Ungrading Explained: What I’m Telling My Students This Fall

This semester I’m ungrading. Since making this commitment, I’ve explained ungrading multiple times to multiple people. But the explanation that would matter the most is the one I would provide to my students.

While I could have (and do) link to others far more knowledgeable on these topics, like Jesse Stommel and Alfie Kohn, I wanted to speak directly to students in my class. This seemed especially important during a semester when my contact with students would be limited to discussion boards and Zoom office hours.

I decided to approach this document like a blog post. Using a conversational form of writing seemed fitting, given that it would have to stand in for conversations we would normally have in class. What you read below is the document I’ve provided to my students this fall. I can’t vouch for its effectiveness yet, but I have yet to receive an email asking for clarification. I’d like to think that counts for something.


You’ve probably opened this document to figure out what exactly ungrading is and how it will affect you in this course. When I tell colleagues and friends that I’m using “ungrading” this fall, they immediately have questions. The general gist of these questions is “what does that even mean?”

While you have a description of ungrading and course assessment in our syllabus, here I’ll take the time to explain the idea with more depth and less formal language.

To get this out of the way upfront, no, I will not assign any grades (letter grades or numbers) in this class, and yes, you really will suggest your own final grade through a reflection letter.

Let’s get into it.

What is Ungrading and Why is It a Thing?

At the most basic level, ungrading is the idea of not assessing students with grades. In an ideal world, students would only take a class because they are motivated to learn. Grades and assessment wouldn’t matter, because the important thing would be whether you understand the material well enough to use it in your life.

In reality, students take plenty of classes to fulfill degree requirements, meet a required number of credit hours, and graduate. Grades are required for a degree and high grades may be required for scholarships, grants, and graduate and professional degrees.

This focus on grades produces a problem. Researchers have found that grades might motivate students to seek high grades but do not necessarily motivate them to learn. The A to F system itself was not designed with student learning in mind but intended to streamline the grading process.

Yet, letter grades, and numerical points, don’t communicate much information. As you know by now, what is required to get an “A” in one professor’s class can be completely different from another’s. Context also changes how we view grades. Which one seems more impressive: getting an “A” in an advanced physics class at an Ivy League school, or an “A” in an English 101 class at a community college? For your GPA, these two A’s might be weighted equally, but you know that the work you put in for each class was not.

So we know that grades were not designed to improve student learning, do not motivate learning, and do not actually communicate as much information as we might think. Experts have identified even others reasons too; if you’re interested in reading more, Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” covers a lot of ground.

Ungrading in Our Class: Self-Reflection

While there are many forms of ungrading – and modified grading practices that get at the concerns above – I’ll focus on the form we’ll use in our class. I draw primarily on Jesse Stommel’s model of ungrading, which uses student self-reflection.

Stommel emphasizes self-reflection as a way of teaching metacognition, or an awareness of your own mental processes. In this case, we’re talking about an awareness of your learning. As experts in their course material, faculty can assess your output in a class (i.e. discussion comments, written work, exams). Yet output doesn’t always give a clear picture of learning. Maybe you have bad test anxiety, or you struggle with writing. Regardless of how well you produce output, you are the only one fully aware of your knowledge; after all, no one else can see inside your head but you.

Improving your metacognition skills will help you think more consciously about your learning and become better at assessing your own performance. Once you’ve graduated, this will be a useful skill for any career you pursue. Self-reflection and self-assessment can help you become better at negotiating for a higher salary, making the case for why you deserve a promotion, or even identifying a career path that’s aligned with your skills and interests.

But let’s bring it back down to this semester.

While you will propose your grade in one final reflection letter, self-reflection will be an on-going part of the course. There will be opportunities for self-reflection within your discussion posts, your writing assignments, your midterm reflection letter, and in your final project.

You will also be able to assess your performance in ways outside of self-reflection. Quizzes and exams will automatically generate scores in Canvas, but they are intended as checkpoints to assess your understanding of course materials. I encourage you to both review your missed answers and consider what materials you know well. To assess your learning, you can also refer to the survey you will take at the beginning and end of this course. Given that our understandings of race are so strongly influenced by our own racial identities and experiences, I also believe that regular self-reflection will be crucial for you to get the most out of our class.

Instructor Role

Although self-reflection is a significant part of the course, this does not mean you will not have support. As your instructor, I will provide qualitative feedback on your classwork. Since we are using a system of ungrading, I will not be assigning points or letter grades to any individual assignments. However, I will provide substantive feedback on your work through individual comments. I may also record videos with general feedback for the whole class after exams or major assignments, if I have comments relevant to the entire class.

Finally, I look forward to engaging with you regularly on our weekly discussion boards. Given the size of our class, I plan to provide in-depth comments to you every other week, with only quick checks on your off weeks.

In sum, I will:

  • Comment on your discussion posts every other week (at a minimum)
  • Provide written feedback on your writing assignments, midterm letter, and final project
  • Provide individual written and/or group verbal feedback on exams

I will not:

  • Provide points or letter grades on assignments

S335 Ungrading Overview

To sum it up, here is a quick review of ungrading in this class:

  • You will propose your final grade through a Final Learning Reflection Letter in the last week of class
  • You will engage in self-reflection throughout the course, which will help you write your Learning Reflection Letter, using the following:
    • Discussion board posts
    • Midterm Learning Reflection Letter
    • Final Project
  • You will receive written feedback on assignments but no points or letter grades

A Note on Remote, Pandemic Learning

No one signed up for this. Very little has changed since the spring semester. While online remote learning can be an excellent option, learning during a pandemic is not. I acknowledge that none of us are learning under ideal conditions. I acknowledge that there may be severe disruptions during this semester, whether at the university, national, global, or personal level, whether on your end or mine.

The state of the world right now was certainly a motivator for me to teach an ungraded class this semester. I know that some of you may not have adequate workspaces, may be grieving sick or lost loved ones, may have increased family or child care responsibilities, or may just be struggling with that “pandemic brain fog” that seems so common. Please be gentle on yourself this semester and as you engage in self-assessment in this course.

Quick Questions

In this section, we’ll generate a list of any general questions not answered above. As new questions about ungrading come up, I’ll add them here.

Additional Readings on Ungrading

Referenced Studies

2 thoughts on “Ungrading Explained: What I’m Telling My Students This Fall

  1. I’m very drawn to these ideas. Is there any research on how ungrading impacts the flourishing of historically underrepresented, first-gen, low-income students? Are there internalized biases, imposter syndrome, and blindspots that instructors should bear in mind before adopting these practices?

    1. I confess that I kept seeing this comment in the queue and putting off my reply, because I was hoping to write something on these questions first. And now it’s already been two years, yikes.

      There are absolutely disparities in how students approach ungrading and I’d hoped to see some research on this by the time I replied to your comment. But based on my two classes, there were clear differences by race. Specifically, White students often graded themselves more favorably than Black students who had performed similarly in the class. I didn’t observe a clear difference between men and women. The second time I taught the class, I discussed this bias openly with students from the beginning. I can’t tell how much it helped, but it would be unreasonable to expect students to overcome internalized bias or imposter syndrome in a semester. What I did on my end was bump up students’ final grades as needed. I suspect regular individual meetings with students to discuss their progress would have helped too, but in classes of 50-55, this wasn’t feasible.

      There’s a lot more writing on ungrading now – how it benefits students, how professor identity also matters – but I haven’t seen studies on bias just yet (anyone else?). If I make it on the academic job market, I’d love to collaborate on some of this research myself.

      Here are a few resources that don’t quite answer your question, but I’ve found useful and/or interesting since I wrote this post:

      Keeping Receipts:Thoughts on Ungrading from a Black Woman Professor
      Laila I. McCloud

      Ungrading in Art History: Grade inflation, student engagement, and social equity
      Lauren DiSalvo & Nancy Ross

      Ungrading (book)
      Edited by Susan Blum

      The Meanings of Grades
      Jessica Zeller

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