By Zhixian (Susie) Zhang, Class of 2023
At the 2022 Teaching and Learning Showcase hosted by the Center for Teaching and Learning at DKU, Ben Van Overmeire, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DKU presented his ungrading approach and feedback practices. As a student partner to coordinate the showcase, I was deeply inspired and set up an interview with him to learn more about his approach to teaching.
Ungrading is an alternative approach that eliminates or greatly minimizes the use of assigned points or letter grades in a course, focusing instead on frequent and detailed feedback to students on their work. It aims to reduce reliance on letter grades and create a more individualized and inclusive learning environment, enabling students to study in an intrinsic and self-directed way.1
Build an Inclusive Classroom
At first, I was apprehensive about ungrading, assuming that there was no clear criterion to assess student learning. But Prof. Overmeire dispelled my misunderstanding by asking me to imagine myself as a media and arts student taking a physics course. In such a scenario, I wouldn’t have as much background in physics as my peers, and probably would not do as well on tests and quizzes as other STEM students at the beginning of the course. With the traditional “averaging” of grades, the initial setbacks may dig too deep a hole for me to climb out of. What if the pressure of grades is taken out of the process and opportunities to improve work based on feedbacks are given instead? Similarly, freshmen may need more time to digest and more flexible ways to demonstrate their mastery compared to seniors enrolled in the same course. Ungrading encourages students to focus more on the learning process rather than the grades, leading to a purer, more enjoyable, and possibly more rewarding learning experiences.
It is worth mentioning that Prof. Overmeire gives tailored feedback that takes into account each student’s learning style. These techniques provide a more individualized and inclusive environment. For instance, students have choices about how they learn and what their goals are. Some of them can take on more challenging materials while others can stick to the fundamentals without being overwhelmed. In addition, Prof. Overmeire also gives students personalized feedback that meets individual needs. All students in the class meet with him at least three times in a seven-week class schedule, and he gives them as much feedback as they want, which greatly promotes personalized learning.
Prof. Overmeire also explained why he chose ungrading instead of other forms of grading methods such as contract grading1. While these standards still set a bar for students to meet, in ungrading, the only bar is the bar that students set for themselves. Ungrading no longer motivates students to minimize their work to maximize their grades; instead, it makes learning, as well as reflecting on learning, students’ own responsibility.
“Grading is always about what the professor wants, but it should be about what you want,” Prof. Overmeire remarked. “That is what learning should be about.”
Prompt Interactive Learning
To support the implementation of the adapted ungrading approach, Prof. Overmeire focuses his daily teaching and feedback on enhancing classroom interaction. For example, Prof. Overmeire always encourages students to discuss and give feedback on the syllabus and course materials. A student in his classes mentioned that she learned without pressure because she can ask questions anytime in a relaxing classroom atmosphere.
Moreover, Prof. Overmeire’s feedback contains both verbal and written forms and varies depending on the occasion. For instance, he uses the annotation platform Perusall to figure out before class starts what students are confused about. He also features Perusall comments in class, encouraging others to reply or ask a follow-up question. Students, therefore, can have open and thought-provoking conversations both online and onsite. It helps build a more participatory learning community, as a lot of students became good friends through the mind-to-mind encounter.
Prof. Overmeire concluded that his key to giving feedback is to teach, but not assess. In other words, he tells what he sees and what could be improved. Rather than using feedback to quantify students’ abilities, he believes that students can achieve their potential by following guidance.
He compared academic learning to studying Tai Chi: “When you learn Tai Chi, the teacher doesn’t simply say: A+. Rather, the teacher says: your shoulder is not relaxed enough.” Similarly, he would give concrete feedback by informing the students that their introduction is not well-written due to a messy structure.
In a sense, the experience of ungrading is exactly like practicing Tai Chi: you let things take their own course without worrying about the results, but you also need a patient and accessible teacher by your side.
Create a Virtuous Loop of Self-Regulation
One of the most indispensable links in Prof. Overmeire’s feedback is that he regularly asks students to reflect on their class experience in writing. According to Prof. Overmeire, the question sheet includes a series of prompts and open-ended questions. For instance, “What aspects of the course are most effective for you? What have you been doing for the goal you set and what have you learned so far? What challenges have you encountered?” It not only helps students review the content they learn but also asks them to assess their progress in coursework and present their self-reflection. Usually, students are very honest about what they are learning: a student in Prof. Overmeire’s class mentioned that answering these question sheets feels like writing a diary.
Question sheets not only give students autonomy by allowing them to set their own goals but they also give students a greater sense of accomplishment by allowing them to assess whether they are meeting their goals. This motivates students to learn for themselves, and the benefits go beyond that. While students get takeaways from the sheets, Prof. Overmeire also obtains inspiration from the students’ feedback from various perspectives. By offering suggestions and comments, students also improve the course, as Prof. Overmeire uses their ideas to think about how to make the class even better the next time he teaches it. In this way, students become co-creators of his courses.
In all, Prof. Overmeire’s teaching philosophy can be applied to more than the religion classroom itself. Ungrading, which eliminates the external factor of letter grades, will foster self-driven students who carefully plan their academic route, especially in liberal arts classes and advanced classes. This is exactly what Prof. Overmeire expects of his students: he wants to teach them to be responsible for themselves and figure out who they are, which is also a universal religious quest.
“I want students to see me as a resource, as someone who can guide them toward the goals that they set,” Prof. Overmeire stated, indicating that apart from teaching course materials, he places equal emphasis on students’ self-growth and self-fulfillment.
Despite that learning websites and online courses are emerging today, he believes that the most valuable and irreplaceable thing about a university education is personal interaction. Ungrading, which elicits the chance of having a unique student body exchanging conversations freely, is his answer to educational issues in this era.
- Kenyon, A. (2022, September 22). What is ungrading?. Duke Learning Innovation. https://learninginnovation.duke.edu/blog/2022/09/what-is-ungrading/
- Kohn, A., & Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.