Ungrading: Transformation in teaching and learning (Part 5)

Ungrading, a term that suggests the opposite of grading, has long been associated with the idea of purposefully eliminating or minimizing the use of points or letters to assess student work. Schinske and Tanner (2014) have provided “evidence that accuracy-based grading may, in fact, demotivate students and impede learning” (Schinske & Tanner, 2014, p. 165). The current grading system, as we know it, may be doing more harm than good for our students.

For years I’ve provided “problem/solution” type feedback on exams. I’ve tried to provide positive and constructive feedback that identifies student error patterns in real-time. My feedback is both to groups of students, while we work on formative assessments and to individuals on exams (i.e. summative assessment). And while the student groups pay more attention to the feedback and reiterate that same feedback to each other throughout the progression of the formative assessment, the individual feedback has largely gone unnoticed in lieu of grade point totals.

Let me state that last sentence one more time and in another way: The vast majority of my students have barely looked at their grades, let alone the feedback I provide them on an exam.

I decided to change that last pattern in Spring 2019 and instead took on this grand experiment of ungrading. Instructional designs like the one I made for my ungrading experiment require constant honing until they work well. I know that this honing process can take semesters or years. I tend to prize any process that stands the test of Occam’s Razor, and SAM (Successive Approximation Model), with its emphasis on iteration and quick prototyping, is a clear process for design that stands this test. I used SAM in the case of ungrading because SAM is a model that allows for more spontaneity than most and requires a constant flow of creative input.

ID Case Screenshot

Figure 1. A simplified version of SAM. Based on an article by (Matuk, McElhaney, Chen, Lim-Breitbart, Kirkpatrick, & Linn, 2016).

And yet every instructional design also requires a bit of love and a lot of luck. Ungrading requires mostly the opposite – a lot of love (or at least a sense that you are doing the right thing for your students) and a bit of luck. I’m also always looking for: 1. ways to give better feedback that encourages and supports mastery levels of learning and 2. methods that enable students to take charge of their own learning, such that they can continue to excel even after my class ends. Ungrading was a process that accomplished both of these goals simultaneously.

Ungrading, for me, became a process within my exam grading that I used to focus student attention on individual feedback and that involved a conversation between the student and the instructor. I provided feedback to the students and the students provided feedback to me about their answers and why they might think their answers are still correct, even if I have provided feedback to the contrary. The conversation in terms of written feedback and the oral conversation that happens once the written feedback process has ended has been illuminating in terms of what mastery learning entails. In addition, I learned a lot about how to scaffold my students’ learning in future semesters.

You’d think I’d progressively get more accustomed to ungrading. But, in fact, I’ve felt just the opposite. The struggle was real the entire semester for many different reasons. So the question remains – was it worth it? And the resounding answer is yes, yes it was. Seeing how this initial semester of ungrading impacted me and my students really showed me that ungrading is difficult and time-consuming. Falling back into old patterns is relatively easy. But the agency given to the students for their own assessment in this process is unparalleled. I believe their learning was enhanced and it is definitely worth the time and the steep learning curve.


Matuk, C., McElhaney, K. W., Chen, J. K., Lim-Breitbart, J., Kirkpatrick, D., & Linn, M. C. (2016). Iteratively Refining a Science Explanation Tool Through Classroom Implementation and Stakeholder Partnerships. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 7(2). Retrieved from https://scholarworks.dlib.indiana.edu/journals/index.php/ijdl/article/view/20203

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

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