition to earn top marks (xiv) and encourage instructors to weaponize them against students as “bribes or threats” (xv). Blum goes on to provide extensive evidence that grading is neither objective nor consistent (10-11) and that it doesn’t truly measure learning (12). For example, grades don’t accurately measure the progress of a student who comes into a course writing A material and who improves very little or of a student who comes into a course writing F material and who improves at great effort to writing D material. The support Kohn and Blum offer for their argument that grading students undermines learning—of which I’ve only provided a small sample here and which is reinforced and expanded in all the following essays—is deeply compelling and difficult to deny.
Because I was convinced by the first premise of the title before I’d even finished reading the book’s introduction, I was most interested in discovering the answer to the title’s parenthetical as I started reading the essays. I read about pedagogy primarily because I want to find concrete, practical strategies that I can modify for use in my own classroom, and while not as many of the essays in Ungrading focus as strongly on the practicalities of implementation as I would like, some of them contain clear recommendations for adopting ungrading. A few of the essays I found most useful personally include the following: Jesse Stommel lists numerous possibilities for the shape ungrading might take, including only grading a few assignments throughout the semester (36), the use of process letters (37), and the use of student-made rubrics (39). In addition to thoroughly explaining the structure of their courses, Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson append the forms they use for contract grading (110-115), peer evaluations (119), and self-evaluations (117-118); and Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh describes a system in which she and her students collaboratively grade exams in the organic chemistry course she teaches (144). Instructors looking for examples of specific ungrading techniques to try and language to insert on syllabi that explains ungrading will not be disappointed, and those who aren’t ready to take the plunge into ungrading will find assignments they can adapt for use in their traditionally graded classrooms.
What does disappoint me is the lack of troubleshooting information included in the collection. Only one author, Marcus Schultz-Bergin, acknowledges experiencing any genuine problems with ungrading; his essay concludes with a breakdown of what he would do differently to address those problems in the future, but as Schultz-Bergin’s experience with ungrading was singular, his proposed solutions are speculative. Several of the essays make token mentions that class size is probably an issue with ungrading (all the classes in these essays appear to consist of 30 students or fewer), but none of them address how to adapt any of these practices for larger courses other than Stommel’s suggestion to give feedback to a large class as a whole concerning trends in the class rather than individual feedback to each student enrolled (39).
Those of us who are invested in continuously improving our teaching aren’t reading collections like Ungrading looking for easy shortcuts, but the amount of work involved in ungrading can seem daunting to instructors with heavy teaching loads. Other than Blum’s mention in the conclusion that workload might be a problem for instructors who want to implement some of these labor-intensive practices (221), the essays contain little advice for how to mitigate that problem. In fact, a bizarre implication that efficiency is undesirable runs throughout the whole volume, beginning with Stommel’s dig at the automated gradebook in online learning management systems (26)—as if there’s a kind of honor in averaging grades by hand that what is essentially a glorified Excel spreadsheet somehow strips away. As a professor who values work-life balance for myself and for my students, this attitude puzzles me. Most disturbing to me, though, is Kohn’s declaration in the foreword that students choosing to attend class and complete the reading is a direct reflection of the quality and entertainment level of the teaching (xviii). While there’s an indisputable kernel of truth there and, I think, a bit of hyperbole to support his position that grades are a form of coercion, the situation is infinitely more nuanced than what Kohn describes, and this started the collection off on a bit of a sour note for me.
On the whole, this is an important addition to the body of pedagogical literature although perhaps more for its argument that grading is detrimental to students than an abundance of instructions for what to do instead. The authors’ enthusiasm for teaching and their zeal to offer their students the best learning experiences possible are tangible on each page. When I shifted my research focus to the scholarship of teaching and learning, I noticed a transformation in my pedagogy but also in my mindset that I am coming to see is typical for those of us who value teaching over other academic priorities. As John Warner explains his adoption of ungrading, “In the end, the benefits of the change were not so much practical—though they were very real—but spiritual” (214). If the details of the process are not always emphasized in Ungrading, the passion informing the change is always at the forefront.
Lorraine Dubuisson is an Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University. Her primary research interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning, Victorian literature, and early American literature.