Ungrading: Reframing the Experiment (Part 4)

Once one develops a system for implementing a pedagogical intervention, there’s an underlying hope that it will work at least one more time.

Cue the crying laughter.

I thought once I had figured out the ungrading process, it could be used with every exam. What I forgot was the years of practice I’ve had simply taking off points without giving too much feedback. And that’s where my awesome ungrading process derailed.

The class took exam 2 and filled out the confidence levels without a hitch. At the same time my Organic Chemistry II class was taking their exam, however, my General Chemistry II class was taking their exam 3. As the grading piles grew, I went into automatic pilot to grade them, including the exams I needed to ungrade.

I had completed about a third of the ungrading exams before I figured it out. And then the slew of colorful expletives explosively erupted.

I went back and gave as much feedback as I could while trying to white out the erroneous points taken off. But that made for some messy work that only partially solved the problem.

More importantly, it put me behind schedule for giving the feedback on their exams. So I failed to complete my spreadsheet in advance of returning the exams. To compensate for this failure, I scanned their exams (in their entirety) and vowed I would fill out the spreadsheet before they handed back their exams with their ungrading sheets. This scanning of exams without filling out the spreadsheet prior to handing them back, in fact, became my new modus operandi for the second and third exams.

When I walked in with the exams, I admitted my mistake in taking off points on some questions and apologized. My students didn’t seem to mind too much as a class. The ungrading process determined for exam 1 continued relatively unperturbed.

Until I received my students’ ungrading sheets (which now more of my students used for corrections as well) for exam 2. While most of their ungrading sheets were fantastic and revealed beautiful and thoughtful work, a small handful of students decided to basically ignore my feedback and give themselves full credit on certain problems.

No argument. No reasoning or cited work discussing why. Just blatant disregard for my feedback.

So that required a conversation.

I walked into my Organic Chemistry II class with their now graded exams and explained what I had seen on a few students’ ungrading sheets. After we briefly discussed the issue, here’s (more or less) what I said:

“We all get feedback we don’t agree with or, even worse, didn’t want to hear. I usually get that kind of feedback on papers I’ve submitted to peer-reviewed journals or on grants I’ve submitted to NSF. So I get it.

But when I want to disregard the feedback offered, I better have an excellent argument stating why I think I can disregard the feedback. I need to first thoughtfully lay out my argument in detail, then offer citations to provide evidence that my argument is valid.

So that’s what we’re going to do with the feedback I give on exams in this class. If there is feedback (that isn’t totally positive) given for an answer you gave, then there was something wrong with that answer. If you disagree with this assessment of your work, then you need to lay out a thoughtful argument detailing why you disagree, and you need to justify your argument using at least two scholarly citations – your textbook can count as one of the two citations needed. If your point total you write down for the problem doesn’t incorporate my feedback on the exam and no argument is given as to why, we will just count my grade as your grade.”

Only one student argued a single problem thereafter, and they provided multiple scholarly citations for each answer in the multiple choice problem as well as a thoughtful argument. So I gave them back the points I had taken off.

After this reframing of expectations, everything in Exam 3 proceeded very smoothly. Apparently the number of iterations we needed to frame and reframe the experiment were two in this particular classroom.

However, I will incorporate this reframing of expectations, and perhaps a fictional example of an excellent ungrading sheet, in future ungrading sections of my syllabi.

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