What is Ungrading?

Ungrading seems to be growing in popularity: there are hundreds of Tweets with the #ungrading hashtag, dozens of articles about ungrading and other alternative assessment practices regularly published in major higher ed outlets such as Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and even some Duke professors, such as Cecilia Marquez, have begun sharing their experiences with ungrading here at Duke. If you’re interested in learning more about this growing practice, this blog post provides a basic introduction. 

Ungrading is a practice which eliminates or greatly minimizes the use of assigned points or letter grades in a course, focusing instead on providing frequent and detailed feedback to students on their work, in relation to the course learning goals. Ungrading is a form of “grading for growth,” in that the primary purpose of the assessment is to help students learn and improve their knowledge and skills, rather than to create a summative score that students use to compare themselves against an external credential.

Often, ungrading occurs in an educational environment in which a final letter grade does need to be assigned; in this case, typically the instructor (sometimes with input from or jointly with students) assigns a grade at the end of the course. In some courses the instructor will ask the students to self-assign a final, summative grade, using some specific guiding questions. The grade assigned may also be based on acceptable completion of work from a list of specifications, similar to contract or specifications grading.

The focus in a class which uses ungrading is student learning, growth and reflection in relation to the course learning objectives. A fundamental requirement in a course implementing ungrading is learning goals and objectives defined at both the course and unit/module level, with clear alignment between those objectives and the assignments used in the course, and with a well-thought-out understanding by the faculty and students of the expectations for what success on the assignments looks like.

A class using ungrading is typically designed to include multiple avenues for feedback and reflection, from the students themselves, as well as from peers, the instructor, and sometimes external experts or clients. There are often multiple opportunities to resubmit at least some of the assignments to allow students to learn from and improve in response to feedback.

My definition of ungrading is rather broad and is dependent on context. Mostly ungrading for me requires (at a minimum): 1. ways to give better feedback that encourages and supports mastery levels of learning and 2. methods that enable students to take charge of their own learning (i.e., increase their agency), such that they can continue to excel even after my class ends.

Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, Ungrading: What is it and why should we use it?, 1/14/2020, accessed 6/17/2022.

Ungrading has benefits for student learning, but faculty should be aware of potential drawbacks as well. Given that GPA is still part of the admissions decision process for most grad/professional programs and the selection process for some first jobs, if part of the ungrading process in a course involves students grading or rating themselves, there is external pressure on students to have a high final course grade. Not all students are equally equipped to self-evaluate, so faculty should be aware of this and provide support or guidance as necessary. Dr. Sharon Lauricella, a Communications Professor at Ontario Tech University, uses ungrading and has students self-assign a final grade. She has found that students haven’t typically over-rated themselves in her courses, but she still retains the option to adjust self-assigned final grades if she deems fit. Some of potential biases in self-rating may be mitigated by using well-described rubrics or explanations for how to self-rate, which may include asking students to present a body of evidence of their work in the course supporting their selected rating. 

Rather than having students rate themselves for a final grade, many faculty use some version of specifications grading. Instructors create a set of standards or specifications for each assignment that clearly lay out what success looks like on that assignment. Then they review student work according to that standard, provide detailed feedback, and assign a rating (met the standard or didn’t meet the standard). Typically students have multiple attempts to meet the standard if they fail to do so the first time. Specs grading still results in a final letter grade, but the grade is determined in a different way. Students earn a particular letter grade by successfully completing “bundles” of assignments which have been pre-determined to correspond to a particular grade:

The idea is that students who want a “C” in the course have to do a certain amount of work that meets the specs; those wanting a “B” have to do everything the “C” people do, but more of it and of higher quality and/or difficulty level. Similarly the “A” students do everything the “B” students do plus even greater quantity and quality.

Done right, specs grading allows students choice and agency in how and when they are assessed; students are graded on what they can eventually show that they know, and they get to learn from mistakes and build upon failures; their grades are based on actual concrete evidence of learning; and the grades themselves convey actual meaning because they can be traced back to concrete evidence tied to detailed specifications of quality. The instructor often saves time too, because instead of determining how to allocate points (which takes more time than you think), she just determines whether the work is good enough or not, and gives feedback instead.

Robert Talbert, Specifications grading: we may have a winner, 4/28/2017, accessed 9/9/2022

Other concerns about ungrading or similar alternatives in which providing significant feedback on student performance is key, is how time-consuming that is and how to scale that to larger courses. Some suggestions:

  • Use peer review based on guiding questions or rubrics for at least some of the assignments (this has an added benefit of building students’ evaluation skills). This may work better for students who have some background in the subject. 
  • If it makes sense for the assignment, provide an answer key or explanation and have students self-review or mark up where they may need more work. Students could then be asked to submit a reflection on their work after one or a group of related assignments; you could read these and provide a general response in class.
  • Use some group assignments to reduce the number of submitted works on which you need to give feedback. 

In summary, you’ll need to consider how a final summative grade will be determined for your course, and you’ll need to determine how you’ll set up your assignments to provide enough feedback to students and to allow revisions.

If you are considering using ungrading or related alternative assessment methods such as specs or contract-based grading, let us know – we’d love to learn more about your approach and what’s working for you.

Additional readings:

Ungrading: An introduction and Ungrading: An FAQ, Jesse Stommel

Anything at Grading for Growth, a blog by David Clark and Robert Talbert, mathematics professors at Grand Valley State University focusing on research and ideas about reforming grading practices in higher education and beyond.

Tips for Teaching Professors, a blog by Breanna Bayraktar, a Community College ESL professor and educational developer