Teaching Thursday: Ungrading

On Thursday night, I teach a 2 hour+ section of World Civilizations I to about 50 students. For the last five or six years, I’ve been teaching this course as a “flipped classroom” where the students work together as a group to write a series of essays that draw on material from both an open access textbook and some online primary source readers.

About four years ago, I realized that most of the students in this class were typically non-majors, often non-traditional, and, in many cases, almost always over-extended had very little time to invest in this class outside of class time. Undaunted at first, I decided to do what I could to encourage students to do more work on the course material outside of class time. This had predictable results. Students with more time – often traditional college age students who had fewer competing priorities – did better and students who were over extended in general struggled. At some point, I came to recognize the most of what I was doing to get the students to do more work outside of class was not really designed to promote student learning and certainly did not promote student success as students who were over extended in various ways simply wracked up poor grades forcing me to either curve the class or give the students lower grades. Students did have time often just completed the work in the desultory fashion that the assignments were designed. In other words, my effort to get students to do more work outside of class didn’t really move the needle much. 

At around the same time, the dean (or some such person) noted that my intro-level classes (at the time Western Civilization I) had higher than average D/F/W rates. This refers to the number of students who receive Ds or Fs or withdraw from the class and there are apparently correlations between these grades (particularly in lower division classes) and retention rates. This coincided with my efforts to increase the “rigor” in the course by requiring more work outside of the classroom. What’s worse, many of the students who received Ds or Fs or simply withdrew were students who were likely at risk anyway. And, no, I don’t know this for sure, but anecdotally the number of non-traditional and working students in the class seems proportionally higher than in my other courses. 

In short, I had designed a system that probably did very little for student learning and penalized the most vulnerable. Sweet.

So, two or three years ago, I decided to adopt a minimal homework approach. Instead of insisting that students come to class prepared, I set aside time in the classroom for students to work together to get up to speed. I capped the amount of outside of class reading and writing (less than 30 pages and <1000 words per month) that I expected and switched most of my short, weekly assignments to “check in type work.” This is my lingo for assignments that draw heavily on work already accomplished during class time and that serves as a chance to check in on student engagement rather than as a cudgel to get students to do more work. 

Predictably grades improved, but more importantly for me, so did student engagement. Last night, for example, I sat there bored while the entire class of 50 some students worked on their projects. Floating aimlessly around the room, I heard groups discussing not only the organization of their papers, but also the scope of their arguments and conclusions, the nature of historical evidence, and the best way to approach certain problems in the past. Groups wrote on politics, energy, collapse, trade, and gender and dug deeply into both sources and the textbook. 

While this is a very boring way (for me) to teach, it clearly does something to activate student engagement. My current theory is that by eliminating homework, I effectively leveled the playing field in the classroom. I removed from students the dread of coming into the classroom unprepared from students who might already be juggling multiple obligations and prioritized classroom time as a space for students to be engaged and learn.  

For a long time, though, I worried that despite all this engagement something was missing. Maybe I worried that students weren’t learning enough about the past or they didn’t achieve specific quantifiable (or at least qualifiable) learning goals. Or maybe the class was merely exchanged engagement for learning. 

Over the weekend I read Susan D. Blum’s edited volume Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) which was published by University of West Virginia Press (I mention this because it’s clear the WVU Press is taking a serious interest in college level teaching issues and I’d much rather buy their books than stuff from Jossey-Bass, a subdivision of the for-profit publisher Wiley.

One thing that I learned from this book is that my preoccupation with outcomes is probably not useful. In fact, our preoccupation with specific learning outcomes in classes might represent the long-tail of grade oriented teaching. In this context, the goal of the classroom was to create a process that allowed us to measure student achievement rather than to activate student learning.

What if, instead of some defined, assessable, rankable, learning outcome, the goal of college education is to promote and encourage student engagement?  In other words, what if my concern that my students were engaged, butt perhaps not learning (enough?) reflects exactly the kind of tyranny that graded outcomes has allowed to develop. Looking at my engaged, active, and largely successful groups of students wrestling with historical analysis, argument, and writing, it was hard to imagine what additional (graded and individual) work would do to make these student more engaged.

In fact, almost every conventional metric that I could think of would be just as likely to measure aspects of the students current social or economic status as well as their past preparation for post-secondary education as anything that they learn in the classroom. This seems less than ideal to me.

I don’t think that my current approach has successfully cut the Gordian’s knot of privilege and preparation, but I do feel like I’ve created a more level playing field for all my students and that level playing field is part of why my students have been so willing (and eager!) to engage. And if engagement is our goal (and I increasingly think that it should be), then perhaps the outcome of this course is exactly what it should be.  

One Comment

  1. I have to say that what you’re doing sounds great, and I find this post very encouraging because I too have been struggling with that feeling that I should be requiring more as I ease back on the traditional expectations. But engagement is key! And different types of assessments are a positive thing. I’ve just had my Field Methods of Archaeology students hand in artifact drawings and ‘inked’ drawings of artifacts that they did with Adobe Illustrator (we had tutorials on how to do both of these) – along with a Process Journal. The feedback from the students has been great.


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