Why Ungrade?: An excerpt from Susan D. Blum’s forthcoming book Ungrading


With universities pivoting quickly to online instruction in response to public health concerns, many teachers are considering new approaches to grading, including the prospect of ungrading—the topic of Susan D. Blum’s forthcoming edited volume in our series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Here we share an excerpt from the introduction to her book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).

Humans, in recent memory, invented a way of looking at students’ learning. We in the United States call it grading; in Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, they distinguish between marking on particular assignments and final grading. Though grading seems natural, inevitable, a part of the very fabric of school, it isn’t. It was created at a certain moment, for certain reasons not entirely well thought out, and then became embedded in the structures of schools for most students.

But because we invented it, we can uninvent it. We can remove it.

And many of us believe we should.

There’s a growing movement at this end of the second decade of the twenty-first century. I call it ungrading. Others call it de-grading or going gradeless. Though the destination tends to be generally the same, there is variation in the routes, the reasons, the contexts, and the specific ways various individuals at different levels of education enact our changes. This book is an effort to assemble some of the practices faculty have devised to question the apparent centrality of grades as an unchanging, unyielding fact of schooling (according to both teachers and students).

All the authors included in this book are troubled by some of the consequences of and reasons for grades. It could be because grading dehumanizes and flattens nuances in students’ practices and understanding. It could be the mechanistic approach, derived from the factory model of education, that we wish to challenge. It could be that we are concerned about the fixation on grades, which leads to cheating, corner cutting, gaming the system, and a misplaced focus on accumulating points rather than on learning. It could be that people wish to be more responsive to individuals in the classroom, to be more informative about feedback, to join students in a collective effort that isn’t primarily focused on assessment, evaluation, sorting, ranking. It could be that people are rebelling against audit culture, or what Jerry Z. Muller in his book The Tyranny of Metrics calls “metric fixation.”

It could be that people are propelled by insights—robust insights—from the last fifty years of educational psychology, findings on motivation research that show a loss of intrinsic motivation when extrinsic motivations are dominant. It could be that they are influenced by progressive educators such as Alfie Kohn. It could be that they are concerned about how when comments on papers are accompanied by grades, students disregard our comments—often not even reading them, and certainly not using them to improve or learn more deeply. This finding has been shown over and over again beginning with researchers such as Ruth Butler. Those who focus on increasing students’ intrinsic motivation often tap into students’ curiosity (which exists as a motive not only in humans and other primates but in all mammals and even birds). They attend to social and emotional rewards of learning and also to authentic application.

We hope that this set of foundational pieces, presenting a variety of models, along with assorted practices and reflections on this experience, will at least cause you to think, possibly to experiment, and to have conversations about what is at the heart of learning and teaching, and the role of grading or ungrading in this multidimensional, human set of interactions.

Read more in Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) coming this fall from West Virginia University Press.

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