A group of instructional designers at Ecampus participated in a book club reading “Ungrading” (Kohn & Blum, 2020). We learned many creative ways of designing assessments through participation in this book club. If you happen to be searching for ideas on designing or re-designing assessments in your teaching, we would highly recommend this book!
The idea of “Ungrading” may sound radical to many of us. Yet instructors at all types of educational institutions have tried ungrading in many different courses, ranging from humanity courses, to STEM courses, and from primary education to higher education. Starr Sackstein (author of Chapter 4 “Shifting the Grading Mindset” of the book) encourages educators to consider “ways to adjust small things in the classroom that will lead to important growth for students”. And this suggestion of starting small is coherent with what James Lang proposes in his book “Small Teaching” (Lang, 2016) and Thomas Tobin’s +1 strategy for implementing new teaching and learning strategies (Tobin & Behling, 2018). Sackstein provides a table comparing the grades vocabulary that focuses on judgement or criticism, with the non-grade vocabulary focusing on assessing and opportunity for improvement.
In chapter 5, Arthur Chiaravalli proposed a way for teaching without grades: Descriptive Grading Criteria, such as A for outstanding, B for Good, C for Satisfactory and I for Incomplete. Do you remember elementary school report cards that use E for Excellent, S for Satisfactory, and NI for Need Improvement type of categories? I think that is exactly what descriptive grading criteria represent.
In chapter 7, Christina Katopodis and Cathy Davidson offer a new approach to start a new term/semester by asking students:” What is Success in this class for you? And How can I help you achieve it?” (p. 107) Katopodis and Davidson also remind us the importance of explaining why when you challenge your students to take their own learning seriously and give students opportunities for metacognitive reflections about the learning activities themselves. Katopodis and Davidson also offer a model of contract grading for Twenty-First Century Literacies and a model of collaborative peer evaluation. Students’ grades in the course come from self-and-peer evaluations using detailed evaluation forms.
In chapter 8, Christopher Riesbeck described his critique-driven learning and assessment design of do-review-redo submission process for his intermediate-level programming course. I have used similar approach in my own teaching before and it works very well for any course with manageable number of students. The advantage for this approach is every one of your students can improve their first submissions based on feedback they receive from the instructor. The disadvantage for this approach is the potentially extended time instructors may spend on providing the feedback and reviewing the submissions and re-submissions. The key to this assessment method is making sure that the workload of providing feedback and reviewing revisions is manageable. In chapter 9, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh provided her experience of using ungrading in her organic chemistry II course, giving students opportunities to practice evaluating their own work.
And that is only snippets of what I took away from a few chapters from this book. Many resources about ungrading outside the book were shared during our book club meetings, such as two-stage exams, group exams and public exams. To answer a common question that ungrading practices may fit humanity courses more easily, Cyndie McCarley shared “Grading for Growth” blog written and maintained by two math instructors Robert Talbert and David Clark. To learn about all the creative assessment design methods introduced in this book, read it yourself either through library ebook or get a hard copy and enjoy reading, designing and experimenting!
Kohn, A. and Blum, S. (2020). Ungrading. West Virginia University Press.
Lang, J. (2016). Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Tobin, T.J. and Behling, K.T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone. West Virginia University Press.