This paper shares insights from a collaborative self-study of the authors’ experiences implementing ungrading in our teacher education courses. Addressing the conference theme, we inquire into how ungrading represents a pedagogic turning point as we continue becoming our best-loved selves as teacher educators, recognizing that we are “forever on the way” in evolving towards these ideals. We focus analysis on how we understood ungrading in the context of our philosophies as critical educators and how our experiences with ungrading informed both our practices as teacher educators, as well as our perspectives on our teacher educator identities. We gained insight into how ungrading aligned with broader values and purposes central to our identities as critical teacher educators, how and why we made changes to improve our practices over time, and how implementing ungrading enabled us to sustain images of our best-loved selves as teacher educators. We found that ungrading enabled us to sustain aspects of our teacher identities and practices that we most valued as we worked to build relationships with students and support them in growing their knowledge, skills, and understandings in ways that aligned with both course outcomes and their own goals for who they want to become as educators. In systems that too often focus on standardization to the detriment of diversity and inclusion, there is continued need for research that offers practical insights into implementing responsive approaches. This study seeks to share what we have learned about ungrading for those seeking more responsive approaches to evaluating learning.
How we determine and evaluate learning holds significant implications for our practices as educators and for our students’ experiences and outcomes. This paper shares insights from a collaborative self-study of implementing ungrading in teacher education courses. We, the authors, are three teacher educators from two different public higher education institutions in urban cities in the southern and western U.S. We formed Las Chicas Críticas, a professional group, and have engaged in ongoing collaborative self-study of our practices for nearly a decade. We engage in self-study to better understand and improve our practices by aligning our values as critical pedagogists to our instructional approaches. Addressing the conference theme, we inquire into how ungrading represents a pedagogic turning point as we continue becoming our best-loved selves (Craig, 2017) as teacher educators, recognizing that we are “forever on the way” as we continue to evolve towards these ideals (Greene, 1995, p.1). Our interest in ungrading arose from a previous study focused on inquiring into our values as critical educators, and findings about how these values informed our approaches to assessment (Cooper et al., 2018). This led us to a growing body of literature on ungrading, and we documented our experiences implementing ungrading in our own courses. In analyzing our experiences, we gained insight into how ungrading aligned with broader values and purposes central to our identities as critical teacher educators, how and why we made changes to improve our practices over time, and how implementing ungrading enabled us to sustain images of our best-loved selves as teacher educators
Ungrading has a long history. The practice of assigning grades, though often viewed as standard, is relatively recent (Blum, 2020). This shift has exacerbated rather than ameliorated inequity, perpetuating disparities in educational outcomes. Kohn (2020) observes, “..ranking students or grading them on a curve - in both cases setting them against one another for artificially scarce distinctions, thus rigging the game so that not everyone can succeed - is not only counter productive for learning, but also, frankly, immoral” (p. xiv). This approach to grading has not served our students well. As Tyler (2020) points out, “They [grades] don’t show a student’s ability to think, write, and problem solve...They show which students are steeped in the language and culture that the U.S. A-F grading system favors, which affects our students of color disproportionately” (p. 26). Ungrading resonates strongly with critical and constructivist approaches that emphasize co-constructing knowledge and problem-posing approaches, as well as recognizing that grading choices made significantly impact student experience and outcomes, with current systems often serving to reinforce current power structures and their resulting inequities.
Ungrading decenters grading and focuses on learning as demonstrated by application of knowledge, skills, and understandings in the context of instructional goals (Barnes, 2015; Blum, 2017; Bloom, 2020; Sackstein, 2015). Teaching is a series of opportunities for meaningful qualitative feedback, from instructors and peers, to continuously advance learning (Blum, 2020). This emphasizes the importance of formative assessment and feedback that moves learning forward by providing specific and meaningful information about where learners are, where they are going, and how to get there (William, 2011). Ungrading aligns with effective approaches to formative assessment, which should comprise the majority of instruction and include feedback that moves learning forward, activating students as learning resources for one another, and activating students as owners of their own learning (William, 2011). Without grades, students are encouraged to engage with their work and feedback throughout this process to reflect and continuously revise and refine it. When students are given opportunities to revise and improve their work, they are more motivated to take creative risks that focus on learning, rather than on grades which discourage learning (Kohn, 2020). They are also more likely to review and attend to feedback when they have opportunities to make revisions. As a result, ungrading supports a learning environment and culture in which learning is understood as an ongoing and iterative process and students are expected to refine their work until they are satisfied that it reflects advanced understanding and greater mastery (Villanueva et al., 2021).
This collaborative self-study inquired into implementing ungrading in our courses. We focused on analyzing how our experiences with ungrading informed both our practices as teacher educators, as well as our perspective on our teacher educator identities. Recognizing that these goals reflected Berry’s (2004) reasons for engaging in self-study, we determined a collaborative self-study best aligned to our questions focusing on realizing our values as critical educators in practice (LaBoskey, 2004). Our study focused on:
- How do we understand ungrading as aligning to our values, purposes, and goals as critical educators?
- What have we learned from our experiences and how has this informed our approaches?
- How has ungrading supported us becoming our best-loved selves?
Data collected beginning in Fall 2020 included (a) course artifacts (e.g., syllabi, assignments and evaluation criteria, student work), (b) student feedback (e.g., student reflections, student conferences, and formal institutional course evaluations), (c) research journals for each author composed and shared in Google Docs that documented weekly reflections and insights, and (d) conversations during weekly meetings, recorded and transcribed. Throughout the 2020 academic year, we met weekly online and “storied our experiences” (Craig, 2017). These meetings enabled us to collaboratively share, analyze, and construct meaning of our experiences. In summer 2021, we began reflecting on and restorying (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990) our previous experiences, focusing on how our reflection and analysis revealed insights into our questions. Utilizing inductive coding (Charmaz, 2006) to analyze texts, themes were determined collectively as we shared and identified points of resonance (Conle, 1996) and dissonance with perceived values and practices (LaBoskey, 2004). Through the telling and re-telling of our teaching stories, we made meaning of the experiences surrounding ungrading (Craig, 1997). Initial findings from our inquiry provided a basis for continued reflection and analysis during the 2021-2022 academic year as we continued to refine our implementation of ungrading.
Philosophy: Living Our Values
As critical educators, ungrading immediately resonated with us and provided us with both a language to name established practices, while also offering a framework for extending these into a more purposeful and consistent approach to evaluation. In previous collaborative self-study into our shared values and practices as critical teacher educators, we identified the centrality of constructivist approaches that emphasized co-construction of educative experiences that valued the voices and perspectives of all participants through dialogue (Cooper et al., 2023). Ungrading, with its emphasis on process, feedback, reflection, and growth, resonated with each of us as a natural extension of our existing practices. We already encouraged students to revise and resubmit work based on peer and instructor feedback, emphasizing that grades were reflections of interim progress and could always be improved. We also focused on qualitative feedback on authentic assessments and provided multiple opportunities for students to reflect on their work and learning. Excerpts from our journals and conversations during our weekly meetings illustrate reflection on our purposes and goals for implementing ungrading:
I see ungrading as aligning with my values as a critical, constructivist, and responsive educator. Critical, because it directly engages issues of power and authority and supports a dialogic approach in which participants engage in both teaching and learning with one another. It supports a vision of teaching as an act of dialogue and community, inquiring together and engaging in productive struggle towards growth; constructivist because of the co-constructive approach to gaining and evaluating knowledge, skills, and understandings, of making sense and meaning, and responsive because it naturally responds to diverse readiness, interest, and preferences (Summer, 2021).
In analyzing how ungrading aligned with our educational philosophies, we identified a shared emphasis that teaching and learning are reflective and iterative processes. Our students must embrace reflective practice that enables critical and creative thinking as they navigate the daily challenges of developing, facilitating, and evaluating curriculum and instruction. Ungrading supports differentiated and responsive approaches that rely on knowing each student and “meeting them where they’re at,” which is central to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (Nieto, 2013). It also emphasizes cooperation over competition and encourages students to reflect on their own learning and progress rather than compare themselves to others (Kohn, 1992). As one of us reflected in a way that resonated across our experiences:
The ways I see my implementation of ungrading is consistent with my purpose and my values is by reframing what it used to be a time to drag my feet because “I have to grade” now is a time that I look forward as a way to know my student through their work and feel useful by providing feedback, experience awe watching them think and re-think, reflect and problem solve, ask questions, authentic questions (Summer, 2021).
Ungrading also offered an opportunity to model critical approaches to education for our students’ use in their own practices. As one student reflected, “She practices what she teaches which is very unique for a college professor. This is so beneficial because you get to see what she is hoping we will utilize in action which makes it easier to understand” (course evaluation, Spring, 2021). We understand ungrading as a way to continue “walking the road” as critical educators who, through focusing on engaging meaningfully with students and their work to support growth, are working for justice and equity (Cochran-Smith, 2004).
Practice: Engaging With Students and Their Work
An insight that emerged from our inquiry was how ungrading supported us in connecting with students and engaging them meaningfully with their work. Something that excited us about ungrading was the potential it held for centering formative assessment and feedback, which we already understood as essential to moving learning forward (William, 2011). While each of us prioritized feedback prior to ungrading, we recognized that transitioning to an ungraded approach would further increase the importance of effective feedback. Structuring and facilitating effective feedback was one of the most challenging aspects of ungrading, as our critical values of rich dialogic feedback competed with time constraints. The challenges are illustrated by student reflection from one of our courses during initial efforts to implement ungrading. “I enjoyed the content and the way it was taught…Grading was not always within a good time period, waited a long time…Overall great instructor” (student reflection, Fall 2020). This exemplifies that while overall instruction, supported by an ungraded approach, was generally well-received by students, initial analysis revealed opportunities for improving our feedback processes.
Providing Feedback That Moves Learning Forward
We found that we each endeavored to facilitate and engage high quality feedback. Engagement with feedback may seem straightforward; however, we found that students may not review feedback or may not have experience using it to improve their work. We learned that we needed to more explicitly model how to access and respond to our feedback. This included engaging in synchronous class activities that modeled the process and, especially in asynchronous online courses, creating resources that explained how to locate and respond to comments.
In terms of making sure they read my feedback and if they know “where” to read my feedback, because the Blackboard platform is not that student friendly to readily show the instructor’s feedback, I can assess student ability to do that. I am doing this because last semester, at the end-of-the-semester interview, I realized one student stated she did not know how to look for my feedback almost too late in the semester… (conversation from weekly meeting, Fall, 2021).
Each of us developed strategies to support student response to feedback. One of us shifted to using Google Docs for reflections and projects, so that students could easily access feedback and respond directly to comments with questions or indicate resolutions of suggestions. Another incorporated strategies that included having students access copies of instructor feedback directly in class and highlighting revisions made. Similarly, another had students make additions using different font colors to clearly indicate progression and growth over time.
Another approach we developed to engage feedback, was to meet students synchronously specifically to discuss their work. These meetings offered opportunities to connect with students about feedback and discuss questions and ideas for future refinement. Teaching multiple courses in a variety of formats necessitated that we adapt meetings to each course. For courses taught synchronously, we devoted portions of our class meetings to conferencing with students individually and in small groups. These conferences were structured to coincide with students working independently, or as part of learning stations, with one station focused on meeting with the instructor. Using stations was particularly helpful for courses with high enrollment.
One instructor that taught asynchronously online developed a system for conducting conferences at the beginning and midterm of the course by having students sign up on a schedule created in Google Docs. Meeting for end-of-course conferences with each student was something we all found successful. Conferences provided an opportunity to discuss learning experiences, progress towards course and individual goals, and students’ summative evaluation of their work, including which letter grade they ultimately aligned with their learning and why. They provided valuable opportunities to share feedback, with instructors providing feedback about coursework and students providing feedback to us about their overall experiences in our courses. As one student shared, “She was the only professor I had all summer (I took 5 classes!) who took the time to meet with individual students” (course evaluation, Summer 2022). Focusing on how and when we would regularly provide meaningful feedback to students in ways that directly supported their engagement and development of their work enabled us to more purposefully engineer activities and tasks that effectively scaffolded learning.
Activating Students As learning Resources for One Another
Another insight was how efforts to improve ungrading simultaneously necessitated and supported engaging students as learning resources for one another. Structured peer feedback is beneficial to both those receiving and providing it, as students must internalize the learning intentions and success criteria in the context of others’ work and their own (William, 2011). We already included opportunities for students to engage in peer feedback, but found that ungrading encouraged us to refine these. We built upon previous approaches, including providing criteria to guide evaluation, encouraging students to include specific questions about aspects of their work, and practicing clearly identifying and communicating what has been demonstrated, what could be improved, and suggestions for how to improve it. We realized that prior to ungrading, discussions focused on peer feedback might be limited primarily to larger drafts or completion of projects, but now more focus is given to portions of projects, with students meeting in pairs or small groups to collaboratively discuss, analyze, and evaluate one another’s work. Students are able to more fully engage in each stage of projects and to benefit from peer feedback more similarly to what the instructor would facilitate in an in-person format. These additional opportunities for peer feedback also provided more time for us to check in with students and address questions that arose. Strengthening peer feedback also increased opportunities for instructor feedback as well.
One of the main insights from this inquiry was how we could translate these approaches to asynchronous instruction. One of us included peer feedback as a focus in a three-week cycle, where the second week of each block was devoted to engaging in peer feedback. Similarly, another included more formalized and scheduled opportunities for peer feedback that were clearly communicated on the course schedule. For these activities, the entire focus of discussion was on peer feedback, rather than feedback being positioned as a product.,Students would share a draft of work on a scheduled date, and students would then have the next weekly discussion block to focus on engaging in meaningful peer feedback, with another week to make revisions (this revision time coincided with engaging in new content for the next module).
We found increased references in student reflections and course evaluations on the impact of engaging in peer feedback on their learning experiences. One student reflected,
I really appreciated the week you gave us to evaluate our peers’ work and make revisions. I also appreciate you giving us feedback as though we had submitted a rough draft and then allowed us to make changes to improve our work before submitting the final work (student reflection, Spring, 2022).
I spent the time needed to fully engage with the materials, reflect on my work, revise and edit my work based on peer and instructor feedback, and produce a text set and other course assignments that I am proud of. I also consulted with you regarding this assessment...This is my first experience with ungrading. While I was uncomfortable with the process at the beginning, the amount of feedback I received regarding assignments and projects made me feel better (student reflection, Spring 2021).
Comments like this resonated with our analysis of how our ungrading had shifted to better balance feedback from instructors and peers. As one author reflected, “All across my classes I moved away from assignments submitted solely to me, the instructor. Assignments are also submitted…in a way where other students can read what their classmates have submitted” (research journal, Fall, 2021). Further, these reflect how by making these shifts to develop clear and purposeful processes for students to support each other’s learning, the balance, quality, and frequency of interactions with knowledge, skills, and understandings improved.
Activating Students As Owners of Their Own Learning
A final insight that emerged was the consideration of how we could better support students in self-evaluation. We included more opportunities for students to evaluate their own work prior to and following sharing it with peers. This provided opportunities for engaging with learning intentions and success criteria and applying it to both their own and others’ work. Additionally, we refined the reflections that students engaged in throughout the semester. We included specific questions about what students had learned, how they had demonstrated their learning, how they had used peer and instructor feedback to support their learning, and how they had applied their feedback to refine their work. We realized that we needed to be more purposeful about including opportunities for self-evaluation in ongoing reflections, as well as in more formal reflections at the beginning, midpoint, and end of course and following completion of major projects. We included questions focused on ungrading in beginning of course reflections, as well as an invitation to ask questions and share concerns. Weekly reflections provided opportunities for students to share updates as well as ask questions and enabled us to respond to any concerns. "Having a shared Google document with her and adding to it weekly helped me feel as if I really connected with her. She made sure to provide feedback on the document in a timely manner which was great" (course evaluation, Spring 2021).
We also developed more formal reflection at the midpoint for self-evaluation and an opportunity to “check in '' and discuss how progress aligned to the letter grade that would ultimately need to be assigned. Initially, feedback was provided in written comments on the reflection; however, this evolved into conducting brief synchronous individual meetings with each student. In asynchronous courses, since the midpoint aligned with the development of major projects and also provided an opportunity to synchronously discuss feedback. These meetings, particularly in asynchronous courses were important opportunities to connect personally with our students as well as to discuss their learning experiences and progress. As one student reflected:
I enjoyed this class and was surprised at times when I thought the course work would be heavy. It only caused me to think a little harder and go outside my comfort level. I appreciate the Professor’s input and the feedback. I was at first confused on the end of the year (course) interview or exit interview, but I found that to be essential specially since the course was online and I would have probably never had F2F met her (course evaluation, Spring, 2021).
Always on the Way: Becoming Our Best-Loved Selves
Perhaps the most significant insight we gained was how ungrading increased our joy of teaching. Ungrading encouraged us to reframe the process of engaging students in their work with a primary focus on improvement. This insight reflected many of the comments shared by students that ungrading enabled them to meaningfully engage in our courses and their own work, such as
It truly allowed for me to work on my goals...I was not afraid to make mistakes...I was able to do my best, and accept feedback to improve my work...I found myself doing my best work because that is what I felt like I should do, not my best work just to secure the A (student reflection, Fall 2021).
We found that this brought us closer to our students, strengthening relationships by engaging more directly with them and through their perceptions of our primary motive as supporting their growth.
I always love chatting with you…on our Zoom meetings. I was very impressed on our first zoom this semester, specifically when you mentioned some details that you remembered about me and that made me feel like I wasn’t just another student. And I know you have a lot of students and classes, so those little comments made me feel very valued (student reflection, Spring 2022).
For us, these comments exemplify values and goals that are central to the most cherished aspects of our teacher identities in which we see ourselves as building caring relationships with our students that support and empower them in their ongoing growth and development.
Crucial to this was how ungrading served as a turning point in our practices as well as our students’ experiences in terms of freeing us from a system that constrained rather than supported learning. As one student reflected,
...ungrading made this course exciting to come back to. Surprisingly, with no grade there was no guilt. I went through the course because I wanted to complete it and come away from this course with the knowledge I needed. Not because I needed to pass (class reflection, Spring, 2021).
One of us similarly observed "Time is used differently...we don’t “grade,” we provide feedback. We also are released of “points” to focus on quality and growth" (conversation from weekly meeting, Fall 2021).
Through ungrading, we felt both challenged and supported to live our values of focusing on connecting with students in ways that made them feel seen, heard, and valued, as well as engage them with their work in ways that supported progress towards both course and their own learning goals.
Implementing ungrading provided challenges, but also opportunities to rethink our values and purposes as educators and how to make progress towards our goals. We found that ungrading sustained aspects of our teacher identities and practices that we most valued as we worked to build relationships with students and support them in growing their knowledge, skills, and understandings in ways that aligned with both course outcomes and their own goals for who they wanted to be as educators. It relieved unnecessary focus and pressure on points and submission deadlines of 11:59 pm and enabled all of us to focus on connection, collaboration, and learning. In other words it helped us humanize our practice and enabled us to live aspects of our best-loved selves (Craig, 2017, Cooper et al., 2023). As one student reflected:
I not only did the work required of me, but I was able to show my understanding through my work. I was also able to really get a satisfying sense of “greatness”...when I was able to converse with my peers and show my new understanding. That was one of my favorite aspects of this course, seeing the achievement of my overall goal this semester come to life in real time rather than later...I think this gives a great sense of responsibility to students because they are responsible for keeping up with their grade and reflecting on the work they did. (class reflection, Spring 2022)
In systems that too often focus on standardization and accountability to the detriment of diversity and inclusion, there is a continued need for research that offers practical insights into implementation of alternative approaches. This research offers insights into our experiences of ungrading with the intent to share what we have learned about how to effectively implement ungrading for those seeking more responsive approaches to evaluating learning.
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