Making the (un)grade at Sewanee: A review of Susan D. Blum’s Ungrading: ‘Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)’

Recently I was playing bocce ball with some neighbors when it hit me (not the ball, thankfully): My experience assigning and grading student essays is not unlike playing bocce. When I give students the assignment instructions, I throw the metaphorical pallina (the target ball) and wait for students to toss their ball / essay toward my target. Of course, I provide guidance on technique and welcome students to make practice throws (rough drafts). The pallina I throw is the “objective” standard, and most balls / essays land in its general vicinity, some very close. Assigning numerical or letter grades, however, can feel arbitrary – the closest toss gets an A, the second closest receives a B, and so on? Or does everyone earn good marks because their ball landed in the vicinity of the pallina? Should we do some grade-free practice runs and only assign grades to the final round? Perhaps students could evaluate each other’s technique?

The contributors to the edited volume Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) offer a variety of alternative approaches to the traditional numerical or letter grading system. (They also might suggest we dispense with the bocce ball metaphor because conceptualizing learning as a competition that sorts or ranks students is part of the problem. Fair enough.) The editor, Susan D. Blum, is an anthropologist of higher education, whose ethnography, I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (2015), informs her two chapters. (On a side note, I found her ethnography to be valuable for understanding the experiences of students who, unlike the typical college professor, are not “naturally good at school.”)

Ungrading contains reflections from 15 instructors, including 10 who teach at the college or university level and 5 at the secondary school level. In some chapters, it was not immediately obvious to me at what level the author teaches, which evidences both the wide applicability of “ungrading” across age groups and subjects, as well as the degree of openness some college instructors have toward the kinds of alternative assignments they accept in lieu of traditionally-graded essays. (For example, one professor permits a student to make costumes for her doll collection to represent the class system in medieval England, rather than assigning the student an essay). 

The first third of the book is devoted to “Foundations and Models,” followed by sections on “Practices” and “Reflections.” Throughout the book, contributors discuss why various modes of grading or assessment do not work well. Their discussions are interspersed with personal anecdotes. For example, I found Laura Gibbs’ suggested exercise “My ten grading memories” (103) a useful starting point in thinking about how our own experiences being graded have shaped us into the instructors we are today. (I was reminded of the “shame” upon receiving my first C on a math exam in middle school, as well as the elation of reading a typed, single-spaced page of substantive comments on a college history paper, including the suggestion that I consider graduate school, while I sat on the quad at sunset.) Many chapters also incorporate philosophical reflections on the nature of learning, often backed by research in educational psychology. Readers of Ungrading no doubt are familiar with the origins of the “factory model” of schooling and how the forms of disciplinary power it exercises reproduce social inequalities. There seems to be an assumption undergirding Ungrading that not just grades but all forms of extrinsic motivation hamper creativity and that the ungraded student will flourish in some sort of Rousseauian “natural” state. Helpfully, the editor includes a list of suggested additional sources for readers who want to delve deeper into the philosophy of education.

For readers seeking a “how-to” guide with strategies they can adapt easily for their courses, this edited volume offers less than one might expect. Jesse Stommel’s chapter “How to Ungrade” exemplifies this shortcoming, devoting more space to describing the origins of the grading “problem” and justifying “ungrading” than it devotes to explaining, well, how to ungrade. I would have appreciated more chapters like the editor’s Introduction, as well as her contributed chapter, “Just One Change (Just Kidding),” in which she appends examples of documents she has created for her “ungrading” assignments. Some chapters include descriptions of such assignments but having excerpts from the actual documents is more effective. Although many of the contributors hail from the humanities or social sciences, three chapters focus on strategies for STEM courses. In one chapter, a computer science professor describes assigning coding exercises with a focus on completion and functionality: Students submit the same exercise over and over, incorporating the professor’s narrative feedback after each resubmission, until the professor agrees no errors remain in the code.  

While the book may lack sufficient “how-to,” there is plenty of journey narrative (i.e., “When I first started teaching, I used X method but now I use Y method…) recounted with humor and humility. Personal accounts of (un)grading trial and error are refreshing in their frankness and pathos. The result is a sense of solidarity that one’s grading-related mistakes and frustrations are common, as well as reassurance that there are growing communities dedicated to “ungrading” and universal design for learning. Not until page 220, however, does the editor acknowledge “the advantage of tenure” and that “only certain teachers feel themselves secure enough professionally to take these risks.”  

My sense is that faculty at a small liberal arts college like Sewanee are well-positioned to incorporate elements of “ungrading” in their courses, especially with our small student-faculty ratio and typically smaller class sizes. One suggestion offered in Ungrading is to advocate for more pass/fail courses that would “free” students from their GPA anxiety. If a course cannot be offered as pass/fail, then some contributors recommend providing students narrative feedback until the end of the semester when a numerical or letter grade is required. I suspect that employing this approach is far more challenging in a STEM course than in a humanities or social science one. This semester, I plan to start with a small change in how I assign and assess a series of short essays, offering only narrative feedback via discussions with students. (But this method resembles the “old school” tutorial approach to papers and is hardly revolutionary “ungrading.”) Have you implemented “ungrading” in any of your courses at Sewanee? If so, I would love to hear how.

-Diana Hatchett, Visiting Assistant Professor of International and Global Studies

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