A Collaborative Self-Study Into the Intersection of Vulnerability and Assessment Practices
Traditional grading practices have come under critique recently because they are inequitable and often contradict the pedagogical goals of practitioners, especially teacher educators. This self-study examines the collaborative process of three higher education instructors assessing and grading differently. We each employed different ungrading strategies in our courses, and met biweekly to discuss our approaches, experiences, and challenges. Recordings of these meetings, alongside regular emails and reflective journals, were analyzed through the lens of vulnerability, exploring the ways we were made and made ourselves vulnerable as we engaged in pedagogically risky activities. Our findings demonstrate the value of collaborative sense-making and relational support for instructors who are implementing more equitable and humanizing grading practices in their courses.
Context of the Study
We are three college instructors; two of us work specifically in teacher education, and the third teaches courses in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) and mathematics, including math courses for preservice teachers. Two of us are pre-tenure and one of us is not in a tenure-track position. We work at a primarily-white, research-intensive institution in the Northeast United States. Our relationship grew from a shared interest in a group devoted to equitable teaching practices. We began discussing shifts in our grading practices while collaboratively reading Ungrading (Blum, 2020), which examines how to assess learning differently and how to more actively engage students in that process. Our partnership allows us to explore the relationships between assessment and grading in a traditional teacher education program, but also in undergraduate educational contexts, providing an opportunity to enrich our collaborative self-study by widening the perspectives of participants. To guide our research, we drew from qualitative and self-study methods (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2009; LaBoskey, 2004), so we could both collaborate and co-create our assessment practices and make a side-by-side-by-side comparison of those ungrading processes and experiences.
After reading and discussing the text, we each employed a unique method for assessing differently in our undergraduate courses. This provided us an opportunity to pause, take stock of our current practices, and consider how to intentionally shift our practices away from the dehumanizing effects of gradings (Romanowski, 2004). Motivated by a shared commitment to critical frameworks in education that seek to disrupt traditional hierarchies of power and humanize students (Andrews et al., 2019; Freire, 1970; hooks, 1994), we decided to shift our grading practices in order to better align them with our critical commitments. Collectively, we all transitioned away from the relatively traditional 100-point scale grading system, where all assignments were submitted and scored, sometimes along a rubric, and scoring weights were determined based on the importance of the task; for example, a final course project in Rebecca’s course frequently counted for a third of the course grade. While the particular ungrading approaches of each author varied, Tammy employed a low-stakes points approach whereby everything completed had 1 or 2 points attached, but she gave specific feedback that helped scaffold the next moves students were being asked to make to complete a long-term project. Rebecca used a “no grades” approach, opting instead to use student self-assessment and one-on-one conferencing, coupled with specific feedback, and Kevin implemented a variety of methods, from a journal and feedback system to a “non-quantified” system in his WGS course. More detailed descriptions of each of our shifts are described in the outcomes section of this paper.
Review of the Literature
The traditional grading system is intertwined with the history of Western education and has sought to meet multiple purposes, from measuring academic achievement to comparing student performance (Olsen & Buchanan, 2019). Recently, there has been a movement toward change in assessment practices among and between a variety of educational stakeholders (Blum, 2020). While grading and assessment research has typically been distinct areas of study, research on assessment has consistently demonstrated the value of feedback for student learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). In a meta-analysis of the effects of grading and feedback, Koenka et al. (2019) affirmed that while studies have consistently demonstrated that feedback is the most important feature in student learning, grades, even when accompanied by effective feedback, negatively influence motivation. Similarly, Shepard et al. (2018) note that grades consistently “become the focus of attention rather than attending to the means for improvement” (p. 28).
The focus of self-study scholarship on grading differently has, much like our aims, sought to transform the relationships between teacher educators and their students. Placier’s (1995) foundational self-study found that grades served primarily administrative functions rather than pedagogical ones; highlighting how - despite their ubiquity - grades often go unexamined as a practice in teacher education. McClam & Sevier (2010) found that shifting grading practices destabilized relationships within the established system, because of concerns it raised around legitimacy and trust. They argue for more dialogue about grades across all members of the community (teacher educators, colleagues, and students). In much of the self-study scholarship, teacher educators reimagine grading processes in order to better align their practices with their commitments. For example, Brubaker (2010) shifted his traditional grading approach to individualized grading contracts; he highlights the tensions teacher educators face in negotiating authority with students as he sought to better align his professional, personal, and pedagogical beliefs. Similarly, in their analysis of their feedback processes, Pittaway and Dowden (2014) demonstrate the value of critical reflection of teacher educator beliefs related to assessment. In her examination of the intersection between care theory and grading Rabin (2021) found that grades can complicate a teacher educator’s attempt to emphasize care in their pedagogy. For Rabin, de-centering grading, especially in an online context, supported her in explicating and mitigating the power dynamics between teacher educator and teacher candidate. Finally, Lischka et al. (2020) examined how revising a grading policy can deepen the practice of relational teacher education. In this self-study the lead author revised her grading policy “to remove all numerical values for activities completed” (p. 71) and instead provide feedback and opportunities for students to revise their work. The study found that a de-emphasis of letter and numeric grades increased the capacity of the teacher educator to engage in “the relational practices of respecting and empathizing with preservice teachers” (p. 75).
We shifted our assessment methods during the 2020-2021 academic year motivated by literature assessment practices and our orientation as critical pedagogues. We are influenced by writing and thinking in critical theory (Ennis, 1987), critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970), and feminist pedagogy (hooks, 1994). Thus, we each employed different ways of connecting assessment with learning in our courses that we variably call 'ungrading'.
In particular, we were guided by two research questions:
- How do we (three college-level instructors) further humanize our practice through ungrading?
- How do we navigate experiences of vulnerability that arise from a shift to ungrading?
For this self-study, we employed assessment differently in each of our classes. Thus, we implemented a self-study as a project of collaboration and dialogic inquiry and engaged with each others’ contributions to produce individual and community learning (Lunenberg & Samaras, 2011). A collaborative self-study allowed us to use ungrading practices within our own contexts, experience them individually, and reflect on and make sense of those experiences together. In this iteration of upgrading, we were most interested in the effect the process had on our assessment practices and how we experienced evaluating student work within a higher education context that prioritizes ranking, competition, and numeric values. In further interactions, we may ask students how they experienced ungrading. However, that was beyond the scope of this self-study. To collaborate and to determine the influence of collaboration on our assessment practice, we journaled monthly; emailed each other regularly with questions, anecdotes, surprises, and takeaways; and met biweekly on recorded Zoom calls over an academic year. Transcripts, recordings, and notes from meetings, journals, and emails comprise our data sources. In our first level of analysis, we drew from a framework that proposed different, intersecting types of vulnerabilities experienced by faculty within institutions of higher education (Buchanan & Mills, 2020).
This framework, rooted in critical feminism, proposed four intersecting, overlapping categories of vulnerability: 1) an ethic of discomfort where people intentionally place themselves in a situation/experience and experience discomfort, recognizing its potential for transformation; 2) pedagogical vulnerability, whereby individuals attempt to disrupt the status quo and may contribute to students feeling “dis” comfortable; 3) institutional vulnerability, vulnerability within the institution, creating worries about tenure, promotion, job security, and disciplinary action; and 4) relational vulnerability, “shared emotional openness about struggles, and risk-taking, feelings of invalidation by the institution, and humanizing care towards each other" (p. 245).
Our analytical process was informed by two interrelated approaches to qualitative research: grounded theory (Charmaz, 2008) and narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). We began by coding all of our data according to the four aspects of vulnerability. As an emergent framework, this allowed us to further develop the interrelated aspects of vulnerability by grounding it in our data. To ensure trustworthiness, multiple rounds of coding were conducted independently by each author. After the first independent round of coding, we met as a research team to discuss areas of confusion, identify any discrepancies, and ensure consensus regarding the use of the vulnerability framework and consistent application of the four codes. However, we also stayed open to new learning as they arose, open coding for those instances in a second round of analysis. These open codes identified emergent themes not included in the framework. Finally, even though we engaged in a grounded, thematic analytical process, we chose to represent our findings narratively (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000), in order to provide a holistic story of each of our experiences with ungrading.
While each instructor practiced ungrading differently, we were all similarly shaped by the interacting forces of institutional vulnerability and pedagogical vulnerability. To illustrate this process, we share vignettes narratively illustrating each of our experiences. These vignettes both describe our efforts to humanize our assessment practices (RQ1) and unpack how we were made vulnerable by these efforts (RQ2). Table 1 recaps, in brief, the approach taken by each author.
|Low stakes, low points on all assignments||No grades, all feedback|
|A four-point qualitative grading scale|
Tammy felt the intersectional pressures of institutional and pedagogical vulnerability because she was not only teaching a course about assessment, her class was responsible for a key assessment in the teacher education program, from which data is collected for accreditation purposes and tied to the college-wide rubric for evaluation. She had to negotiate assessing differently because of the linear assumptions held by a standards-based points system and accreditation committee. Her statement to Kevin in an email, “I know I shouldn’t be giving points, but I have to” demonstrates both the tension she felt as she pushed against her own knowledge and belief system and the vulnerability she felt as a pre-tenure assistant professor taking risks. However, she was supported by our collaboration.
She approached her course with an ethic of discomfort, however, the institutional pressures led her to change her orientation from “ungrading” to “learning about ungrading” as an unlearning process for preservice teachers. Rather than fully engage in ungrading the course, Tammy had the students coordinate self-selected groups, read self-selected chapters from the text, "Ungrading", and present surprises, key ideas, and takeaways from their reading to the rest of the class. They then discussed the implications of each ungrading practice presented by the author, beginning with the premise that each author was thinking about teaching and learning differently and shifting assessment practices accordingly. These discussions helped preservice teachers uncover how the system and structure of grading are embedded within the other oppressive systems of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. The presentation of each chapter was ungraded, for no points. Students were asked to sign up for a chapter that they found interesting, to meet outside of class, and create a 15-minute-long “learning opportunity” by a certain date. Points, grades, and criteria beyond “learning opportunity” were not discussed until the end. In a sense, the students and Tammy navigated the dimensions of the vulnerability framework together as they used the text and the book club to examine ungrading, develop relationships, and begin to learn new pedagogical strategies for assessment.
For example, after one group of students (White, cisgender identifying males) presented their chapter, they paused. One sighed and looked toward the students in the class and said, “I have never thought about any of this before. I have never read a textbook that I liked to read. This is…this is…I am not sure what I am going to do with this now…” Many students in the class nodded, sighing back. It was a moment of shared relational vulnerability. He was in an approximate pedagogical position, presenting to the class, and found himself exposing his emotions and grappling with differences publicly. The relational nature of the text, the acceptance of his peers, who had recently found themselves in the same situation, and the embodied reaction, the collective sigh, seemed to express their collective discomfort, but also the sense of community they were developing in that discomfort. Tammy understood this experience to mean that together, they were uncomfortable with the status quo but also with what it meant to disrupt the system.
Rebecca, a pre-tenure faculty member who works primarily in teacher education, transitioned away from a system in her undergraduate teacher education course where students could accumulate points for each assignment. The points available ranged from five to thirty, based on the importance of each assignment, and over the course of a semester, cumulatively the assignments represented a possible 100 points. The new approach she applied during this self-study was to go completely gradeless, or a version of what Gibbs (2020) described as “all-feedback-no-grades” (p. 92). She made this choice because it was aligned with her educational philosophy, which is rooted in critical frameworks (Freire, 1970; hooks, 1994) that seek to disrupt the hierarchy of traditional student-teacher dynamics and create more collaborative communities in educational spaces. She had also experienced a phenomenon described by Gibbs (2020), where her students rarely acted on the feedback she had previously provided.
When teachers give feedback together with a grade, the students see the feedback as justification for the grade, but if there is feedback without a grade, then students can see the feedback for its own sake and act on it. (p. 96)
She saw these two aspects as connected. Perhaps removing grades could make feedback a more integral part of the collaborative, dialogic communities she was trying to foster.
While she entered the work with an ethic of discomfort, she immediately learned how this process also demanded discomfort of students. They were asked to trust an instructor they did not yet know with a grading system where the parameters were vague. This pedagogical vulnerability was experienced both by Rebecca and the students in her class. Moreover, because the practice was out of the norm for faculty in the department, she expected that her more experienced colleagues would likely take issue with an ungraded course, raising concerns for her regarding institutional vulnerability. Therefore, she chose not to share this practice with colleagues outside of this self-study group. She was also concerned that the discomfort students might feel could be shared more broadly, and worried about the potential impacts, especially because multiple sections of this course run each semester, and the other sections used more traditional grading structures.
The process raised both practical and intellectual questions for Rebecca. Students became more comfortable with the process of ungrading as she had developed trusting relationships with them over the semester, which alleviated some of the pedagogical and institutional vulnerability she had been experiencing near the beginning of the course. However, new challenges arose when it was time to determine the final course grade. She met individually with each student and through their self-assessment they collaboratively determined a course grade. She then shared this in an email with the other members of this self-study:
I've been thinking a lot about self-evaluation - which I think can be super valuable for students. But this process of narrowing it down to a letter grade which is supposed to signify something in the larger world just felt like I was reducing all of the fantastic expansive work we did over the semester. And putting a responsibility on students that they palpably did not want. Which was interesting to think about - whether I am just transferring my burden onto them (but still holding the strings that say 'I'm in charge'). I think releasing the strings might mean either:
1. They decide what grade they get or
2. Everyone gets an A
Not sure I am ready for that yet...but something to ponder.
This quote demonstrates a renewed interaction between pedagogical and institutional vulnerability. At the end of the semester, students still felt uncomfortable being charged with determining their own course grade, but Rebecca felt too vulnerable to release all of the authority tied to being the person who “grades” students. However, this collaborative self-study space provided her with the support to engage with the questions that make instructors vulnerable and demand greater vulnerability from their students as they sought to collectively disrupt the status quo around grading practices.
Kevin, a contingent faculty member in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) studies as well as the Math department, moved away from a fairly typical numeric grading scheme where the final course grade was a weighted average of categories. Most of his prior teaching and learning experiences were in mathematics and physics courses where categories included homework, quizzes, and exams. This was his second-semester teaching in WGS and he decided to adopt a qualitative grading scheme similar to Elbow (1997). Work could be graded for completion (Complete, Not Done) or as Excellent, Satisfactory, Cannot Assess, Not Done. There were no late penalties and Not Done was not a proxy for a numerical grade of zero, it only indicated the absence of the work. While this was still grading, it functioned as an approach to ungrading by refusing late penalties, necessitating student involvement in final grade assignment, and setting aside some activities as completion-based (Kohn, 2020).
The inability to average qualitative data necessitated dialogue with students challenging the centrality of the instructor. It required considering, with the student, overall changes in work in the context of the first full semester of remote learning during the pandemic. Students submitted two self-assessments during the course answering questions modeled after Stommel (2020). These questions invited students to reflect on their success, excitement, and challenges as well as revisit student learning outcomes in the syllabus. This grading system could be used, to a degree, within a learning management system, such as Brightspace, which allows for custom grading schemes. Students could see their grades in the grade book, but there was no current average or numerical standing. These two self-assessments were a crucial component of assigning a final course grade. The syllabus described examples of how these qualitative grades would be translated into the required institutional grades A, B, C, D, and F (with +/-) though those examples were not formulaic.
Example 1: Clearly all excellent work would result in an A. But so would work that began unsatisfactory but progressed to satisfactory and finally, and consistently, was excellent. This trend might indicate growth and engagement with the feedback.
All work was submitted within a Google folder shared with Kevin and feedback was primarily provided using the comment feature. Kevin found the combination of ungrading with the use of Google Docs supported a process-focused orientation to student work. Students almost always replied to the comment-based feedback in the documents. These became conversations not only about the assignment but also about the content and personal details.
The “Cannot Assess” grade was framed to students as an invitation and not as a proxy for a C or D. It was always an invitation to return and continue working on the assignment and students often did return and make changes that had been scaffolded through those comment based conversations with Kevin in Google Docs. This refocusing on process instead of grades was exciting to experience. By the end of the semester, Kevin sent the following email to the other two authors.
What a weird feeling trusting students to evaluate themselves. It's also a beautiful thing, a really wonderful thing. I can do much better of course, but even this first pass....while I didn't ungrade WGS101 initially, I'm just assigning them their own recommendations. It almost makes the notion a grade so obviously ridiculous. There are a bunch of reasonable A's. Folks who make a case and I can't see any reason to disagree but their work (while complete and thorough) is certainly diverse. I don't know, it's just weird...almost farcical. Whereas with weighted averages...it hides some of the comedy of confidence numbers can perform.
This quote demonstrates some of the potential of an ethic of discomfort (Cutri & Whiting, 2015). All of this change was made possible because of the ongoing support of our self-study. The feelings among all of us in this collaborative self-study can be best summarized in this line from an email that Kevin sent to the other two authors at the end of the semester:
And I love you both.
Discussion and Conclusion
The meetings, the journaling, the shared text reading, and the dialogue all served to mitigate some of our fear of taking risks and helped us recalibrate the risks themselves. For example, the regular, collaborative sense-making supported Tammy's decisions to reframe assessment and to stay committed to making small shifts to status quo practices. Similarly, the shared space for sense-making allowed us to explore and question the nature of grades and their administrative functions in ways that weren’t previously available to us, as is evident in Rebecca’s vignette. The regular time spent engaging in shared material and reflecting on our own experiences provided avenues for relational vulnerability, which supported all three of us in ungrading. Moreover, our goals and experiences affirm existing research on assessment and self-study scholarship related to grading. Shifting away from traditional grading allowed us to prioritize narrative feedback (Gibbs, 2020; Koenka et al., 2019), and we saw significant shifts in the ways that students in our courses engaged with the material because of this transition to feedback. In addition, this research builds on previous self-study scholarship by demonstrating the ways that shifting grading practices can transform relationships between students and instructors (Lischka, 2020). For Tammy, the focus on ungrading as a pedagogical approach allowed preservice teachers to engage differently with the course material, as evidenced in the vulnerability they demonstrate in their presentations. For Rebecca, negotiating course grades in dialogue with students required the navigation of shared authority and decision-making power (Brubaker, 2010). Kevin found that the combination of feedback-driven support and qualitative grading prompted conversations with students, allowing for the combination of relational development and deeper engagement with course material. All three of us feel that the ways that ungrading allowed us to reorient our relationships with students deepened our practice as critical pedagogues.
This self-study furthers existing scholarship by presenting a framework that examines the process of grading in connection with institutional, pedagogical, and relational vulnerabilities. We demonstrate the possibilities and challenges teacher educators, and other instructors, face as they navigate grading differently, particularly within various institutional constraints. Given the implicitly hostile institutional environment, the space and time to be relationally vulnerable with each other was integral to our process and enabled us to explore how best to adapt our pedagogical practices in ways that aligned with our shared critical and humanizing commitments. In other words, it served as a valuable counterweight to institutional and pedagogical discomfort. The community we built as practitioners allowed us the space to think both broadly about the nature of assessments and grades as institutional constructs as well as technically, about how to carry out the process of assigning course grades within a learning management system. The multi-level support we provided one another attended to the multi-level demands we must negotiate as higher education instructors. While the particular institutional and pedagogical constraints will vary by setting, the vulnerability framework provides a tool for other teacher educators and higher education instructors to examine and collaboratively make sense of their specific contexts as they innovate pedagogically and/or rethink grading processes. Our findings demonstrate the ways that multi-field collaborative sense-making communities can support educators in the vulnerable work of assessing against the grain in higher education spaces.
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