When We Talk about Grades, We Are Talking about People

Ungrading is always necessarily a part of a pedagogy of care. Because when we talk about grades, we are talking about people.

When We Talk about Grades, We Are Talking about People

On June 9, 2021, I was invited to lead a webinar titled "How to Ungrade" as part of the #RealCollege Virtual Journey, hosted by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. Below is the transcript of my talk.

I was very proud of the grades I got as an undergraduate. My wife at the time used to say that my transcript was very pointy. I earned a 3.98 GPA, which means that across those four years of education, I received only two Bs. One in geology. One in jazz dance. The latter of those was due to one too many absences, rather than anything to do with my performance in the class. (I’m actually a pretty good dancer.)

See, on the day I was absent one too many times, I had driven my in-laws to the airport. They were flying to Italy. They were going to be gone for well over a week. When I arrived on campus after dropping them off, I discovered that my father-in-law, Rick, had left his glasses in the car, had worn his prescription sunglasses out of the car and into the airport. They were going to Florence, home of Michaelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, hundreds of other remarkable works of art and architecture. I knew if I didn’t turn around, rush back to the airport, and give Rick his glasses, that he would get to see none of that, except through the shade of dark lenses.

I also knew when I turned around and drove like a madman back to the airport that it meant I would miss one too many of my jazz dance classes. I knew that it would lower my grade by one whole letter. But I also knew I had no choice. A person is not a person unless they are willing to sacrifice a letter grade.

After I graduated, Rick observed about my transcript that the two Bs I earned actually made it more perfect. I smiled at the effort to make me feel better, but I disagreed. And I still disagree. Grades are the sign that we have done well. They were the sign that I had done almost perfectly in college, but that I had slipped. Twice. I graduated summa, but not as summa as I might have.

I tell this story to point out that when we talk about grading, we are talking about people. While we would like to think that our rubrics make sense, and that our reasoning is objective, and that that objectivity is a fairness to students, our objectivity and reasoning and rubrics obscure the real picture. The real picture of what grades are, what grades do. The harm that inhabits them. The very fact that a pretty good dancer with a remarkable college record could drop a letter grade because he helped someone out points to one very gaping hole in the logic of grades. And there are many, many other gaping holes in that logic.

I’ve never spoken publicly about ungrading. I haven’t wanted to. I haven’t wanted to specifically because so many people are talking about it. I didn’t see the movie Titanic for much the same reason. Titanic was everyone’s favorite movie for a time, a powerful love story set astride one of modern Western history’s greatest tragedies. Made more tragic, in fact, for the beauty of the ship, the accomplishment of its engineering, the perfect symmetry of wealth and ambition and ingenuity. A human creation wrecked upon an unforeseen obstacle, an airtight vessel that sank to the bottom of the sea.

In a similar way, ungrading has become everyone’s favorite movie of the moment. A tragic love story, the narrative of ungrading is also beautiful for its symmetry of complex rubrics, standardized assessments, and the rhetoric of student success. Like Titanic, ungrading is appealing because of its romance, it's impendingness. Only this time we are the iceberg and tradition is the ship. All those airtight rubrics have a date with destiny.

Being a native Coloradan, I grew up with the story of “the unsinkable Molly Brown,” perhaps the most celebrated survivor of the wreck. You couldn’t be a kid in Colorado and not know Molly Brown. I lived just up the street from her house in Denver, now a museum dedicated to her life and the catastrophe that made her famous. I knew about the sinking of the Titanic because it was part of local lore. I didn’t see the movie because I wanted to resist the temptation to make romantic an historical moment wherein so many died. But I also veered away from the movie because I was worried it would rewrite the history I already knew, rewrite it upon famous faces and awesome special effects, an unforgettable theme song, and the brilliance and bravado of American cinematic storytelling.

In the same way, I have not wanted to enter into the discussion of ungrading. I haven’t wanted it to become larger than life, a rewrite of a practice not at all new and once entirely unfamous, even disregarded. A practice I have been inhabiting for nearly 20 years, and to which, for most of those nearly 20 years, few have assigned merit. The discussion now feels at a fever pitch, with excitement all ‘round. There are multiple hashtags on Twitter, from #ungrading and #goinggradeless to #gradingdifferently and #degrading. And there are hopeful claims of the ungrading revolution, the ungrading rebellion, and the ungrading family. What was a quiet little approach implemented by a few instructors well under the radar of their institutions has now become a sweeping, cinematic production with a budget. But not many people watching the movie ever read up on the history.

In part because education loves a bandwagon. Personalized learning. MOOCs. The great debate of laptops in classrooms. Microcredentials. Ungrading.

I was, in fact, sitting at the table with Jesse Stommel, in a tiny apartment in Leamington Spa, England, when he penned “Why I Don’t Grade,” the blog post where he first used the term “ungrading.” I actually begged him not to use the term. It was too catchy, I argued, like the chorus of a Celine Dion song. Ungrading, I said, would play on the radio, would get dub-step remixes, would end up in clubs and bars where people would dance to it with smiles on their faces. And eventually, we’d start to hear it in grocery stores, malls, elevators.

I’m being a bit tart, I know, but this was my concern.

It’s not just the bandwagon effect of a cool new idea in education, though, that bothers me, it’s also the automaticity that’s implied. As if saying the word is nearly equivalent with changing the landscape of education. With MOOCs, the prevailing mentality was a “build it and they will come” optimism. With microcredentials, the hope is that education might finally be able to beat the corporate sector at its game by making learning small, particulate, digestible, and fast.

Teaching is riddled with best practices, surefire plug-and-play ideas that are meant to support student success, create greater inclusion, increase enrollments and matriculations. Most of our centers for teaching and learning are marketplaces for instructional self-help in the form of reliable, replicable practices that make teaching make sense. My objection to the word “ungrading” was that the word “ungrading” smacks of a best practice, of something that an afternoon workshop will equip us to do.

And I’m aware this is an afternoon workshop.

Which is why, today, I want to try to take that apart a bit, inspect it, and see what makes ungrading actually tick.

Jesse, my very longtime colleague, has written and spoken about this before me. The tick behind ungrading, its core and source, the real philosophy that makes ungrading inevitable. He writes in his recent “Grades are Dehumanizing; Ungrading is No Simple Solution”:

Grades have a history, and I’d argue they’re a “technology.”
There is nothing ideologically neutral about grades, and there is nothing ideologically neutral about the idea that we can neatly and tidily do away with grades. We can't simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.

What Jesse is describing here is the polar opposite practice of a plug-and-play surefire solution. It bears listening to his words again carefully: “without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches” and “this work looks different for every teacher.” That means that for each one of us not only will the how of ungrading look and feel different, but the work we do to get to ungrading will be highly personal and individual. This is because ungrading isn’t a “thing”, isn’t something we can be certified to do, and isn't as simple as deciding to stop grading.

Deciding to ungrade has to come from somewhere, has to do more than ring a bell, it has to have pedagogical purpose, and to be part of a larger picture of how and why we teach.

I’ve been practicing alternative assessment since I started teaching nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve never considered it “ungrading” because grading was never part of the equation for me.

In other words, I don’t grade not because I don’t grade, but because grading would be incongruous with the rest of my teaching practice. I don’t lecture. I let students rewrite assignments to fit their goals. I’ve recently developed the curriculum for a new graduate certificate at CU Denver which not only practices ungrading, but which also allows students to imagine their own outcomes rather than adhering to a predetermined set of expectations. To me, learning should never be a confined act, but a liberated one. We should be able to learn in all kinds of directions, following our curiosity rather than being restricted by the quantifiable path set for us by an expert in the field.

Grades hamstring us by their very nature. Grades get soaked into the learning identity of the student who gets them, whether they get straight A’s or they’re a solid B student, or they receive the occasional F. After college and amongst friends, we might even bond over the kinds of grades we got—the geniuses who nearly failed out, the up-by-the-bootstraps first generation students who had to work while at school but who earned their 4.0, the happy slackers who contented themselves with C’s. We continue to talk about grades long after they’ve ceased to matter because they mark us indelibly. We continue to talk about grades long after they’ve ceased to matter because they mark us indelibly. And it’s just as important to recognize that indelible mark as it is to recognize that if grades can cease to matter at some point in our lives, it might stand to reason they never really mattered in the first place.

But grades don’t just frustrate our learning identities, they also fence us in by pointing to and illustrating (albeit in the most atomized way) what counts as expertise. Grades are a finite expression of a finite understanding of a field, of a knowledge, experience, or wisdom which could be—which should be—boundless. Because we want a good grade we hold ourselves back from learning. We perform learning in order to not fail, in order to be awarded the best possible indelible mark. Because we want a good grade, we don’t ask questions unanswerable by the content of a course; we pay attention only to what we need to, seeking to master that rather than ask why we can’t be mastering a whole lot more.

The frustration of students who long for gen ed courses to be meaningful, for example, is the frustration of learners coming to recognize that they are not at college to learn. They are at college to succeed. And how they are marked along that path of student success comes in the form of grades, and can decide everything they know about themselves as intelligent, insightful, creative, curious people. Grades overwrite our own self-awareness, our confidence that we know something no one else knows because of our singular human experience on this earth.

I have had to talk many a student out of feeling they couldn’t write because of grades they’d received on their writing at some earlier point in their life. All it takes is for one writing teacher on a bad day to interpret the rubric for a five-paragraph essay just so, and suddenly a student cannot be a writer.

Here again, grades are a kind of cage for our understandings of ourselves, such that, instead of freeing us to feel confident and capable of exploring and experimenting, we are, grade by grade, corralled into believing we are not good at writing, not good at math, not good at science, could never be a doctor, could never be a teacher, could never be an astronaut.

This is why ungrading is always necessarily a part of a pedagogy of care. Because ungrading is not just about grades or alternative assessment. As I said before, when we talk about grades, we are talking about people. Ungrading is a response to the harm that grading has done, continues to do, and will always do unless we seek another practice.

Ungrading is a small part of a whole picture; and it is the whole picture which interests me most. Particulars can be distracting because we can fasten easily onto particulars. The how it’s done, the exact techniques, the policies that surround it. This is why best practices are so popular and widely accepted—not because they work, but because they make the really difficult work of teaching seem a bit simpler.

I say that in order to orient us toward something more complicated than a best practice, something more along the lines of what Jesse suggests: practices which we develop out of our own pedagogies, and which can either serve across many teaching moments because of their inherent flexibility, or which might serve us only once, in a very specific case. If ungrading is going to succeed, our practices should look to be flexible, student-driven, and consistent—but not consistent as in the-same-every-time consistency, consistent as in congruent with the rest of our teaching.

Before I get into any examples, let me say one more thing. Ungrading must start where our teaching begins: at the syllabus, at the opening of the first day of class, at how we begin to conceive what we will be teaching. In order for ungrading to feel seamlessly a part of the rest of our practice, our methods should both derive from and inform that practice. When Jesse says we need to re-examine all of our pedagogical approaches, this is where that work begins, not with the question “how do I ungrade?” but with the question “what am I actually teaching?”

Here’s an example. When I taught creative writing at the University of Colorado Boulder, I offered one criterion for success: for the duration of that semester, I asked that students be writers. Act like writers. Think like writers. Practice writing the way a writer does or might. It’s a very open criterion, making for a pretty simple rubric. The rubric was open to interpretation, clearly, as all rubrics are, but what made this rubric interesting was that it was going to be more up to the students to interpret it, to measure themselves against the course’s sole criterion. And they would do this through self-reflective exercises which I called writers letters.

There’s a long history of writers writing to each other, either narrating through their processes, visiting and revisiting what the life of a writer looks like, what it means, and how it shapes a person, or really just talking through their days with each other from the relative solitude of their practice. Knowing this, and referring to this history, I asked students to write me letters—actual letters, mind you, with a salutation, and in an informal and personal style—and in these letters to reflect on their work in the course. Not an “I’ve turned in every assignment on time” or “I’ve only been absent once and I speak a lot in class” kind of reflection, but more a reflection on how they were meeting or not meeting their own expectations with regards to the course’s sole criterion.

These letters formed the backbone of their final grade for the term. In them, I could read individual students’ processes, their understanding of the rubric, their sense of their own success or failure, their interpretation of what “participation” meant. Where standard rubrics are meant to offer an equal measure of quality across a diversity of students by assuming that all students are capable of the same kinds of work, the writers letters permitted an individualized relationship to quality—one which could account for the diversity in the room, whether that diversity was race, gender expression, disability, age, etc.

Above all, the writers letters encouraged students to be honest about their work, removing the temptation or need for them to perform learning, and giving them the opportunity instead to authentically engage.

I came up with the idea of writers letters not because I was trying to ungrade, but because I was trying to find a way for the purpose of the course and the method of the course to meet. The result was one example of how ungrading can work.

Likewise, in the Critical Digital Pedagogy course I teach at CU Denver, students are asked to fulfill a single criterion: contribute to the field of critical digital pedagogy in a way both germane to their own work or career goals and which pushes the field incrementally forward. This single criterion involves a very simple rubric, and one which students will, through reflection, evaluate their own success on meeting. I ask students in this class to be scholars: to think like scholars, inquire like scholars, and produce something that will have value beyond the confines of this momentary class. I am interested in how they will expand upon the field rather than reiterate it.

Once again, I ask students to use self-evaluations (similar to writers letters, but a bit less informal) to reflect on their success, their ideas of success, their ideas of scholarship, and their role as a scholar in the field. And I don’t do this because I first asked myself “how do I ungrade?” I came to this approach by asking “what am I actually teaching?” The most important thing that a student of critical digital pedagogy can walk away with is not a rote understanding of what’s been written so far, of the recommended reading, but rather a sense that they can themselves write into the field, they themselves can produce recommended reading.

In these couple of examples, what I’m hoping to point out is that my ungrading relates less to the content of the course and more directly with expectations about what learning will look like. In other words, I am not after mastery of content in my classes, but rather a critical engagement with material and process. So, my ungrading looks like self-evaluations relating to a single criterion. But that’s not the end-all of my ungrading. In my welcome email to my summer students, I outline what the course will not be. For example:

No Participation Grade
Participation online can look like a lot of different things. Instead of requiring you to “post once and reply twice” in discussion, I prefer you to engage as best suits your learning approach, your schedule, the balance of your work and personal life with school, etc. Plan to engage as authentically as you are able throughout the term, for while participation is not graded, I believe it is essential… however participation looks for you.
No Required Reading
Critical digital pedagogy is a pretty vast, and rapidly expanding, field of study. As such, there is no single way to approach an understanding of the field. Therefore, all readings I’ve listed on the schedule are recommended and not required; but I fully expect you will also engage with the class bibliography, uncover your own resources (and share them), and do a lot of your own discovery as the semester moves along. The recommended readings I’ve provided are a good place to get your start, but if you find another place to start, that’s also valid.

And this is what I meant when I said ungrading must be congruent with the rest of our teaching. My ungrading includes self-assessment, but it also includes a different approach to reading and participation. Ungrading must be consistent. If we don’t grade an assignment, but we grade participation, or if we don’t grade papers but we include graded exams in our classes, we not only give students reasons to doubt or distrust our approach, we verify those doubts, and perpetuate the centrality of grades, and the harm they do. Instead, we can think about ungrading this way:

  • Ungrading is a humanizing approach to education.
  • Ungrading is not about grades, but about people.
  • Ungrading is more than not-grading, it’s an approach that informs and is informed by our whole pedagogical practice. It is an “if this, then what else” modus operandi, and something we must inhabit fully when we teach or prepare to teach.
  • Ungrading does not play at being objective, but rather acknowledges the utter subjectivity of learning.
  • Ungrading asks us to question the notions of teaching content, of expertise, of the location of knowledge in the room. Which means that ungrading is inherently more equitable than grading.

There are a lot of ways to ungrade, but the truth is that we all must arrive at our own methods. Ask yourself why you grade, why you want to ungrade, and what ungrading might look like for you as it is distributed across every aspect of your teaching. Ask “what am I actually teaching?” Or ask “what’s the most important thing for a professional in my field to be capable of?” And then bend your teaching in that direction. These are the questions that will lead you to creating new pathways for students in your classes to succeed. But more, when you find your own ungrading approach, you’ll be opening new doors to more than success—you’ll be opening doors to authentic engagement, knowledge production, and education that is a practice of freedom.

At the foundation of ungrading lies something that should change school entirely: a suggestion that ranking and evaluation, and the concomitant expertise of the ranker or evaluator, is entirely an optional way of viewing things. Ungrading should, when it’s done, rearrange the room, placing the teacher in amongst students, dismantling the podium, rewriting textbooks such that the class itself becomes the text, and the rubric for comprehension of that text no less than a steady engagement with one another. Because when we talk about grades we are talking about people, ungrading has nothing to do whatever with grades, except insofar as to point out that grades themselves have never been what we should be concerned about.