Why I started ungrading and how you can, too!
By Morgan Anderson
In 2020, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption to student learning, universities across Canada adopted a “compassionate grading policy.” This meant that students could “choose to be evaluated with a pass or fail rather than letter grades” (Friesen). Here at York, we extended the pass/fail policy so that there were fewer restrictions and extended deadlines (“COVID-19: Information and Decisions”). Other schools, like the University of Alberta, went so far as to remove the option of a letter grade entirely in favour of a “credit/no credit” system.
Pass/fail or credit/no credit systems, as opposed to the traditional letter grade and GPA system, were seen as compassionate because of the increased anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. They meant that students wouldn’t have to worry that their anxiety, grief, distractions at home, restricted internet access, or teacher missteps in the transition to online courses would unjustly cause their GPA to plummet (Tamez-Robledo). Unfortunately, because the pass/fail choice is just a temporary pandemic offering and not a complete overhaul of our graded system, a “pass” on a student’s transcript risks communicating their failure to perform within the traditional system to future employers and admissions officers (Tamez-Robledo).
The need to implement “compassionate” grading policies during the pandemic suggests to me that university decision makers believe when there isn’t a pandemic students have equal access to education. That, or university systems are just less compassionate to students’ diverse anxieties, distractions, restricted access to campus, teachers missteps, and stress caused by other global or local crises. The former implication of pandemic-specific grading policies is not true—all students experience a variety of unique, individual restrictions to their education that might change over time. And the latter implication of pandemic-specific grading policies has led me to question why we still grade in schools at all.
I am a 6th year PhD Candidate at York and in Fall 2021 I had the opportunity to direct a mandatory first year introductory course on Theatre and Performance. I created a syllabus that resembled previous syllabi I had received as a student and a TA. It had predetermined weights and deadlines for individual assignments throughout the term that myself and a TA would mark and return and altogether the assignment grades would result in a final grade out of 100 for each student. Halfway through the term I realized this method of grading wasn’t working for anybody. There were discrepancies between my grading and my TA’s grading. Students were affected by various emerging complications and needed unique assignment deadlines. I had no idea how to evaluate participation in an online class because I couldn’t see any of the students and couldn’t observe breakout room discussions. The list goes on. And none of my struggles were caused by the pandemic. There always might be discrepancies between TAs’ approaches to grading. Students always might experience unforeseen complications that affect their ability to perform at school. This was my first time in the course director role, so I wasn’t even moving from an in-person to an online platform.
At that point I was already interested in the ungrading movement because of others’ pandemic responses to grading. I altered my own approach to grading and had a much more successful and enjoyable second half to the term. I gave students choice in how their assignment grades were weighted. Participation became entirely self-graded using a questionnaire I designed. And I offered collaborative and self-graded options for writing assignments.
So yes, most universities are back to the normal AKA pre-pandemic grading policies. However, that doesn’t mean that as educators our syllabi, pedagogies, and classroom instruction techniques have to go back to normal. Regardless of your position in the classroom, there are ungrading solutions to your grading problems that can work within the traditional, graded university system. In my YouTube video that accompanies this blog post I explain the goals of ungrading and suggest a number of ungrading “strategies” you might be interested in trying out!
“COVID-19: Information and Decisions Pertaining to Academic Activities FW2019-2020, W2020, S2020 And FW200-2021Terms.” University Secretariat https://www.yorku.ca/secretariat/covid-19-information-and-decisions-pertaining-to-academic-activities-fw2019-2020-w2020-s2020-and-fw200-2021terms/. Accessed 6 Dec 2022.
Friesen, Joe. “Universities turn to a pass/fail system as pandemic derails academic year.” The Globe and Mail, 3 Apr 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-universities-turn-to-a-passfail-system-as-pandemic-derails-academic/. Accessed 6 Dec 2022.
Tamez-Robledo, Nadia. “Pass/Fail Grading Was an Act of Pandemic Compassion. Is It Here to Stay?” EdSurge, 26 May 2021, https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-05-26-pass-fail-grading-was-an-act-of-pandemic-compassion-is-it-here-to-stay. Accessed 6 Dec 2022.
About the Author
Morgan Anderson (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies and a Teaching Commons Tutor for the 2022/23 school year. Her research is on hobbyist juggling and she is a juggler herself. When not writing or juggling, she makes YouTube videos to have fun, help people take more effective notes, and alleviate imposter syndrome in academics.