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The one about Ungrading

It can be easy to perceive grades as both fixed and inevitable—without origin or evolution … Yet grades have not always been a part of education…

Schneider and Hutt (2013)


In the previous post I made the point that some of the dissatisfaction with rubrics – even thoughtful, well-designed rubrics – is linked to the fact that we use them to make choices about grades, and it’s the conversation about grades that seems to be the sticking point for many people who distrust rubrics.

While there has always been a debate about the value of grades for decision-making the structure of the higher education system has made it difficult for lecturers to think about assessment as a process for learning rather than one of learning. Ungrading doesn’t solve this problem but it is nonetheless a frame of reference that can help lecturers find opportunities to think about assessment from a different perspective.


Kerry, R. (n.d.). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (No. 4). Anarchy in HE podcast.

I especially enjoyed this conversation between Roger and his guests in the Anarchy in HE podcast. In particular, the relationship between anarchy and teaching practice, including assessment, gave me more context and perhaps even a theoretical framework with which to think differently about higher education more generally.

I’ve always thought of anarchy in fairly negative terms, associating it more with chaos than with it’s original meaning; a system of government without hierarchy. But this conversation helped reinforce my thinking that higher education, or at least individual programmes or classrooms within higher education, would benefit from the questioning, and possible rejection, of the need for a central authority. Ungrading provides an entry point to exploring anarchy in assessment; the idea that we might be able to assess without the need for a central authority. But even if it turns out that anarchy isn’t compatible with the bulk of professional education, I think it provides a critical lens through which we can ask questions about the assessment work we do.


Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166

…While we often commiserate about the process of assigning grades, which may be as stressful for instructors as for students, the lack of conversation among instructors about the mysterious omission of the “E” is but one indicator of the many tacit assumptions we all make about the processes of grading in higher education. Given that the time and stress associated with grading has the potential to distract instructors from other, more meaningful aspects of teaching and learning, it is perhaps time to begin scrutinizing our tacit assumptions surrounding grading.

I enjoyed the overview of a history of grading, which provided useful context to something that I’ve always just accepted; that grades are, and always have been, a necessary part of professional education. This article goes on to ask a series of important questions around some of our taken-for-granted assumptions related to grading:

  1. Do grades provide students with useful feedback?
  2. Do grades motivate students to learn?
  3. Do grades provide a fair way to compare student performance?
  4. Do grades provide reliable information about student learning?

In addition, reading this article made me stop and wonder if grading is more about me than it is about my students. There’s something inherently satisfying about the (façade of) coherence that a list of grades provides. It’s as if the process of reducing the countless, complex, nuanced interactions that take place in a programme (between teacher-student, student-student, student-content, student-university, teacher-university, teacher-content, teacher-teacher), to a single letter or number somehow validates my work.


Stommel, J. (2020, March 3). Ungrading: A Bibliography. Jesse Stommel.

Ungrading is not as simple as just removing grades. The word “ungrading” (an active present participle) suggests that we need to do intentional, critical work to dismantle traditional and standardized approaches to assessment. There’s a lot to read, certainly, but no neat and tidy point of entry. Rather, each teacher (and each student) must find their own ways into the work. Here are a few more places to start.

Jesse Stommel has put together a comprehensive reading and listening list on the topic of ungrading, most of which I haven’t been able to review in time for this newsletter. However, any list of resources by Jesse is probably going to include a lot of great reading.

For me, one of the most important points made in this post is that ungrading isn’t an isolated part of teaching; you can’t simply remove grading and leave everything else the same. Our practice takes place within a system that contains many moving parts and taking out one of those parts is likely to have an effect elsewhere, which is why Jesse suggests that “we also rethink due dates, policies, syllabi and assignments” when considering ungrading.

Note: This blog post series by Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh is also an excellent entry point into the conversation around introducing ungrading into your practice.

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