This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Susan Blum joins us to talk about ungrading as a method to support and motivate student learning. Susan is an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books and articles on higher education. Her newest book, Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning and What to do Instead, will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning in December, 2020.
- Blum, Susan (2020). Editor. Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning (and What to do Instead). West Virginia University Press.
- Pedagogies of Care
- Blum, S. D. (2016). ” I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College. Cornell University Press.
- Blum, S. D. (2017). “Ungrading.” Inside Higher Ed. November 14.
- Noddings, Nel (2010). Caring in Education. Infed
- Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school. Times 10 Publications.
- Arcidiacono, Peter (2020). Differential Grading Policies. Tea for Teaching podcast, February 26. (the podcast that John referred to that discussed women and underrepresented minoritized groups in STEM classes)
- Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
- A Theory of Public Higher Education
- Society for Values in Higher Education
- School Stories
John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we talk about ungrading as a method to support and motivate student learning.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Susan Blum. She is an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books and articles on higher education. Her newest book, Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning and What to do Instead, will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning in December, 2020. Welcome, Susan.
Susan: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John: Today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea?
Susan: I am drinking tea. I’m a tea drinker. I love the name of your podcast and I started my day with Mountain Rose Assam tea with milk and sugar. But now I’ve moved to Light of Day Organic Green Jasmine tea from Traverse City, Michigan.
Rebecca: It sounds like a lovely morning.
Susan: It’s as good as we can have during the pandemic.
Rebecca: It looked like you were drinking out of a lovely cup too, actually.
Susan: This is a Chinese made cup with lids that I’ve had for 35 maybe more years and I’m a China specialist by training and when I first went to China, and everybody was drinking out of covered tea cups, I came home and I thought I had to get some myself. So this is chipped and old, but it’s precious. So, thank you for noticing.
John: Very nice.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for describing it too. Sometimes we see things… We don’t always communicate all that to our listeners.
John: The visuals don’t translate well on a podcast.
Susan: It’s a white background porcelain mug with blue dragons and clouds and fish.
Rebecca: Yeah, it attracted my attention the second I saw it with your cup earlier. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking Scottish breakfast tea and I haven’t quite decided what the difference between the breakfast and afternoon is. So I’ll have to report back next time.
John: That’s right. You were drinking Scottish afternoon before. I think the breakfast tea is supposed to be fairly strong. I’m not sure about their afternoon.
Rebecca: I’ll let you know if I can’t sleep. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea today.
We’ve invited you here to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your forthcoming book on ungrading. First, could you tell us a little bit about what prompted your interest in upgrading.
Susan: Well, for over a decade, almost two decades now, I’ve been investigating education. And I do that as an anthropologist. So, there have been a lot of dimensions of my inquiries. I began really thinking about plagiarism, which comes in part from work I had done previously on deception. And that comes in part from my own training as a linguistic and cultural and psychological anthropologist. So the plagiarism work made me really wonder what students were doing in school, what their purposes were, how they felt about it, what motivated them, and so forth. And that led to more research on student experience in college and what the purpose of college was. And that led me to really question what we were doing in the classroom and how we were actually meeting students, given what they need or what they want, or what we think they should want, which is a kind of strange conundrum, and how all of this fits into more general ways people grow up and become adults and are socialized into their societies. And so clearly it has to do with issues of social structure and social values and power. And when I think about power, I think about agency and I wonder who has the agency in learning? Is it the students? Is it the teacher? Where are the topics being generated? What is motivating the learning at all? What kinds of ways can we build on innate curiosity and desire to be competent and responsible people in social groups? And how do our pedagogical practices support or even contradict and prevent some of what we actually want? So my more recent book called I Love Learning, I Hate School: an Anthropology of College really explored a lot of the contradictory dimensions of what we claim we want and why those things don’t really work. And students are pretty aware of a lot of these things. So I really explore what I call and others call “the game of school” where if everybody’s going through the motions and the outcome is just a set of points and the learning…. it’s nice if you get it, but you don’t have to, you can sort of cram some thoughts into your head and do well on a multiple choice exam and get the points at the other side. Learning doesn’t happen. Coercion, fear, anxiety, lots of negative things happen. And that seemed to me to be tragic. It’s a waste of time, money, effort, and it doesn’t have to be that way. So I have been engaged for at least a decade in really rethinking my own pedagogical practices from top to bottom. You know, what do I teach? Why do I teach it? How do I teach it? What do I do? What do the students do? What do they do alone? What do they do together? And grading ended up being one of the kind of threads that connect to all these different dimensions of things. And I’ve also been part of a research project to study student learning in an internship. And there were no grades, but there were authentic outcomes of their practices. And so, I’ve been trying to make my classes as authentic as possible, rather than something people are doing simply for performance of competence, but to actually feel competent themselves. So, grades are thought to have three functions: sorting (which I reject), motivating (which we know doesn’t work), and communicating (which also doesn’t work). So I’ve tried to figure out how to make co-operative classrooms where everybody learns as much as they possibly can, for their own purposes, not for me, and I try to have students help generate their own goals so that they see this is not simply a task to be checked off, but as something that matters to them. I mean, I’m spending my life doing this work, and the thought that it’s just something to check off and get out of the way till they can get on to the real important stuff was very galling to me and actually, frankly, almost made me quit, which is kind of the topic of my next book. But the idea that I could actually change something that everybody thinks is central was so liberating to me. And it has really transformed the way I’ve been teaching. And so I’ve really been very pleased with the outcome. And since I published a short piece on Inside Higher Ed in 2017, I found that there are thousands of people at all levels of education, who are engaged in ungrading, throwing out grades, degrading, we call it different things, but we’re all engaged in the same enterprise. So editing this book… I want to be clear. I’m not the author of this book, I’m the editor. I have written the introduction and conclusion and a chapter but about 15 other people have also contributed to this book. And it’s been so gratifying and reassuring and stimulating and refreshing to know that all these other people are engaged in this too from all different directions. So I’m very excited about getting this out into the world so that we can provide some support and reassurance for people who might be interested in doing this but aren’t really sure how to make it happen.
Rebecca: Authentic learning is something that I’ve been really interested in for a long time. And so ungrading has always been really interesting to me, but I haven’t quite gone all the way there yet. And I’m certainly wanting to experiment in that space. Can you describe for folks what on grading look like and how that shifts the focus to learning?
Susan: Sure, and there are ways to do it partially or fully. So I’ve gone to total ungrading until the end of the semester when I am obliged to give a grade for my class. I wish I didn’t have to. I don’t actually think it’s meaningful or informative. But I’m required to do that. So that does happen, and I can tell you a little bit about how that happens, too. But ungrading really means you talk about what people are learning, maybe you have a conversation about what they’ve done well, what they haven’t done well, some things don’t actually have to be graded at all. We don’t have to assess everything. That doesn’t have to be the central activity of our teaching. And there can be what Nell Noddings refers to as free gifts. You can have people have experiences in the classroom, and the outcome is the enjoyment and the learning. And so that is its own reward. And if people perceive that they have been satisfied in their learning, then that’s an assessment. And you don’t have to translate that into some sort of numerical or letter reduction of what is, we hope, a fully human, rich multisensorial experience. I taught a class on food and culture last semester, which is a really fun class to teach. And students did activities, many of which they generated. I didn’t dictate everything. But one of the classes wanted to push one of the topics which was on technology and food. And they wanted to see what tools people use for cooking. So they had this idea that they would take pictures of what was in their kitchen drawer. This was before the pandemic. So take pictures of what’s in your drawer. So we talked about what was in the drawer. And then they had the idea that they would ask somebody older in their family to take a picture of what was in their drawer and talk about it. So then they had the idea that they could interview people about this. And anyway, it was wonderful as an experience. They interviewed their grandmothers and their mothers about what has changed and why do you have this tool? and what is the tool? …and we had so much fun talking about it, and everybody learned everything and it wasn’t graded. It just wasn’t graded. Because who wouldn’t want to do that? And so the motivation was purely intrinsic. And the assessment was when their classmates said, “Wow, that’s so interesting,” or when their grandmother said, “Wow, it sounds like you’re learning interesting things in school.” And so the measure of the outcome was part of the experience. And there was no need or use for anybody else to assess it. So that’s one type of grading is just not grading. You’re learning something, you’re enjoying it, you’re sharing it, and that’s what we’re here for. So there’s no point in doing more than that. But there are other kinds of assessments that are appropriate sometimes, and so for the assignments that are major assignments in my classes, I have the students include with their assignment, a self assessment. And these self assessments used to look a lot like grading, but they don’t anymore. They used to look like: “I did this right. And I did this right. And I had enough sources and I used the proper format. And I did this and that.” And then it was kind of a rubric where you could add things up. Now it’s much more: “What did you learn? What did you do well? What didn’t you do well? Why didn’t you? What do you need help with? What would you do differently? What are you taking with you?” So, it’s a reflection. So, it’s an assessment, but it’s much more of a reflection, which fosters metacognition, which we all say we want. And until this year, I had “adequate,” “not adequate,” and “exceeds expectations” or something which still kind of translates into like F,C and A. Now I just say, you know what you’re doing or you don’t know what you’re doing. And so sometimes in classes where things are new and hard, I teach a linguistic anthropology class where I have students do sometimes very difficult projects: ethnography, conversation, analysis, all kinds of stuff that they’ve never seen before and they admit is difficult. Sometimes they can say “I didn’t do this well.” And because it’s not a grade, there’s nothing at risk for them to admit that they actually haven’t quite felt secure about it. And that’s helpful information for me. It’s very honest, then we can say, “Well, actually, not that you know how to do this. And that’s okay. And we can work at it more, or I don’t expect you to because it takes two decades to master, or whatever it is.” So, then when I return their projects, I reflect on what they’ve done as their project, and sometimes I also reflect on their reflections. So there are a lot of layers here. So, that’s some of what ungrading looks like.
John: Since this relies on intrinsic motivation, what do you do to help build that? I imagine some classes students will come into them with a great deal of intrinsic motivation and in others that they see as just a gen ed requirement or something… a hoop that they perceive as a box they have to check off, which is something that, as you said, always bothers us. How can we perhaps help build that intrinsic motivation in classes when students are there when, as they perceive it, they’re just required to.
Susan: So I teach fundamentals of linguistic anthropology class, which counts as a social science requirement. So I get a lot of students in there for their gen ed requirement. It also counts as something among a set of choices for the major, but it might not be that they’re inherently interested in the topic. I personally think that everybody’s interested in language and communication. And everybody can become interested in anthropology, which is the study of people, but I don’t take for granted that they’re interested in it the way I’m interested in it. So, in that class, in particular, I have spent a lot of time really tweaking every dimension of the class, from the way they sit in the room, to who speaks first every day, to getting to know each other. I try to introduce play and fun. And I have teams and snack teams and students bring in interesting things for themselves. And anyway, this is really my laboratory where I work on how to create experiences that may allow students’ intrinsic motivation to flourish. Because I don’t think I produce intrinsic motivation. I just create conditions for it. So in that class, I now spend a whole week before we even get started just inviting them to ask big questions, to take charge of their learning, to think about what they’re curious about. Sometimes they work in groups that then they have a responsibility to each other. Also the social dimension… sociality, we know is part of it… I spent a lot of time thinking about the emotional and affective dimension of learning. I try to find really interesting things to do and read and try to connect it to their lives. Students are doing a lot of observations of things that are happening around them, which many of them have never done in an analytic or critical way; they’ve only done it in a reactive way. So, I think there are lots of ways to connect students’ own experiences beginning where they are, not with a deficit perspective, but with an asset perspective. You know, what do you know? What do you care about? …and then connect what we’re learning to something that you want to know more about? In that particular class. I have people write linguistic autobiography, and many of them say, “Well, I just speak English. I grew up in America.” And by the end of the semester, when they go back, and they look at that assignment again, they realize “No, there’s actually something to say because I speak this kind of variety…” and there are a lot of things to do that connect to students’ own lives that still get to the material. I’m not shirking my responsibility, but I also think there are lots and lots of ways to get there and they don’t all have to get to the same place. That’s perfectly fine with me. So, those are some ideas.
Rebecca: You talked a little bit at the very beginning about ungrading throughout the semester, but then, at some point, there is some authority that’s requiring a grade. Can you talk a little bit about how to negotiate that?
Susan: this was something I really worried about for years. And then in the summer of 2016, I came across Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment. She’s a high school teacher, and she has a chapter in our new ungrading book, and she talked about how to go grade free in a conventional school. So, that gave me confidence and ammunition to try to figure this out. So basically, I asked the students to suggest a grade for themselves. I have conferences, I actually try to do the mid semester and semester final to just say like, “If you were going to give yourself a grade, what would it be and why? What’s the evidence?” I’m not that fixated on the grades anymore. grades for me have become such uninformative flat measures of student experience that I find them very maddening. So if I had a student who came in who had never encountered the discipline before, and got very excited and tried some new things and didn’t do that well at those things, but learned a huge amount, to me, that’s a great accomplishment and a great gain, even if their paper wasn’t as good as somebody who’s a senior anthropology major whose paper it’s flawless. I want to say that both of them have had great learning experiences. And if they both say they earned an A, because they learned a lot. I’m actually okay with that. And I know one of the questions people always have is: “What about the engineers who design our bridges? What if the bridges fall down because one person learned a lot but they still don’t know it?” And one of the things we’re really excited about in our ungrading book is we have STEM teachers. So they are talking about what it’s like to teach computer science or math or chemistry and use an ungrading approach. So it can be done in slightly different ways. But for me, because I’m trying to get my students to see the world, reflect on it, analyze the world, that’s what anthropology does. If I get them there, then I am completely happy to give many of my students As. They don’t all ask for As; they don’t all think they’ve earned it. They come in with different standards and experiences about what grades mean anyway. and international students tend to have very, very high expectations for themselves. So they suggest well, modestly, “I only earned a B minus” but I might say that they really demonstrated great learning and accomplishment and it might be harder if they’re not a native speaker of English. So, I may bump it up. I can bump it up or down. They’re suggesting great, but usually, they’re pretty honest. And they learned a lot. They’ve worked hard. And I usually do accept the grade that they suggest.
Rebecca: How do you see the role of reflection and revision as part of the ungrading process? You mentioned handing in an assignment with a reflection, and then you reflect on all of that. What do they do next? Is revision or iteration a part of the practice?
Susan: It depends on the course. I’m teaching a writing course for graduate students again, and revision is obviously the heart of writing. Anybody can revise anything they want in my classes, and I’ve had students say, “I turned this in, but I procrastinated and I couldn’t really get it done, and I’m just not proud of it. And I’ll say, “Would you like to redo it?” And they’ll look at me like “What? What do you mean? I get to redo it. I’m not like branded as a failure my whole life?” No, if you want to redo it, I’m happy to read it again. I try, depending on the course again, to have things build on each other so that even if they’re not literally revising that assignment, they’re recognizing gaps or deficiencies or weaknesses or strengths that they can carry forward to future work that might rely on what we’ve already done. But I have not, at least in this laboratory class that I’m talking about, I haven’t really had one overall semester-long project. I have thought about doing that, and I haven’t done it yet. That could be something I do next spring. If we’re back in pandemic-ville, I may revise things completely again, just because why not?
Rebecca: I’m thinking about ungrading in the realm of, in the design world, doing sprints, so doing one project that builds on it, but having really distinct chunks that you get feedback on and can keep revising all semester. And so it definitely is in that same spirit. So I’ve been wrestling with how to completely implement that.
Susan: Well, I think in a skills-based discipline, there are certainly skills that you need to try and not be good at it first and then get better at. And that’s how we learn anything real. And it seems obvious to me now that punishing people for not knowing at the beginning is the wrong thing to do. So, having only the final product evaluated seems appropriate to me. But I know design… there are some things that people might all agree on, but there are other things that people don’t all agree on. And that’s true of real life. That’s one reason that a single scale of grading is such a distortion of how we really live our lives. People might make a movie and some critics love it, and some critics don’t love it. And to pretend that there’s a uniform single scale is to deny most of our actual experience outside school.
John: One of the things you mentioned in terms of international students is that they often underestimate the quality of their work. You also mentioned in your recording for the Pedagogies of Care project that some underrepresented groups in particular disciplines often experience the same problem. And we had a podcast recording related to that a while back that talked about how women and underrepresented minorities did as well in their introductory STEM classes, but they were more likely to drop out because they didn’t perceive the quality of the work as being sufficiently high. And that served as a major barrier. And I’m wondering how you address the issues of students who undervalue what they’ve learned or underestimate the amount of learning they’ve achieved. When you’re meeting with students and providing feedback and they undervalue their work, how do you address that with them?
Susan: Well, that’s where I’m grading is so perfect, because I can have a conversation. I have these short individual meetings with every student at least twice a semester. And I can say to them, especially if mid semester they say this isn’t very good, because I’m not smart or my grammar’s bad or I didn’t do this before or something, I can say to them face to face, or at least it used to be face to face, I can say, this was extraordinary. I loved what you did, this was such a contribution. So, I can just personally affirm their value and say, you might be focusing on this, but also notice this wonderful thing. And because also, students are constantly interacting in my classes, the students who may have fewer privileges coming in may get a lot of affirmation also from their classmates for their offerings. They may be quiet, they may not be willing to speak, but I try to make people comfortable, at least in small groups or pairs or something, so that they can make their contributions. So, I think it’s less of a problem when people can actually reflect and get comments back. Also, sometimes students exchange papers or exchange work, I tried to have an authentic audience, so that I’m not the sole audience so that people aren’t writing for me, but they’re writing maybe for real people. That’s something I’ve really tried to develop more. I think that when students read each other’s work, they tend, at my school anyway, to be very nice to each other. So they will get some kind of compliment. And I think then in that sense, there’s less of a potential for people to retain this idea that they are somehow deficient. But I also would like to say that schools can’t solve every problem. And teachers and classes, even the best, can’t solve every problem. And so we have broad racism and sexism, and ableism, and all kinds of other things in our society, and one particular teacher might make a difference, but these are really bigger questions that we need to address outside school also. As a professor, my realm is in my classroom, so I can try.
John: At the other side, what about the students who’ve come in who’ve read some material on the topic and have this fluency illusion where they perceive that they’ve learned it very well. I’m thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect where the people with the lowest level of understanding often overestimate their competence the most. How do you address those issues?
Susan: I’m not so worried about that, really. I’ve had experiences like, that where students think that they’re kind of expert, and they’re not actually, but I don’t really see my role as like cutting down students’ confidence. I think there are enough forces out there trying to do that. So, I don’t really want to jump on the confidence destruction bandwagon, but I like to think that there will be some kind of real consequence where they will say something to somebody who knows more and that person will say,”Yeah, but X” or where they will interact with another student who will know more, and then the student who has this false sense of their own abilities will realize “Wow, I only noticed these three things and Julia noticed 25 things. I guess I have more room to grow as an ethnographer.”
John: This system, though, relies on intrinsic motivation. And you’ve mentioned using authentic assessments, also perhaps, to help build that. Could you describe some examples of authentic assessments that you use?
Susan: Sure. So in this linguistic anthropology class, one of the projects is in groups of three-ish, they have to create some kind of presentation about a particular language. So something they’ve heard of like Hindi, or something they haven’t heard of, like, I don’t know, Tzelta or something like that. And I give them some things they are supposed to include, but the form is completely open. So, I’ve had infographics, I’ve had lots of websites, I’ve had PowerPoint things. And one time, it worked really great… and I’m in this weird classroom that I like with a bunch of screens. The room is imperfect but they’re five screens around the room. And so I happen to have 10 groups that year. So the students plugged in their laptops and the other half of the students circulated and listened to the students as they were talking about their project. And then on these whiteboards that were next to the screens, they were writing praise, questions, suggestions and different kinds of questions. They had to figure out what kind of question it was: Was it a kind of application question? a factual question? or something like that. And the students really loved that project, because everybody saw what everybody did. And the assessment was basically peer generated. It was: “I liked this image.” “This was a really clear presentation,” or “I didn’t really understand what you meant here.” And so that’s assessment. It doesn’t look like assessment. It doesn’t say good and bad, but it’s getting feedback about what you’re doing that you can take with you. So if somebody says, “I couldn’t read the italic font,” next time, presumably they won’t read the italic font. But they’ve had 30, some people responding to their work, which is such excellent feedback, and so much more useful and meaningful than me just sitting there with something and writing a few things.
Rebecca: I like that poster session model idea. It’s a lot of fun and I think students really do respond to peer feedback in that way. I know I’ve been really successful when I’ve done class sessions that are like that poster session or fair-like atmosphere with those same kinds of categories to fill out, I think, is really super helpful. I’ve had really good experiences with that, too.
Susan: One of the things we’re all thinking about is how to translate all this physical stuff online. And you can. Like this past semester, that project ended up online. And so I had a Google Doc, where people were doing the same thing, and it worked fine. It wasn’t as fun as running around the room, but it was effective.
John: I’ve done the same thing the last couple of years in my econometrics class where students create posters, half of them present one day and half the next class day and I give a break, and a group of them can wander around and see the others on the days when they’re presenting, and I’ve invited members of my department. The Dean has come by in the past, and it’s been something they found so much more valuable than the PowerPoint presentations that they used to do, where they’d all be sitting there nervously, and then getting up and being glad to get through it, and then they’d sit there quietly waiting for the rest of them to be done. There’s so much more engagement when they’re up there presenting for the whole class period to anyone who happens to wander by. And it’s a form of a more authentic assessment, I think, that they value quite a bit.
Rebecca: …builds in more practice, too, because they’re talking about it multiple times. [LAUGHTER]
John: Yeah, having them talk for an hour about their project is much more effective than presenting to a silent audience much of the time. I liked it, they liked it, and they strongly encouraged that it continue.
Rebecca: So, we started talking a little bit about how to translate some of these things online. So, why is upgrading maybe particularly important to think about during this pandemic or in this transition to remote learning or the unknowns of the fall semester, as they currently stand? [LAUGHTER]
Susan: That’s a great question. We are in a very unpredictable moment. And every campus is trying to figure out what to do. The ones who are fully online have just made their claim, and so that’s a little bit more predictable at some level. The ones like mine that are committed to in-person except for exceptions or hybrid until we can’t do it anymore.
Rebecca: It’s a familiar story. [LAUGHTER]
Susan: Yeah. And I read everyday about what everybody around the country is doing. And we don’t really know. So anybody who is sticking to a rigid grading scheme is probably going to keep recalculating and recalibrating all semester long… if you’ve got participation, but then people lose their internet connection because they are stranded somewhere, then what do you do? Do you just have a different formula for that person? I think having precision in grading schemes has often been seen as equitable and comforting for students because it gives them security knowing what they’re going to do, but that presumes that you know what the conditions are going to be. I think, even in ordinary times, there are a lot of fallacies built into that and students’ conditions aren’t as uniform as we often assume they are. But, we know now during the pandemic, how widely and wildly variable people’s conditions are, and the New York Times has done stories about one student helping her family with a food truck and the other one is in the family second home in Maine, and there’s everything in between. There’s using the WiFi in the parking lot of the library or there’s using the WiFi in your beautiful six bedroom home. So the lack of uniformity just highlights all of the inequities and all of the unevenness of the conditions. So, if you’re sorting people, but they’re in wildly different conditions, you’re not actually doing a very good controlled experiment, and it’s certainly unequitable. Another dimension we should probably consider is that, in our current moment, everybody is experiencing some kind of stress and trauma. And the trauma-informed pedagogy is something that we all need to learn a lot more about. We know that one of the outcomes of grading in ordinary times (I don’t know what we’re going to end up calling this third condition) is that grades produce stress and pressure. Right now, with so many other stresses and pressures, we don’t really need grades to add to that. How we keep people accountable, how we keep them on track, how we keep them motivated, involved, connected to each other is really our challenge. And that’s what I think those of us who are really thinking about this are trying to spend every minute of the summer trying to figure out. But grading is not the best method for motivating people. So, I think that this is the perfect time to try ungrading.
Rebecca:So if we try ungrading, how would you recommend framing such things in our syllabi?
Susan: Well, I’ll tell you what I do. I have one sentence on my syllabus. My syllabus is not a contract. It’s not one of those punitive sort of legalistic syllabi. So, what we’re figuring out in this conversation is that everything is connected. But my syllabus has one sentence that says, “We will be practicing ungrading in this class, this will be explained.” And I begin most of the semester by having meaningful, enjoyable experiences where people are learning, and I don’t say it’s not graded, it’s just not graded. And then over weeks, I explain what oungrading is, and I show them this is what we’ve done, see how it works. And when I’m lucky, I have students who have had other classes with me and they can sort of support my claims that this is actually meaningful and they won’t just blow it off and they won’t just think it’s not important. I want to have an acknowledgement here before we end though that contingent faculty, graduate students, people of color, young women, people who are tenure track, people who are teaching lots and lots of classes, may not feel that they have the security to engage in something that’s unfamiliar. And it might be risky for some people. They may need to clear it with their chair or their Dean or somebody like that, who may say no, because it’s scary. That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to have this book so that a young contingent faculty member who really cares about pedagogy can say to the person who’s really holding their employment over their head, “Well, there’s research, too. Look at all these people who are doing it, they’ve done it, they’ve done it, okay, they’ve done it for years, and I would like to try it too. Can I try it in one class, maybe with a good outcome?” So, I don’t recommend starting from a completely conventional class last semester to a completely unconventional class online next semester. I think changing things bit by bit is probably the way to go.
Rebecca: I think that’s good solidI think that’s good solid advice, always: iterative practice with our classes. [LAUGHTER]
John: And you mean by that, perhaps, having some activities that are ungraded and then gradually expanding that as you become more comfortable and your department becomes more comfortable with that?.
Susan: I think that’s a great way of framing it. And it depends on the subject too. Some are much more amenable to ungraded, like writing or social science or something.
Rebecca: So we always end by asking: what’s next?
Susan: So, I’m part of a project called A Theory of Public Higher Education. It’s funded by Indiana University and the Society for Values in Higher Education and we are generating a theory of public higher education. We are going to be publishing our kind of manifesto. We’re finishing It this summer and fall, and it should be published next year. We’re very excited about that. It’s a group of six of us from all different institutions teaching all different subjects. It’s really led us to rethink what is higher education from the foundation up. Another project that I’m also really excited about is called School Stories. And I’d love it if your listeners would give it a look. You can find it at schoolstorieslab.com. And it’s basically crowdsourcing experience stories about being in school. So, it can be students, teachers, parents, administrators, it can be from any place in the world, from any level of school. Our only condition is that you have to be 18 to write the story, because otherwise, we get into problems. But we just launched last week, and we have worked on our web design, and we’ve worked on our IRB, and we’ve worked on every dimension of this and we’re really excited about it. There’ll be a new theme every week; this past week, the theme was racism. So what are people’s experiences of racism in school? We have a whole COVID sort of shell and context for what we’re doing now. So, please check that out. And then my next other project is a book I was writing really well until the pandemic hit. It’s about how your education, it’s called Progress Report about my own transformation in teaching, but it’s on hold right now, because I don’t know what to say, exactly. [LAUGHTER] I’m in a profound process of rethinking right now. So, I will write that but I don’t know what it’s going to be now.
Rebecca: It does seem like COVID-19 has transformed us all. We’re just not sure how yet. [LAUGHTER]
Susan: Right? I mean, we’re living through what we all perceive simultaneously as a huge transformation.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing some insight into ungrading. It’s been an interesting conversation, and hopefully, it’ll provoke people to think a little bit differently about their plans for the fall and in the future.
John: Yes, thank you. We’ve really enjoyed talking to you. And this is a topic we wanted to get on the podcast for quite a while. So when we saw your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project, it was an ideal match.
Susan: Well, thank you so much for your great questions and your welcoming demeanor and for your own little contributions to how to think about teaching, which I’ve kind of taken notes on, and to our listeners. Good luck to you and we’ll get through this.
Rebecca: We hope
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.