On #Ungrading, by Mikki Brock

What an honest, eye-opening, and marvelous summary of how Dr. Mikki Brock, Associate Professor of History, incorporated ungrading this past term!

I want to share some reflections on my first semester of #ungrading, which I did in my 100-level survey & 300-level seminar. This will be a long thread, but the TLDR is that I think it went really well. I loved it, the majority of my students loved it, & we all learned a lot. 1/ 

First, though, let me acknowledge that it is easier for me to do this type of experimentation than others because of my own privilege: tenured, white, a “known quantity” to my students, and supported by a dept. chair & cohort of colleagues testing the waters with me. 2/ 

My own positionality matters, and we need to keep pushing for *all* faculty to have these opportunities. 3/ 

So: the vast majority of my students reported that they enjoyed ungrading. Yes, some felt anxious about it, but most said it freed them to take risks, to think deeply about their learning, and to pay attention to my feedback rather than simply glance at a number on a page. 4/ 

Many also noted that it reduced their stress and left them more empowered and engaged than they expected. Others also said that ungrading made them want to work more, not less, because they were motivated by curiosity and commitment to the class—things beyond just pleasing me. 5/ 

A few did say they preferred traditional grading (interestingly, all men), but they also said they understood *why* I chose to ungrade. Even if they didn’t love the system, I think moving forward they’ll have a more expansive view of what learning is, and what it is for. 6/ 

I think there are some things I did well this term. Above all, I kept things simple and transparent. Lots of check ins and no mystery. Individual assignments included short self-assessments, and I also did longer, more general ones at midterm and finals. 7/ 

I cannot stress enough what a joy these self-assessments were to read. They were, for the most part, honest, vulnerable, and insightful. Above all, they provided an important opportunity for feedback and dialogue beyond just commenting on their work itself. 8/ 

There are some things I’d do differently. Next time, I’ll hold more required student conferences. I’ll try to be a bit more precise in sharing with students *my* objectives for the class, rather than just asking for theirs. 9/ 

I gave them even more feedback on their work than I usually would, but I probably could have made this feedback structured in a way that made it clearer for them and less time consuming for me. This is perhaps the one downside to ungrading: it is actually more work! 10/ 

In the end, students graded themselves, because my institution requires grades. As someone who tends to like lots of control and oversight, this was actually a really big step for me, and I am proud that I took it. 11/ 

One of the things that put me at ease was that I set a “floor”: students had to complete all assignments *according to the directions* in order to earn a B- or above. Most of my students did so, and I did not feel the need to change any of the grades students gave themselves. 12/ 

The final grade distribution was similar to previous terms, if maybe a smidge higher, which I attribute to the fact that I assigned a bit less work than usual (pandemic!). Plus students just did a really great job, esp. given all the things they were grappling with this term. 13/ 

For anyone curious about ungrading, I have a four suggestions for getting started. First, read @SusanDebraBlum‘s Ungrading and @Jessifer‘s blog; these were essential in giving me the confidence (and practical advice!) to do this. 14/ 

Their work also afforded me the language to explain to my students *why* I was doing things this way. And I did a lot of explaining, because I think students deserve to understand my approach to their learning, even if a few ultimately remain unconvinced. 15/ 

Second, I recommend starting small. In fall, I did only participation; students assessed this part of their grades based on their preparation + engagement. This was low stakes & helped me understand the process. There are also other ways to ungrade. It isn’t all or nothing! 16/ 

Third, try ungrading in a senior-level class first, as upperclass-folks tend to be more confident, they often know you, and these courses are generally smaller. My jrs and srs seemed to really like & appreciate the ungraded approach. I was surprised by how onboard they were! 17/ 

Last, if you are able, find like-minded colleagues who want to go on this journey with you. Meet regularly and talk about anxieties, aims, and strategies. We were also very lucky to have @curriculargeek provide us with constant encouragement and practical help. Thanks, Paul! 18/ 

In sum, I’ll continue to improve my own process, but I doubt I’ll ever return to the traditional system, because I just don’t believe in it. Ungrading was more work, but it was also more joyful. It put trust & curiosity at the center of my classroom. 10/10 would recommend. /fin 

Want to hear more from Dr. Brock and other W&L professors who adopted ungrading? Look for the Ungrading panel session at Fall Academy, which will be August 23 – September 3, 2021.