Talking with Students about Ungrading: What is the Real Deal?

     This week, I talked with three of my students from last year.  Margo, Alexandra and I taught them in the course we created and led with a group of co-educators. “Community Learning Collaborative: Practicing Partnership” (otherwise known as Education 200) is the first in the Education sequence, designed to introduce students to the work of relationships, facilitation, and change as the work of education.  Co-educators from a range of educational roles and settings — classroom and school leaders, teaching artists, and non-profit founders, all visionaries and many Program alum — co-created the syllabus, share in weekly lesson plan design,  join class sessions to present and lead  discussions, and mentor small groups of students as interns in their places of work.  When possible, the course seeks to take a decolonizing approach to education, mindful that decolonization is multi-faceted, multi-generational, impossible to realize completely given its history, and also, with respect to land restoration and reparations,  a matter of policy and systemic change.
     Given the course’s goal to model the themes it focuses on — relationships, facilitation, and change through decolonizing approaches — it is not surprising that the course is co-taught. The course encourages students, some  pre-service teachers, others exploring various roles in education and allied fields, to regard everyone they work with — children and youth, peers, mentors, communities, authors of texts under study —  as their teacher, and to learn to facilitate their own as well as others’ learning across these contexts.  To learn from everyone doesn’t mean to agree with everything they say; it means to recognize the expertise that people hold over their lives and to be able to engage meaningfully with it; to work with the tensions that arise; and, most importantly, to build an inner life as a person who makes their way via reflection, balancing unlearning, as we say in the course, with recommitting to values and goals.
     This approach, in which each is teacher and each a learner, depends on the creation of community within the course.  It may seem paradoxical that for individuals, building capacity to learn from and with others depends on being part of an intentional group.  Yet it’s not a contradiction; a learning community is a platform for participants to access and inform each others’ knowledge, and trust among a group allows people to both express themselves and reconsider what they have expressed.  In taking on challenging material in which students are personally implicated, a course centered in community process — built very deliberately through carefully created and supported activities, assignments, and interactions (more than can be described here, though I’m happy to share with whoever is interested) creates a more spacious field for learning.  It’s no accident that we start each class, for example, with an activity we call the hivemind, with excerpts from students’ weekly journals taped around the walls to anchor class in students’ words.
     Together with setting aside the notion of the professor holding ultimate authority over course content, the course also turns from traditional means of student assessment in favor of co-created knowledge and process.  We let students know at the start that we will give feedback but not grades on individual their course assignments.  They learn from the outset that at midcourse, each student joins the course instructors in an assessment conference for which the student prepares by completing a journal entry discussing their self-assessment of their progress, and the extent of their learning with reference to standards of their own, which we ask them to articulate.   Often students say at first that they are not sure what their standards for themselves are, as they are seldom asked.  We tell students that if they should ever wish to know their current course grade, I (as the teacher of record) will discuss it with them — that I don’t mean to mystify this or to play games, but rather to create conditions for some freedom from the expectation of immediate, passive evaluation in which students have no voice.  Then, as part of the final course portfolio (a collection of artifacts and analytic reflections that support each student’s particular discussion of their current work as an educator, defined as they define it), students include a written self-assessment of their course work and a proposed grade (together with a copy of the thank you note to their partnership mentor).
     This is how I’ve been teaching for several years; I had thought in this course to start here but to work towards something more radical: establishing the course as pass/fail, but with “pass” meaning what’s called a merit grade at our place, essentially a C, which can count towards a major. I thought this would be a deeper way to take the course off of the grading grid all together, and offer students an experience of a course that exists outside of it to take with them into the rest of their studies and future work in education.  This could be the first step in making moves to establish our entire Education Program as non-graded.  This would, of course, entail some change-making at the Colleges and potentially in our relationship with the state of Pennsylvania through which our pre-service teachers gain certification.  And there would be risks and trade-offs, for sure, including a potential loss in legitimacy, perceptions of reduced rigor, and the like.  Fights needing to be fought.
     But then I spoke with students.  One said that she knew from the outset that she while wanted to earn an A in the course, the assessment approach gave her more ownership over her work. She also said she trusted that Margo and I would have intervened if any student were at risk, and that this made the self-assessment aspects more meaningful. She also suggested I survey both classes from last year as a whole, and brainstormed some questions I could ask — getting my research underway!
     A second said that having some power over how she would be assessed gave her relief.  She said she trusted that it would be very unlikely that her self-assessment would differ dramatically from our assessment, and that it reduced her anxiety to know that the meaning she gave her work would carry weight.
     And a third said that when he looked ahead at proposing a grade at the end, he wanted to be able to be honest and to say he was in a position to say he had done very well, having met his personal standards.  He also said that he came to question why he needed the validation of a grade — why knowing he had become a more informed and stronger critical thinker wouldn’t be enough.  He said that in n the space that the process of self-assessment afforded him, he became more reflective about his learning.
     As happens so often when I talk with students, I am grateful for their candor and wisdom.  I’m also encouraged that the way we handled grading did not feel, to these three students anyway, like a watered-down approach to the real deal of ungrading, but instead was nested within the ecosystem of the course in ways that made sense to and served them. Maybe there is a decent way, these conversations left me thinking, to integrate graded summative assessment in the manner we have with respect for students’ agency, including their commitment to learning and being recognized for learning well.
     I look forward to creating the survey and applying to the IRB to be able to distribute it.  Stay tuned.
     For now, though, I am considering the possibility that what we are doing is enough.  Maybe it’s possible to work creatively within the grading system as it is, especially when a course shares authority and builds community in other ways.  I am unused to feeling that the proper course of action against a tired old system may not be a fight, but I am curious what I will learn in letting it be right now.