Ungrading: A Series (Part 1)

It began with a blog post and a fundamental dismantling of my assumptions, courtesy of Jesse Stommel:

And then quickly progressed into a discussion…

I wanted to think through ungrading with colleagues who had already attempted it in their classrooms. This conversation started to answer some of my bigger concerns/questions: How was I going to actually make ungrading happen in my chemistry classrooms? Would I be able to convince my students to buy into ungrading?

I needed to conduct a pilot project first for a semester in one of my chemistry classrooms. Why only one? My health was such at the beginning of the semester that I could only foresee having enough energy for one class to accomplish ungrading in the way I wanted.

So, I did a bit more research into Alfie Kohn’s important contributions to the topic, including “The Case Against Grades”. His assessment that “the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing” (Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”) was a striking insight. Grading is undermining learning daily by focusing student interest on achievement, not their own learning.

I became convinced that ungrading wasn’t just a good idea in terms of student agency but also in terms of social justice. Students deserved to be included in the discussion of grades. I set about trying to decide how I would implement it.

The one class would become my highest level class offered during the semester – Organic Chemistry II. I chose my most advanced students because I’ve found in the tenure of my career that they either are the most flexible in thinking (due to their tenure as college students) or are the most stringent (due to their tenure as college students). For this group, ungrading would either be an easy sell or a close-to-impossible sell.

In my OChem II class, I would implement ungrading in both In-Class Exercises and in Exams, which together comprised 60% of the grade. Another 15% of the grade was devoted to Learning Journals, which are already graded using binary grading. In my estimation, the most important part of the ungrading scheme was the conversation regarding exams because they both comprised the largest percentage of the grade and represented the largest paradigm shift in my current grading scheme. Below is an excerpt from my syllabus used during this semester.

Organic Chemistry II Syllabus Excerpt

Learning Journal, Attendance, and @hypothes.is Articles (15%)

  • In an effort to help students become digital citizens with appropriate professionalism online, five reflection papers detailing each student’s learning journey (approximately one at the beginning and end of the semester and one for each exam) will be collected throughout the semester.  Reflection papers will in a blog format, will be a minimum of 400 words, and will be submitted through a free account on WordPressConstructive and thoughtful comments on other students’ blogs and/or answers for questions on the class social media can count for up to 5% of the in-class group work.
  • Class attendance also counts within this percentage. If you miss class, please let me know. If you chronically miss class, please come talk to me during office hours or an individual appointment set up via email or Slack DM.
  • In terms of the participation in any online discussion forums, including @hypothes.is articles, blog commentary and the classroom social media site, you are expected to conduct yourself professionally as well as with respectful and thoughtful behavior. Quality counts!  Your postings must have correct sentence structure and must be spell-checked. Learning Journals and @hypothes.is articles are graded mostly on a participation basis; if you post or submit the journal with correct grammar and spelling on time having discussed your learning journey in this class, then you will receive full credit for that posting or submission.

In Class Exercises and Quizzes (15%)

  • In Class Exercises will be administered throughout the class. These exercises will be completed as homework as needed. The exercises may be completed individually or via group work.
  • In Class Exercises will be graded on a ternary scale based on feedback:

0 = Not submitted                 1 = Needs further work                    2 = Complete and Correct!

NOTE: If an individual or a group receives a 1 on their work, they may resubmit their work for regrading ONE TIME within ONE WEEK of the original due date.

Examinations (45%)

  • Three major in-class exams will be given throughout the semester during the class periods noted in the Class Schedule.
  • We will be using a process called ungrading to incorporate feedback into the exam grading process. It’s a fairly complex system but the point is that I want to make exam grades more of a conversation between you (as the student) and me (as the instructor) than they are now. This progress involves a multi-tiered system of feedback:
    • After the exams are completed and “graded”, I will hand back the exams with only feedback (no scores). I will, however, write in a spreadsheet scores that I think each student earned for each exam question.
    • Based on your work and the feedback given, you will write the number of points for the question you think you earned. (Total points for each question are determined and shown before the exam is handed out initially.)
    • I will then share the points that I think you earned from the spreadsheet.
    • We will discuss any discrepancies. If my point total is higher than your point total, we’ll typically count my point total. Generally, the final point total for each exam question will be an average of your score and my score.
    • To keep students from artificially inflating their grade, if your overall score is within 1 standard deviation (1 SD = typically 8-15 points historically on my Organic II exams) of my overall score, then you will receive +5 bonus points. If your overall score is outside of 3 standard deviations of my overall score (that’s somewhere between 24-45 points off of my score, folks), I will deduct 5-10 points off of your exam. The point here is that you need to evaluate yourself fairly based on how you think you did vs. how I think you did (given that I have more historical expertise with this material and have access to the entire class’s performance).

This class counts for pre-med and most pre-health pre-reqs, and I was afraid if there wasn’t some kind of minimal alignment across the class in terms of grading, those programs would deny the credit for this class. It seems a bit ridiculous that they would, but our university down the street has denied classes as pre-reqs for less. Thus, the last bullet under Exams was essential piece of the puzzle for me.

I trust students. But I also think ungrading requires thinking significantly differently about how grades are assessed and calculated. It requires students to have a great deal of metacognition about their learning vs. others in the class. It requires conversation about their performance with an expert in the field. It requires students to embrace their learning and their learning assessment in a VERY different way than they probably have in the past, and if they fully embrace ungrading, there’s still a possibility that it might create friction with the process and between the students and me.

I embrace this new journey with my students. I look forward to the possibilities it might create in our learning discussions.

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