Experimenting with Ungrading
By Valérie Florentin
For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, let me give you a bit of context. Ungrading has been around for years but has recently gained some traction and instead of being something done in secret, it’s finally being openly discussed. Basically, it’s a super-charged form of self-assessment, where each student decides on their own sessional grade. Bear with me a bit longer: it’s not supposed to be a free for all, or an excuse to get an easy A+. Grades should be motivated by informed discussions about what they are or represent, what they should be and what they could become. During the first few classes, I noticed that my students were really reluctant to the idea: they were quite anxious to know how to be fair, what went into a grade, how to decide between one letter and the next, but the discussions I had with them really helped to clarify my approach and put things in perspective. They’re now all on board! It’s important to note that all of my students had the option of being graded using more traditional/conventional approaches to grading if they felt more comfortable.
Ungrading is also supposed to alleviate anxiety in our students by removing the grades from the equation, to reduce inequalities (as everybody can take their own life circumstances into account, from learning exceptionalities to full-time jobs, from familial responsibilities to a childhood spent at different schools and everything in between or beyond), but also to help with intrinsic motivation (as grades are out of the way) and learning (as it becomes possible to take risks on the assignments, rather than repeat a tried and true technique). Finally, it should be mentioned that ungrading also depends on a healthy dose of feedback, so grades are replaced by more constructive criticism.
Here’s my evaluation process. I decided to keep my usual three assignments (one per month, but extensions are granted if asked for 24 hours in advance, no reason needed) and weekly exercises. The latter are worth 1 point (if they’re done on time) and there’s a rule that stipulates that nobody can get an A+ without handing in those ten exercises. The first assignment was the same for everyone, and four choices (same level of difficulty, a bit harder, way harder, and more creative) were offered afterwards, which meant that each student was responsible for their end goals (they can challenge themselves or not).
Feedback is given during one-on-one half-hour Zoom sessions. YouTube videos are also a possibility for students who are shy or feel they don’t have the time to meet synchronously. This means that I have the confidence that students are actually receiving direct feedback on their work, whereas previously it was impossible to know if they read the comments I would write. Fun fact: I already had one student admit that she usually doesn’t check the comments on her assignments, but she was glad we met as she had learned a few things.
As far as I’m concerned, the pros are numerous. First, by highlighting everything I want to talk about, I can discuss details that I would normally not take the time to comment on (but a translation can be good and still perfectible, which I can now get into). Second, I have to be more patient: I don’t have copies in front of me, I have somebody who has feelings, which I have to take into account (whereas I’m sure we’re all grumpy when almost everyone made the same mistake and we’ve been grading for hours). Third, I have the feeling that my students work better and smarter: they’re not trying to meet my expectations to get a certain grade, they feel free to explore what translating means (and sometimes, it means getting a bit further from the original text to find the perfect way to phrase things in another language, which they usually won’t do for fear of missing something and losing points). Four, the meetings are usually not all on the same days, which means that I don’t spend hours grading, I spend a few hours here and there discussing with students over the course of the whole month. Five, they often ask questions during these meetings that they had not raised in class (because they’re shy, or they thought nobody would be interested). In terms of my workload, it’s thus neither heavier nor lighter.
Of course, there are cons too, but they’re mostly on the administrative side: sometimes they forget the appointment, which I find highly frustrating, or even forget to book an appointment; and I’m currently seeing students who already did the second assignment, as well as first-timers, which gets confusing. From a pedagogical point of view, though, it seems great and I’m really happy with how the session is going (and in case you’re wondering, I don’t have more infractions to academic integrity than I would normally have: why cheat when you decide your grade?).
Will I ungrade again next year? It will depend on the feedback I get from students (so far, I only heard good things) but also on the sessional average in the two classes where I ungrade (obviously, I want my grades to be representative, so if the system is abused, I’ll have to rethink the whole process). Will I keep the same formula? Definitely not, there are a couple of things that I can (and must) do to ensure a smoother process, mostly for my sake. I also realized that certain courses may be a better fit than others (I ungrade in two different courses, and I can see the differences) so I will give it some thought for the next iteration.
So, what do you think? Are you curious? Do you think it seems too easy for the students? Do you think my opinion will be different in December?
About the Author
Dr. Valérie Florentin is a course director at Glendon’s School of Translation and at Université Laval.