Faculty experimenting with ‘ungrading’ find some success


Twenty-year Pitt faculty member Gretchen H. Bender has been “inching for many years” toward going gradeless, or “ungrading,” the classes she teaches in the history of art & architecture department, she says.

After reading student work in exams year after year, Bender says, she had become “disenchanted with student response,” which was too often formulaic or merely quoted back what she had said.

She had already shifted from exams to projects, but “remote teaching and the pandemic prompted me to go back to the drawing board about the nuts and bolts of teaching, but actually about why we are teaching, what is it we are hoping our students can gain from a particular class or a particular discipline — what's most of value in this.”

Ungrading doesn’t mean giving no grade; it means finding new ways to decide on grades. Bender started to experiment with different modes of grading in both her large class, “Introduction to World Art,” with 200 students (some of them now on Zoom), and her small foundation course in the new museum studies program, with 30 students.

Today she employs a specifications grading approach, in which the instructor — or often the individual student — at the beginning of class sets the volume of work required for each letter grade: so many papers, so many projects. The instructor determines whether each assignment is complete, but the students themselves “clearly chart their own path and determine their own letter grade,” she notes.

In her smaller class, she and her students assess at mid-semester what they can do to improve their work, and the students submit portfolios of their work at the end of the course.

In both courses, Bender says, “what I am prioritizing right now in my teaching is sustained engagement over the entire semester.

“Traditionally, we teach, we lecture, we provide students with readings, and then we ask them to come and take an exam three times. Those are high stakes performance moments. I am hearing from students that that prompts a lot of short cuts,” such as cramming for exams — and forgetting everything afterward.

Now, in response to specifications grading, “what I am hearing from students is that they are actually learning more. They are engaging more deeply and more substantially with the content. I think students particularly appreciate the way the system can minimize anxiety and stress.”

She cites anonymous excerpts from her recent evaluations:

  • “It allowed me to take a ‘slow and close look,’ if you will, at the material and wrestle with the meanings and knowledge on my own terms in order to gain a greater understanding.”

  • “I believe students … have the fear of being incorrect and thus a worse grade. Students are sometimes too scared to truly reflect how they felt on a piece or a written article because they know it's incorrect. In other words, always having a ‘correct’ answer can prohibit a student's true learning ability.”

  • “I wish all my classes were set up like this. The explicit description of how to attain a specific grade takes out all of the anxiety that accumulates about grading at the end of the semester. This was by far my most difficult semester of undergrad, and of all my classes, I liked this classroom set up the most.”

  • “When it comes to the relationship between learning and grades though, I think that there is often a large disconnect between the grades a student receives and the amount they have learned. There are many classes that I have done well in where if I were asked to repeat any of the information I learned, I would draw a complete blank. The opposite is also true where some classes I did terribly in, I ended up learning a lot. … That being said I do think that specs grading sits on a razor thin edge of being too hard, too easy, or just right. It would be very easy for a student to never ‘complete’ an assignment due to strict specs for what entails a complete assignment. That could end up with the student doing terribly in the class even though they put in the effort for a B or C. Similarly, if the specs are too easy, a student could put in minimal effort, learn nothing, and still do well.”

“At the end of the day,” Bender says, “students are working harder … and I'm able to see more of a degree of critical thinking than I was able to see when I was relying on the traditional test.”

In her large class, more than 70 percent of enrolled students completed more writing assignments than needed to get an A, she says, and 75 percent of students in her smaller class did the same.

“This was not an easy thing to do,” she says of the ungrading process. She felt “challenged” to confront “deeply ingrained notions” of how to teach.

And she understands the criticisms: If a student is allowed to pass her humanities class without truly understanding a certain aspect of world art, no bridge falls down, the innocent aren’t falsely convicted and no one dies. Certain classes, from engineering to the law and the health sciences, require demonstration of the mastery of specific skills. How can such requirements mix with the notion of ungrading?

Beginning this fall, Bender was one of the self-styled “catalysts” of a Pitt faculty group addressing the entire issue of going gradeless, using the Susan Blum-edited work, “Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead),” as their guide. Others include, from Bender’s department, doctoral candidate Andrea Kibler Maxwell and faculty member Alison Langmead (jointly with the School of Computing and Information); history faculty member Carla Nappi; and Kate Joranson, head of Frick Fine Arts Library.

Bender points out that, even in the sciences, if a student receives a C, “that C tells us very little.” It could mean that the student is capable of earning an A but was too distracted to do all the work in that particular semester. Or it could mean this student struggled with the subject matter at first but excelled in the end, rendering the C a mere average of performance, not an assessment of final mastery.

The group, she says, has discussed many resources for ungrading these sorts of classes, too.

“When you start to talk about what little grades actually mean, they become to me less useful for assessing the quality of learning that transpired,” Bender says. In an “ungraded” class, students “are more likely to do more challenging work, (and) are more liable to make a mistake and take a risk.” In her classes today, she says, she receives writing that is “more daring … students are more willing to wrestle with ambiguity. They are being rewarded for the process of learning, for the sustained engagement work they are doing.”

With traditional grading, “students assume there is only a small number of As available” per class, she adds, and that they are competing for As against their peers. “It's baked into the mindset of an education system with grades.” Using specifications grading, she sees students more willing to share their ideas and work with their peers “because their peers are no longer seen as their competitors.

“If you are obsessed with getting good grades,” she concludes, “you are afraid of failing, and you won't take a risk, you won't make a mistake, and you're never really going to learn. Because missteps or wrong turns are really the most valuable lesson in life.”

Students harder on themselves than expected

“Most of the time students are super accurate, if not a little hard on themselves,” when assigning their own grade, says Kat Lieder, visiting professor in contemporary global issues in the University Center for International Studies — another member of the group discussing, and trying, ungrading. “But I'm way more concerned with their learning than what grade they deserve.”

Lieder teaches the senior capstone course for Honors College students working on their theses in global studies, as well as “Walking in the Global City.” She appreciates specifications grading for how it respects students’ varying priorities, gives students more power over their learning goals and lets them be more creative in dealing with course content.

“Every professor handles ungrading differently, and I'm still working out the kinks in it,” Lieder says. “The real challenge has been to figure out how to build ungrading into my pedagogical structure in such a way that students don't panic,” wondering if they are performing enough, and correctly. “I do encounter students who say, ‘Just tell me what you want.’ ”

What the University ungrading group is emphasizing, “and this is challenging,” she says, “is the idea that you should trust your students. Often I think grading sets up an adversarial relationship between professor and students.”

Ungrading is also “focused on creating an equitable classroom,” taking into account that some students aren't from a healthy and stable home, or have faced less-than-ideal education systems when younger, or discrimination based on a number of factors.  “These things don't disappear when you enter the classroom,” so pretending you are grading objectively just gives more privileges to the privileged, Lieder says.

Students also take classes based on different personal learning goals, “so why not encourage that sentiment,” she explains. “When students set the goals they are excited about, they are way more likely to meet them.

“The other thing — this has surprised and delighted me,” she says, “is that in general this policy creates a stronger cohort because students are more excited about their work and more excited to talk about their work.” And seeing the more ambitious course goals of their peers sometimes prompts students to adjust their own goals upward.

Better able to respond as a faculty member

Going gradeless group member Mary Rauktis, in the School of Social Work, worked with the University Center for Teaching and Learning to ungrade one writing assignment in her Human Behavior in the Social Environment class for undergraduates this fall.

“The quality is what I would expect at this point in the term,” she says of the results, while “I feel that I am better able to respond” to these papers, which are about personal events in students’ adolescence. “Yes, I am looking at how they are applying theory, but I am also asking how this experience will impact how they will work with families. In a way, it has been as freeing to me as to them. I'm really a lot happier because I'm not obsessing over, ‘Is this four points?’ ‘Is this five points?’

“I don't know that I'll un-grade an entire course,” she says. “The thing about teaching is, you never know when you walk into a class at the beginning of the semester what you are facing with this group … and what you should shift. … You have to be open about the material and how you deliver it.”

Best teaching experience ever

Scott F. Kiesling, chair of the Department of Linguistics in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, began investigating going gradeless long before joining the University discussion group, and has since gone “all in on it” in his course, Language, Gender and Sexuality, he says.

He too uses specifications grading, in which students set guidelines for earning each grade.

“Compared to other years” — Kiesling is another two-decade teaching veteran — “I would certainly think the engagement is better and a couple (of students) have commented on how much better it is to be concentrating on what they are learning.

“A lot of people worry in ungrading that the motivation for completing assignments and showing up is not there” among students, he adds, but he has not found that to be the case at all.

Nor has it been easier on his workload: “I would argue that it tends to be more work. … You can't just slap a grade on there and decide that it is feedback.”

Kiesling admits he “actually expected a lot more pushback from students, but they really seem to be engaged in the model, and I really feel I am enjoying teaching more than in recent memory, or ever. … The relationship between me and the students is one of trust and collaborative learning, rather than adversarial.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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