Creating a Virtual, Liberatory Feedback-Driven Classroom

Nick Covington
Chris McNutt
July 31, 2020
This past week, Human Restoration Project has had the honor of presenting this workshop on ungrading and liberatory pedagogy at Digital Pedagogy Lab 2020. Here's an overview of the activities we covered, what we learned, and resources to share!

Introduction: What Does it Mean to Lead a Liberatory, Feedback-Driven Classroom? (by Nick Covington)

“Unprecedented” is a word that somehow manages to overstate and diminish every era, and its overuse in the last five years - let alone the last five months - should be enough for us to unanimously agree to excise this basically useless descriptor. To describe each moment of our continuously unfolding present as unprecedented is often a meaningless call to inaction, and to define our age as unprecedented is to isolate the humanity of the present as a special creation distinct from the past. Events and developments in human history have their precedents in technological innovations like writing and space flight or the development of new political systems but, as the first storytellers and artists understood, the fundamental themes of the human experience - identity, struggle, purpose - are unifying and transcendent. The particular tools, technologies, and systems will vary to meet - or not - the challenges of the day, but the fundamental question conscientious people should ask remains the same: who does this humanize?

As educators in a profession under siege, rather than connect our students to the transcendent - that is, to engage in the process of humanization - we’re incentivized to lead with tools and strategies that isolate them, couched in the latest consulting buzzwords meant to eke out marginal gains in assessment. Over the next several months, we’ll sit through even more meetings focused around instructional efficiency to show how we are “managing the pandemic” by “accelerated learning” and recovering some percentage of educational ground ceded to living in “unprecedented times” (tactics which sound like they were designed for the battlefield rather than the classroom, and who are we in conflict with?).

Grades and grading will no doubt be a necessary part of this discussion, and by participating in this session you’ve already signaled a desire to reform and abolish grading systems. Though humans are inherently learning beings, grades are a recent arrival in the history of education that in practice have been used to rank and sort, isolate, and demotivate students, especially those at the margins. The shift to a liberatory, feedback-driven classroom is a necessary step toward fully humanized and inclusive classroom practice.

We can create an assessment system in light of what hooks describes as “liberatory learning”, where students are engaged with rather than to, and the collective power of the room is shared between educator and student. By deconstructing the power narrative and reframing assessment, we not only motivate students to succeed, but create a different system that shares, elevates, and promotes student power. This has far-reaching ramifications beyond assessment, such as democratic thinking, the continuation of student voice, and building a more holistic future. The liberation is not just of the student in relation to their learning, but the liberation of the system itself.

The purpose of this session is not that you take away a specific lesson or a particular tool, though we will use examples and learn from each other what has worked in a variety of institutional contexts. We want you to leave our week together understanding how to use your role to restructure the system itself by understanding the research and practice of “ungrading” rather than - yet again - introducing and expecting fidelity to a buzzword.

Part 1 - Research and Background Information

Welcome to Human Restoration Project’s workshop on creating a Virtual, Liberatory Feedback-Driven, or ungraded, Classroom!

See the below links to familiarize yourself with the practice of ungrading and liberatory pedagogy.

In the following days, we will utilize this information to collaboratively build a feedback-driven classroom in the Fall.

Don’t feel pressured to read all of these or complete every activity. In fact, we'd recommend checking out only one or two of the following! Our best learning happens when we're relaxed, taking things at our own pace, and ready to go. We’ve tried to narrow down these resources to something easy-to-digest. These are recommendations that inform our thought process.


Research Studies

Further Resources (assorted)

Part 2 - Framing Assessment and Practices

In this activity, we will begin to consider our own experiences with grades and how it may affect our students.

“Personality Test”

Much of our perspective on teaching is related to the type of student that we were in school. Read the following five “types” of students and decide which category best suits you. Obviously, this is a drastic oversimplification and you may fit into multiple categories, or none. You will be able to expand on these ideas later in this activity.

Academically Centered

You were very focused on performing well according to school standards. Sometimes, you may have been labelled as the “teacher’s pet” and overall, you really enjoyed your school experience.


According to research by Dr. William Damon, 25% of students are disengaged. You felt that there were little to no interests, inside or outside of school, that interested you. You saw little care for anything outside of yourself. Your primary focus was getting through the day.

Purpose Centered

According to research by Dr. William Damon, 20% of students are purposeful. You felt highly connected to something and understood the greater, overarching plan for getting there. You were constantly driven to succeed in some way, shape, or form. Importantly, this did not necessarily have to be school related.


You performed “okay” in school and went through the motions. You may have gone to college purely through what Dr. William Deresiewicz calls “zombification” - going through the motions just because it was assumed you’d do so. There wasn’t necessarily an overarching plan, you just did what you needed to do based on perceived expectations.


You were focused on being academically centered, or at least wanted to succeed in school, but the structure of school made it difficult for you to succeed in some way. Perhaps courses weren’t set up in a way that made sense to you, or there was a barrier in how information was presented.

Participants were asked about their experience with grades and their relationships with teachers. Fascinatingly (or obviously?), the breakdown of workshop participants who were primarily college educators with some K-12...

16 Academically Centered
0 Disengaged
11 Purpose Centered
4 Apathetic *including Nick and Myself
1 Struggling

This leaves open a conversation on: if only those who are successful and achieve in school become involved in the institution, whose voice is left out? And does our perspective on "disengaged" or "struggling" students shift when we recognize our own experiences in school?

Even those who labelled themselves academically or purpose centered almost all had negative stories to share about grading:

This reflects the research by Dr. Astrid Poorthuis that students who obtain high grades are terrified/anxious/depressed upon considering, or actually receiving, a "low grade" - which for some is even a B. This has to make us wonder why, in a place of learning, we are establishing systems that are taken so personally, so emotionally and socially harmful, when an alternative system could exist or at least be partially integrated (e.g. feedback-driven classrooms.)

Part 3 - Shifting Our Classroom

Now, we will start to reimagine how we can shift our classroom toward liberatory, feedback-driven learning. Given the different perspectives and contexts we all come from, we can begin to recognize that our perspective and schooling shapes our understanding of our classrooms - and deconstructing that is an important part of our planning.

There's a connection between an inequity of grades and an inequity of possibility - economic or otherwise. Check out this clip of Dr. Richard Wilkinson from TED. How does this relate to our classrooms?

The more power we share with students, the more likely our class will service their needs, especially those at the margins. When planning for our classrooms, it can be difficult to individually and uniquely meet the needs of every student. Therefore, we suggest a systems-focused approach. Ungrading is just one of these systems that can be modified and implemented in different ways.

That being said, as we shift to ungrading we’ll also be shifting systems other than assessment. A lot needs to be done in order to simply say, “no more grades!!” then run out of the room. In addition, when we tackle ungrading and don't shift our other can be overwhelming! It's undoubtably easier to incorporate ungrading when students complete experiential projects, or have more voice in the classroom, or spend additional time reflecting on their learning. Further, ungrading contributes to other progressive systems such as critical pedagogy and democratic thinking. It's all connected! At HRP we outline these as 20 relative systems.

Implementation Strategies

Here are some resources meant to conceptualize the practice of ungrading. Note that ungrading doesn't have to be "all at once", depending on your experience, department, school, or tenure - this may not be an accepted practice. We push for calculated risks that make sense for our students while simultaneously not losing any impact we may make by promptly being fired.

Like last time, don't feel pressured to read/watch any/all of these. These are just some ideas of what these practices actually look like:

  1. Getting Rid of Grades by Laura Gibbs
  2. Grades Can Hinder Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead? (featuring Susan Blum, Jesse Stommel, Starr Sackstein, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, and Christopher K. Riesbeck)
  3. (18:07) Human Restoration Project Evidence Journal + YouTube Video
  4. A Shift Toward Towards Student Self-Reporting by Abe Moore
  5. Human Restoration Project “Grading =/ Assessment” Techniques
  6. Creating a Culture of Feedback by Christie Nold

Equity-Based Practice

Ungrading is not just important for promoting motivation, engagement, and counteracting negative SEL. The way we grade and assess ranks and files students, and perpetuates a system of white supremacy where mostly white, privileged students are placed at a major systemic advantage in the education system.

As you read the following article, self reflect:

Chapter: Confronting Class in the Classroom by bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress (1994)

Part 4 - Prototyping an Ungraded, Liberatory Classroom

Now we’ll begin actual systemic change. Using the information we’ve reflected on over the past few days, we’ll brainstorm a specific way that we can change our course toward liberatory, feedback-driven learning.

For example…

Consider your course layout as we move into the Fall. Likely, you’ve already started to modify your thinking for hybrid or virtual courses. In our view, this is the best time to rethink assessment - as traditional assessment measures aren’t going to work anyways!

Part 5 - My Learning Journey

It's been so great to see all of you continually reflecting, sharing stories, and brainstorming. It's awesome to see so many educators coming together and learning from one another.

Our final activity is a self-reflection. It's so important that we revisit ideas we obtain from workshops, solidify them further, and figure out - well what was the point of all of that?

Here's a Google Document you can make a copy of that details a reflection prompt. Feel free to use this however you wish!

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Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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