S3: E12: Making the Switch to Ungrading (feat. Abigail French, Dr. Susan Blum, and Dr. Laura Gibbs)

Today, we're deep diving into ungrading. In episode 5, we looked at the gradeless movement and the pedagogy that surrounds it, and now we're looking at how it's incorporated, and the non-academic benefits of implementing it. To be clear, when I say "ungrading" - I'm referring to the movement away from grades. This doesn't necessarily mean that the class does not issue at grade at all. Typically, this means that grades are as limited as possible, as in one final grade at the end of a year, with opportunities to redo assignments or reach that goal in multiple ways.

Almost every classroom one visits today will have a chart on the syllabus which breaks down grades.

  • Homework: 30%

  • Tests: 40%

  • Classwork: 20%

  • Participation: 10%

  • With opportunities for extra credit.

First, I don't blame educators for setting things up this way - it's the way it's almost always done. It's the dominant way of thinking about grading. But there are a litany of issues with categorical grades. Does a student who never completes homework really not understand the content, or are they just disobeying instructions to do work at home? If a student never passes a test, but does great in their classwork, are we grading their content knowledge or their anxiety levels?

And further, in addition to all the pedagogical issues with assigning grades, what we're actually grading, and how this affects intrinsic motivation, we're also enacting barriers. When we place these systems within our classroom, we're presenting one more step between us, as educators, working with students to help them learn. Because now, the conversation isn't about helping someone get better, it's about ensuring that the categories are adhered to and scored properly.

This system causes a breakdown of the relationship between all of us. I distinctly remember being horrified in an English class, one of my better subjects, because although I did great on tests and assignments, a huge portion of our grade was participation. My teacher met with me with the advice..."talk more" - which for someone like me is easier said than done. The anxiety and fear I felt within that room meant not only that I'd achieve a lower grade than others, but I simply didn't enjoy the class, nor did I trust the teacher, nor did I learn as much as I could have.

When my Spanish teacher assigned extra credit to make back our points from tests, which I was doing very poorly on, I would always do the extra work - which took a considerable amount of time. I remember turning in one of the longer assignments, only to have it lost by him - leading to an argument that resulted in me receiving a detention.

The point is that when we create systems where there are barriers to learning, we're demotivating students as well as making a hierarchical structure that harms our relationships. The teacher becomes an enforcer rather than a coach. And these experiences are commonplace. Most people have some fond memories of school, but certainly negative ones that harmed them mentally and emotionally. Some of my worst memories are those that happened at school as a result of teachers.

GUESTS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE

Abigail French, a veteran public school teacher focusing on sixth grade, whose beginning her journey into ungrading after unrest with the traditional system.

Dr. Susan Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, author of I Love Learning; I Hate School": An Anthropology of College, who utilizes ungrading in the classroom and is soon publishing a work on gradeless learning.

Dr. Laura Gibbs, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, who teaches mythology and folklore and epics of ancient India . Laura has been teaching these classes online since 2002 which have always been ungraded.

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