BRIC: Ungrading: A Revolutionary, Anti-racist Praxis?

Members: Dr. Krystle Balhan (Psychology, Seattle Central), Gregory Hinckley (Sociology, Seattle Central), Dr. Kayleen Oka (Sociology, Seattle Central), Caroline Pew (Chemistry, North Seattle), and Desiree Simons (English, Seattle Central)

Initiation and Topic Needs

Our BRIC group decided to read and discuss Susan D. Blum’s 2020 book, Ungrading – Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). We were curious and interested in how the diverse contributors to this book approached ungrading. Ungrading is an umbrella term for any assessment that decenters the action of an individual instructor assigning a summary grade to specific student work. This practice moves closer to anti-bias and anti-racist practices and pedagogies by providing culturally responsive innovative feedback to students and assuming that students are on a path or journey to learning rather than needing to complete a set of tasks or competencies. This practice disrupts traditional assessment practices and ideology towards more equitable outcomes for students. The fifteen authors reflect on what makes ungrading challenging, and provide testimonials about what makes it transformative. We felt that exploring this topic for Seattle Colleges’ students was especially important in a post-Covid environment.

Process of Readings/Discussions

We met a total of six times throughout winter quarter 2022 and communicated several times throughout the quarter via email. The first meeting was to introduce ourselves to each other and decide about our process and a schedule of reading and discussion. We planned five more meetings throughout the quarter: the first three would focus on the book itself so we planned our reading schedule according to the three main sections of the book. The last two meetings consisted of discussions centered on reflection, implementation and next steps. In addition, on January 26 three of us from the group attended an Ungrading webinar (sponsored by the WA State eLearning Council) presented by Caleb Hutchins, an instructional designer from the Community Colleges of Spokane. This opportunity helped to supplement our discussions on ungrading. Some of our discussions veered off of the original plan, but all were fruitful and inspirational, giving us more questions to think about in terms of implementation and next steps.

Final Outcomes/Growth Among Individuals

As a recap, the expected outcomes for the book reading and discussions that we initially proposed were:

  1. Examine the ways that ungrading supports a culturally responsive pedagogy
  2. Identify how to implement ungrading practices in our disciplinary areas
  3. Discuss how to monitor progress and measure success, particularly for historically marginalized students
  4. Foster cross campus collaboration and support

Upon reflection, we feel as though we accomplished three out of the four outcomes. We discussed at length how ungrading would benefit not just historically marginalized students, but all students particularly in post-Covid times when student anxiety and wellness has been crucially important to their learning (Outcome #1). As bell hooks mentions on page 107 of our book, “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

Outcome #2 was met both through our discussions among our own disciplines (two social sciences disciplines, English and a STEM discipline) and from the diverse perspectives within the book (in particular Chapters 9 and 10). We agreed that perhaps disciplinary boundaries were less of a barrier than we initially thought and that the focus of ungrading is on student learning regardless of content.

We are a diverse team that represent four different disciplines from two Seattle colleges, different racial/ethnic and gender identified groups and have varying levels of teaching experience. This, combined with the fact that we come to this work deeply committed to student learning, has resulted in an immensely collaborative and supportive faculty learning community (Outcome #4). Evidence of this are our rich discussions around “unlearning” as a precursor to ungrading and our eagerness to continue exploration of this work in spring 2022 and beyond. To that end, we have created a shared Canvas shell as a repository for our ideas, activities and resources. This brings us to Outcome #3 which we were not able to discuss in depth. It is our hope that our CIPE grant will allow us to explore how to assess our upgrading efforts and measure student success. As individuals, we believe we have grown in different yet simpatico ways. Many of us struggle with letting go of our beloved rubrics. Some of us are uncertain whether to dip our toes into an ungraded assignment or take a deep dive into completely ungrading a course. All of us agree that whatever we do it is important to step back and set up the context of ungrading with students and that this starts with unpacking the assumptions we have about what learning is and what grading means.

“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”

~bell hooks

Ungrading. Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) by Susan D. Blum (Ed.) 2020

Book Chapter Notes

Introduction: Why Ungrade? Why Grade? – Author: Susan D. Blum

● Motivation research shows that a loss of intrinsic motivation occurs when extrinsic motivations are dominant; the more rewards S receive, the less creative process they employ

● When accompanied by grades, students disregard comments

● Harvard scale = 4 (honors), 3 (pass), 2 (low pass), 0 (fail)

● WEIRD = Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic

● Ideal characteristics of classrooms = Collaboration, Content, Choice

● Ruth Butler (1980s): comments alone, especially used for substantive tasks, have efficacy (p. 13)

Q: Is eliminating grades the only way to increase intrinsic motivation?

Chapter 1: How to Ungrade – Author: Jesse Stommel

● “Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible…in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another” (p. 28).

● Two pedagogical approaches: 1. Start by trusting students. 2. Realize “fairness” is not a good excuse for a lack of compassion

● Sample syllabus statement (p. 29) Q: Thoughts about this?

● Alternate approaches to assessment:

– Grade free zones

– Self assessment

– Process letters

– Minimal grading

– Authentic assessment

– Contract grading

– Portfolios

– Peer-assessment

– Student-made rubrics (skepticism about this?)

Chapter 2: What Going Gradeless Taught Me About Doing the “Actual Work” – Author: Aaron Blackwelder

● Ask: what is essential for students to learn?

● Butler (1988): students who receive only comments consistently outperform those who receive just grades or comments and grades

● Grades as “passing judgment”

● The curriculum needs to be useful to students’ everyday lives

● Three things that motivate someone to learn: autonomy, mastery and purpose

● Add project based, problem based and inquiry based learning

● Incorporate individualized learning and lots of voice and choice

Chapter 3: Just One Change (Just Kidding): Ungrading and its Necessary Components – Author: Susan D. Blum

● Learning needs to resemble the natural ways people learn outside the classroom

● Students see the rules as arbitrary and inconsistent with grades

● Grades encourage a fear of risk-taking

● Solutions:

– Decenter grading

– Emphasize the entire portfolio

– Have students develop an individual plan

– Build a practice of self-assessment

– Conduct portfolio conferences

● Struggles: relinquishing control, trusting students

● Develop explanations, work on timing for explaining and provide evidence for the benefits of this approach

Chapter 4: Shifting the Grading Mindset – Author: Starr Sackstein

● Shift from grades vocabulary to neutral vocabulary of assessment (see p. 75)

● Summative assessments don’t allow students to show the depth of their ability, so reflection is essential to filling the gaps

● Say to student: “You aren’t these yet”, “Try another way”

● Get students to log their feedback—where are they consistently getting feedback? Have them set goals for improvement

● Teacher should shift conversation until students stop asking about grades

Q: How do we do this?

Chapter 5: Grades Stifle Student Learning. Can We Learn to Teach Without Grades? – Author: Arthur Chiaravalli

● Online portfolio platform = Seasaw

● Feedback cycle similar to coaching process (no score until game time)

Chapter 6: Let’s Talk About Grading – Author: Laura Gibbs

● All feedback, no grades

– Individual feedback

– Culture of feedback (teach students about growth mindset)

– Gradebook declarations (quiz in Canvas where students declare whether they have met all requirements of assignment) Q: What stops students from always clicking ‘true’? How much time is given to complete this?

● Learner freedom to grow in their own way and freedom to make mistakes without punishment

● Q: When might feedback be seen by students as conforming to a goal? AKA a new

form of “grading”?

● Danger of Specter of perfectionism

● Revision as a form of raising grades, not punishment

● Benefits of gradeless: Q: Where is the assessment of learning? How measured?

Chapter 7: Contract Grading and Peer Review – Authors: Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson

● Ask students—What is success in this class for you? And how can I help you achieve it?

● Students need to practice and exercise autonomy and self determination

● bell hooks: “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our

students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin” (p. 107).

● Students need to hear how a lesson or skill applies elsewhere

● Students to determine the categories for judging—problematic?

● Peer review through badging (another form of judgment?)

● Contracts as written, constructed “promises” that exemplify individualism and western modes of thinking?

● Contract “requirements” (pp. 112-113)—still a form of rubric?

Chapter 8: Critique-driven Learning and Assessment – Author: Christopher Riesbeck

● Critique-driven assessment: mapping a term’s worth of submissions and critiques

– Students submit submissions that are repeatedly critiqued, revised and


– Grade is based on progress, quality and effort

● Provides an accurate understanding of what students do and do not know

● Single point rubrics (eg. on p. 133) vs analytical rubric

– Criteria for acceptance and done or not done

– Requires a lot of writing on instructor’s part

● Challenge is lack of specific due dates→becomes a self-paced class? As well as plagiarism

● Critique-driven learning only works if students want to master the skills involved and see clear value gained for effort invested

● Swarming: entire team works in one room on related parts of a common task. Goal is to increase throughput and keep team on same page

Chapter 9: A STEM Ungrading Case Study: A Reflection on First-Time Implementation in Organic Chemistry II – Author: Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh

● Selling the idea of ungrading to students: presenting what employers are looking for (p. 146) and how this differs in terms of how students feel they are proficient

– Argue that students should know exactly how their work might be reviewed and also have some say in it

● Use of confidence emojis: “I know the answer”, “I’m not sure”, “I don’t know the answer” for questions

● If students don’t agree with assessment/feedback, they need to lay out argument why, justify with evidence

Chapter 10: The Point-less Classroom: A Math Teacher’s Ironic Choice in Not Calculating Grades – Author: Gary Chu

● Author makes the case for the inequitable process and outcomes of grading

● Standards Based Grading: student-friendly targets and individualized descriptive feedback

● Formative assessments daily where students report on their level of understanding

(Q: how is “false” reporting dealt with?)

● End of term students making the case for their grade

Chapter 11: Grade Anarchy in the Philosophy Classroom – Author: Marcus Schultz-Bergin

● Students offered a buffet of learning opportunities

● Only required 3 reflection essays (achievement essay, midterm reflection, final learning reflection)

● Two one-on-one conferences

● (See “pitch” to students, p. 175-176)

● Attendance could be poor/participation could be lacking—little pressure to attend, also no penalty for being ill prepared so some did attend (privilege?)

● Results: some who didn’t submit substantial work, some whose work did not suggest a significant amount of effort

● Changes: provided a schedule of assignments with time frame, provided a set of midterm exam questions (not reqd to complete)

● Suggest to create a portfolio of work (they keep all work and feedback), allow a petitioning of alternate assignments

● Have students reflect on their learning in conjunction with the CLOs

● Provide regular check-ins

Chapter 12: Conference Musings and the G-Word – Author: Joy Kirr

● “Who cares about your grades?” (My parents, both/equally, me)

● Brainstorm “grades” then categorize “positive”, “negative”, “both/neutral”

● (Adopt verbiage from parent letter p. 197) and categories for assessment (p. 198)

Chapter 13: Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading – Author: John Warner

● Teachers still spend time providing feedback, but a better appreciation of student writing is developed

● More formative feedback than summative

● Student writing approached with curiosity

Conclusion: Not Simple But Essential – Author: Susan D. Blum

● bell hooks: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy”

● grading diminishes the potential for bias, provides a way to communicate accomplishments even if they lack cultural and social capital

● have assignments that aren’t graded at all?

● See Eyler’s “How Humans Learn” and the National Academies’ “How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures”

Submitted by Dr. Kayleen Oka (faculty lead), Sociology Faculty, Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, Seattle Central College