Fifty Shades of Ungrading
By Valérie Florentin
In November 2021 (blog187), I talked to you about my first experiences with ungrading, a form of self-assessment where each student decides on their own sessional grade. Since then, I’ve been ungrading in 6 courses at 3 universities, mostly at the undergraduate level but also with a class of graduate students. Each time, I tweak the formula and I’m ready to share a few observations.
First, when I decided to ungrade, it was part of a study led by Mandy Frake-Mistak at the Teaching Commons to experiment with new ways of evaluation, so the results I’m presenting here are not just my own. Andrew McEachern, in the Mathematics Department, was experimenting with peer-review processes, but the survey was the same for both of us. I’m happy to report that 80.5% of the 41 students who opted to participate in the survey said that the new mode of assessment helped improve their learning, which is no small feat.
If you like numbers, I should also specify that a staggering 51.3% declared that they had barriers impeding their education (learning exceptionalities, full-time jobs, racism, etc.), 56.1% get good grades overall, 87.8% deem that grades are very important at the university and only 14.6% are satisfied with their current ones. More importantly, 90.3% think that stress is directly correlated to their grades and they’re most stressed when faced with oral presentations and summative examinations. Quizzes and written assignments are seen as less stressful.
As you can see, evaluation is an important part of their lives and there are ways for us to transform the experience for the better, which leads us back to ungrading.
During the first semester I implemented ungrading, I had two undergraduate courses where I decided to fully ungrade: students were given a lot of feedback and they decided their own grade at the end of the semester. They also had a system by which they could decide to get tougher assignments if they wanted more of a challenge, and most of those who could opted to do this. I believe this shows that their motivation was increased. In November of last year, I was a bit worried that some of them would exaggerate their accomplishments, but my sessional average was actually about the same as the year prior.
During the second semester, I had already tweaked the formula, mostly for my benefit, and I fully ungraded in two classes (including the one graduate course) and partially in a third. In the latter group, most students used the formula as an excuse to get a grade they didn’t really deserve as far as I was concerned. I think, but it’s just a supposition, that they took that one opportunity to “compensate” for earlier grades, instead of fully embracing their responsibility as they have to do when they’re deciding their sessional grade. At the same time, I must admit that having them fully ungrade means that we talk a lot about grades, feedback and progress during the semester, which we didn’t do as much with partial ungrading. Overall, it didn’t really change the sessional average, as they were only responsible for about 20% of their final grade, but I decided that I wouldn’t go for half measures in the future.
During my third semester (which is still ongoing), I decided to ungrade in a first-year GenEd course where I’m mostly teaching how to learn better at the university. I wasn’t convinced that ungrading was the way to go, as my students might lack the metacognitive skills necessary to evaluate themselves, being new at the postsecondary level. As the course objectives are heavily linked to academic honesty and respecting deadlines, taking the grades out of the equation seemed to be a good way to get them to focus on the process more than the end result. I also decided that they would work half the time in groups, so that they can get peer feedback along the way. This being said, instead of leaving them with feedback and ask for a grade afterwards, I decided to insert a framework. They have 8 assignments to hand in during the session, and I colour-code them: green means that everything important was fine, but maybe a few details were missing; orange, that the main points are there, but could be better defined, and maybe a few details need work too; red signals a severely lacking assignment. At the end of the semester, each student will have to decide on their grade between a few choices according to the colours they got during the semester, but also according to progress (if there are reds or oranges only at the start of the semester, it shows definite progress), efforts, time spent, collaboration with peers and possible impediments (once again, full-time jobs and sickness come to mind, as well as a number of other factors).
Is it all I had hoped for? Yes and no. Yes, as I don’t have any case of academic dishonesty at the moment and the assignments are up to my standards. No, because I was hoping they would take a few more risks. For example, they could opt for podcasts or videos instead of classical essays, but chose to stick with what they knew. This being said, I really like this new approach with colour-coded “targets”: it means that an assignment doesn’t need to be perfect to get an A+ and that I can underline and discuss things that could be better (a thing I hardly ever do when I grade, as it detracts from the overall quality of the end result). Moreover, it should really help the students when it comes to deciding their grades, even though I have no reason to think they would exaggerate.
So, next semester, I think I’ll keep the same formula, but who knows, maybe I’ll be back one year from now with new ideas!
About the author
Dr. Valérie Florentin is a course director at Glendon’s School of Translation and at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.