Symposium Spotlights: Seven (Feasible) Ways to Beat the Grading Grind

Sharon Lauricella headshot

Dr. Sharon Lauricella (Professor and Teaching Scholar in Residence at Ontario Tech University, Oshawa, Ontario and @AcademicBatgirl on Twitter) gave the keynote address at the second Pandemic Pedagogy Research Symposium on May 11, 2022. Her session used Mentimeter interactive slides to engage attendees in a discussion about student motivation, why we grade and assess students, alternative strategies for assessment, and how we can all get more out of assessment in higher education.

Instructors may not enjoy grading or assessing students, but grades are a primary motivator for students in most courses at most institutions, at least in part because our current higher education system is organized to reward high grades by requiring them for university admissions, scholarships, entrance into graduate or professional schools, and securing jobs or internships. Grades are often taken as a proxy for student learning. However, Dr. Lauricella emphasized that grades are an “extrinsic” (outside of the student themselves) motivator, and they don’t always directly reflect the level of student learning that has occurred. All students have a different starting point, and grades don’t always reflect their growth, effort, or creativity. 

Many grading systems are competitive and set students against each other (in cases where there are “grading curves,” for example), or are based on assignments that are not learning-focused but instead are developed and graded with a more punitive mindset. Dr. Lauricella asked, “How do we recognize what students have learned, and how do we ask them to communicate that learning to us? When we know that our assessment practices can be racist, sexist, ableist, and can negatively impact student mental health, how can we do things differently?” Her approach is to design assignments and grading systems that are aligned with course learning objectives, are learning-focused, and are enjoyable for students. She suggests using authentic assignments that are memorable after the class and that produce an outcome for audiences other than the course instructor. 

Dr. Lauricella employs an “ungrading” approach, in which each individual assignment isn’t given a grade, but students are given detailed feedback early and often and (usually) are allowed one or more opportunities to improve and resubmit in response to feedback. Dr. Lauricella recognizes that she (and most other instructors) are nevertheless obligated to give students a grade at the end of a course; she has used a variety of practices to reach a summative grade at the end of term. Often Dr. Lauricella invites students to determine their own grade using a guided self-reflection process (she retains the right to adjust if she feels the self-assigned grade is higher or lower than it should be). She has been collecting student responses to ungrading and said students report:

  • A greater sense of academic freedom;
  • A belief that this revised assessment approach is more reflective of work life after college;
  • A greater pride in their work due to the constructive feedback they receive (rather than just getting a grade);
  • The value of meeting people and making friends through the peer feedback activities; but also
  • A subset of students report having difficulty without the external validation of receiving grades. This suggests instructors who choose to try ungrading or other alternative grading approaches in which individual assignment grades aren’t given, need to consider how to support students who may find a lack of formal grades stressful or confusing.  

In her PPRS session, Dr. Lauricella presented 8 strategies that support an ungrading approach:

  1. Feedback is key. Give formative feedback early and often. Rubrics are helpful but checking boxes on a rubric is not enough. Giving feedback is time-consuming, though, so she suggested designing processes that take some of the burden off the instructor. One option could be to record audio feedback (she mentioned Mote), which can both save instructor time and feel more approachable to students. Research shows that when students are given a grade and feedback, they often ignore the feedback and focus exclusively on the grade. Instead, she provides detailed feedback but no grade, yet invites revisions and resubmissions. This process can encourage students to read, reflect upon, learn from, and apply feedback.
  2. Use low-stakes or no-stakes assignments. Students can (and will!) do assignments for few or no points, and it can be motivating for them to see positive feedback on these small assignments so they know they are on track. 
  3. Give students choice and agency where you can. Some examples: co-create a rubric, choose an assignment due date together, jointly decide on assignment weighting. This process can result in discussions about expectations from both the student and instructor, and can help students consider the potential impact of their requests. 
Example Prompts for Peer Feedback: highlight peer's argument, underline something that's unclear, ask 3 questions
  1. Use peer feedback. Pair up or put students in small groups, and provide some specific questions to guide their peer review. Using a tool such as Perusall (or the Duke-supported alternative can be one approach for feedback on written work. An added bonus is that providing peer feedback is also self-reflexive
  2. Use contract grading as the means of determining the final course grade. Contract grading (or the similar approach, specifications grading) requires significant prep up front, but can make the grading system less stressful for students. In contract and/or specifications grading, students must satisfactorily complete a certain number of assignments at a specified level to earn a specific grade. Both methods rely on:
    • close alignment between assignments and learning objectives,
    • clear descriptions of what constitutes satisfactory completion of assignments,
    • satisfactory/unsatisfactory rating of individual assignments with lots of feedback, and
    • opportunities for revision and resubmission of unsatisfactory assignments. 
Example Prompts For Self-Assessment: describe progress, favorite part, what you did best, do different on re-do, what did you learn in the course? What grade do you think you earned?
  1. Ask students to self-assess, using specific questions to prompt student self-reflection. In Dr. Lauricella’s experience, students usually underrate themselves compared to how she would rate them. When she first started ungrading, she anticipated that students may overrate themselves, but this has not been the case for at least ten years of ungrading. 
  1. Course “checkout.” Either one-on-one (if the class is small enough) or via a survey, ask students to talk with you about what they learned, what they struggled with, and similar questions that encourage them to take a metacognitive approach to their course experience. 
  2. BONUS: Make your assignments more fun. Dr. Lauricella’s gauge is whether the assignment will “make students more interesting at parties.” By this she considers whether the assignment is one that students will be able to explain in simple terms to those unfamiliar with the subject area, that students will remember after the end of the class, and in which students will create a product visible and useful to audiences other than the instructor. 

Dr. Lauricella’s presentation was engaging, motivating, and thought-provoking. Learning Innovation encourages Duke faculty to consider adjusting their assessment approach to include more formative, learning-focused practices. We are happy to consult about your assessment plans at any time. 


Resources and other readings:

Recording of the PPRS Keynote presentation, demonstrating the use of interactive slides in Mentimeter. 

Slides from PPRS Keynote (pdf)

Two sample syllabi from Dr. Lauricella’s courses, including explanations for students of her ungrading approach:

What is specifications grading and why should you consider using it? Macie Hall, 04/11/2018

Ungrading: An introduction, Jesse Stommel, 06/11/2021

Ungrading: What it is and why should we use it? Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh,  01/14/2020

Alternative Strategies for Assessment and Grading, Amy Kenyon, 03/09/2022