324. Unmaking the Grade

A growing number of faculty have been experimenting with ungrading. In this episode, Emily Pitts Donahoe joins us to discuss her ungrading approach and the documentation of this process on her blog. Emily is the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi.

Show Notes


John: A growing number of faculty have been experimenting with ungrading. In this episode, we discuss one instructor’s ungrading approach and her documentation of the process.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Emily Pitts Donahoe. Emily is the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. She experimented with ungrading and chronicled her experiences in her Unmaking the Grade blog. Welcome, Emily.

Emily: Thanks. I’m really excited to be here.

John: We’re very pleased to be talking to you. We talked recently at the POD conference, and I’m looking forward to this additional conversation.

Emily: Yes, where I got this lovely tea for teaching mug from John, which I’m so excited about and drinking from right now.

John: And since this is only audio, Emily was holding the mug [LAUGHTER]…

Emily: I’m showing it off.

John: So our teas today are:… Emily, are you drinking tea in that mug?

Emily: I am. [LAUGHTER] I am drinking tea out of my tea for teaching mug. I’m a big tea drinker. And so today I’m drinking my favorite tea, which is a strong black tea called Scottish morn. And I got this tea from a tea shop called Apothica in Niles, Michigan, which I used to go to when I lived in South Bend, so highly recommended if you’re in that area.

Rebecca: Sounds wonderful. I was ready for you to say that you had coffee or something in the tea for teaching mug so it’d be completely blasphemous… [LAUGHTER]

Emily: Never.

Rebecca: …because coffee is one of the most frequent flavors. [LAUGHTER] Emily, you’re doing it right. [LAUGHTER] I have blue sapphire tea today.

John: And I have Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: So, we invited you here today, Emily, to discuss your experiences with ungrading. Your blog is based on your spring 2023 course experiences but your ungrading experience predates this course. Can you tell us a little bit about your initial experience with ungrading?

Emily: Sure. So I have a background in Writing and Rhetoric and English literature, and so a lot of what we do in Writing and Rhetoric, I think, is already pretty aligned with some ungrading goals and practices. So in my courses, students have always had the opportunity to revise their work based on feedback, and include it in a final portfolio, and most of their grade is based on their revised work. So it’s not just that they get graded and then that’s the end of it, they always have a chance to improve based on feedback. The first time that I stopped putting letter grades and percentages on student work was in spring of 2022, when I was teaching a general education literature course at Notre Dame, and so the course was on pre-modern and early modern literature, but with a focus on how the texts that we were studying might help us examine or wrangle with some of the questions that we’re preoccupied with as a culture and society today, and thinking about how those texts might relate to student lives. So it was a course for kind of all levels and all majors, which I think made it a good course to experiment with. So I had first-year students all the way up through senior-level students from engineering and business and English and psychology and all kinds of different majors. So like all teaching experiments, I think there were definitely some kinks to work out after that first course; they never go exactly right the first time. [LAUGHTER] But I would say that, overall, it was a huge success. And that’s not because I did it perfectly, or even because I did it particularly well, but because I think ungrading really helped some of my students move beyond this idea of the school as a points game, to help find their interest and their motivations to study the material that we were studying for their own purposes, and to focus on developing the skills and knowledge that they wanted to develop rather than on attaining a specific grade.

John: And the second time you did this, you created a blog describing the process. What prompted you to create the blog?

Emily: So, I was inspired by a post written by Robert Talbert, who’s the co-author of a recent book, Grading for Growth, which I really highly recommend on alternative grading, and he and David Clark, his co author, also had a blog and substack newsletter on Grading for Growth. And so in December of 2022, Robert posted a stop, start, continue for the ungrading community. And if you’re not familiar with stop, start, continue, it’s an evaluation exercise used for mid-semester reflection, very often in classrooms where the instructor or another facilitator will ask students: “What kinds of teaching practices or classroom practices would you like to stop, start, or continue in the class?” And so Robert’s post was a stop, start, continue for the ungrading community. And one of the things that he recommended that the ungrading community start doing was getting into the weeds and writing in detail about the daily experiences and specifics of upgrading, so: what we’re doing, what kind of successes we’re having, what challenges we’re encountering, how we’re adjusting in real time, and he recommended keeping this as the kind of blog or like a captain’s log of weekly reflections. So when I read his post, I thought, “Well, I could do that. It didn’t sound that hard, and it sounded like a lot of fun.” So that was what prompted me to start writing weekly reflections to share some of the methods that I was using, successes and challenges that I had, and even some of my doubts or misgivings about some of the things that I was doing in the class.

John: And just as an aside, we were so impressed by Grading for Growth, that we’ll be using it in the spring reading group here, both at SUNY Oswego and at Plattsburgh with Jessmyn Neuhaus. So we’re very much looking forward to that. And Robert and David will be giving a keynote address at the start of our workshop series in just a few weeks in early January. So we’re very interested in doing more of this on our campus as well.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your decision to delay posting the blog until after the semester ended?

Emily: Sure. So the selfish reason is that it’s supposed to be an unfiltered look at the ungraded classroom. And part of me thought, what if I messed this up so badly that I’ll be embarrassed to talk about it. So it was partly that, but I would say the more important reason is that I thought it might be weird for students if I was talking in public about what was happening in the classroom in real time. And I was concerned that it would damage the relationship of trust that I wanted to build with my students if they knew that I was reporting on our conversations to a larger audience about the class. So I offered to hold things for that reason. But the other thing that I wanted to do was make it clear to students that I was writing these reflections that might later be published, and then to get their input on them. So some of what I shared on the blog, I didn’t really want to share without getting students consent to do that. But I also wanted to get their input on some of the things that I was talking about. So I believe really strongly in taking a students as partners approach to higher education and learning experiences. And I try to employ that in my educational development work in the classroom. So that means bringing students into conversations about teaching and learning and asking for their experiences and their expertise as students really and then using that to inform our practice. So delaying the posting allowed me also to get some input from students and to be able to share some of their thoughts and opinions on the blog whenever I could.

John: In reading through your blog, your spring 2023 class seemed really interesting. Could you describe that for our listeners?

Emily: Yeah. So this is the second course in our sequence of first-year writing courses here at the University of Mississippi, but it’s a little bit different. So for the second course in the sequence, students have the opportunity to take either Writing 102 or Liberal Arts 102, and I was teaching Liberal Arts 102. And so the goals of each course are really the same. But Liberal 102, as we call it, is conducted within the context of a research area in a specific discipline. So that means that it can have a very specific theme. So some of my really excellent colleagues in the department and in other departments have taught courses like writing about true crime, or the rhetoric of sports, or I believe there’s a course on fashion. So because one of my areas of expertise is teaching and learning, the course that I taught was called Examining Higher Ed Teaching and Learning in a College Classroom. And so I think this is a great course for first-year students as they’re entering this next phase of their education to reflect on where they’ve been and where they want to go. And so what we did was looked at questions like: What’s the purpose of a college education? Why are we all here? What kind of benefits does it provide to individuals or to society? What kind of collective benefits does it provide? And then how are those benefits enacted or engendered in the classroom. And so we explored a lot of debates around higher ed in the US and students have an opportunity to reflect on and draw on their own experiences as students and their expertise as students, and then integrate that with larger areas of research on education or current events in education. And then they communicated their ideas about education to audiences outside of our classroom. And so it was really, I think, an ideal course for ungrading because we could talk about grades, not only as a matter of course policy, but also as a core subject matter. So in the beginning of the semester, we read Alfie Kohn’s piece “The Case Against Grades” and talked about it both as a way to introduce the course grading system and as a kind of larger prompt for reflection about grades as an issue of concern in higher education right now.

John: And it sounds like a great opportunity to have students reflect on what you’re doing as you’re doing it. How did students respond to this?

Emily: So I think every time I’ve ungraded a class now, and I’m currently on my third ungraded class, students have responded a little bit differently every time and of course, every individual student is also different. I think there are three broad categories of response that I see. One is just enthusiasm; some students are really excited about ungrading, and usually that’s students who feel that, for one reason or another, their grades in the past haven’t been representative of their learning or who feel that some of their creativity or their risk taking has been stifled by their desire to get a good grade. So I wouldn’t say this is a lot of students, this is probably a smaller group of students, but some students are really excited about it. I would say another group of students are really hesitant because ungrading is a big unknown for them, especially for students who are dead set on getting that “A” grade. It can be really nerve racking not to know kind of where you’re at in the middle of the semester. When I get negative feedback on ungrading, it’s almost always students who say,”This is really interesting, but I never know where I’m at.” And so they’re really concerned about how they’re going to measure their progress. But they’re not thinking about their progress in learning, they’re thinking about their progress toward a specific grade, which is really understandable because grades are important. And so that’s also a smaller group of students. But I would say, by far, the biggest reaction I get from students is something like cautious optimism. So I always start ungraded courses with a conversation about grades and learning, and I ask students to share with me their experiences of grades and share with each other. And very often, they have a lot of negative experiences to share, and sometimes positive experiences as well. But we talk about the relationship between grades and motivation and grades and learning and they have a chance to reflect on that. And so I use these conversations as a jumping off point to explain why I use the system that I do and how I think it will benefit them as learners. And I think students find it really helpful to be able to talk about their experiences with grading openly and to be heard by a teacher. And I think that that alone makes them more willing to buy into the system. So once it’s explained fully, and once students start to see the potential benefits, I would say that most of them are cautiously optimistic.

Rebecca: I think that largely aligns with my experiences and explorations when ungrading as well. In your class, you included five different assessments and opportunities for revision. Can you talk about and describe these assessments?

Emily: Sure. So the first thing that students had the opportunity to do were weekly writing practice assignments. So these are what you might think of as formative assessments, they’re preparation for class discussion and major assignments that mostly involve reading or short writing prompts. And these students weren’t able to revise, they either kind of did it or they didn’t. But then students had an opportunity to do more longer major assignments, which are more typical assessments for the writing class, a series of papers and a multimodal kind of project or two, with an imagined audience kind of outside our classroom. And so these students could revise up to three times if they wanted to do that. And so I had to, for this class, adjust a little bit and do slightly fewer assignments than I might have done in a traditionally graded class, because the expectation is that students would be doing more intense work on each assignment in their revision. I also asked students to do self assessments periodically throughout the semester. So students would answer a series of questions about their progress toward the learning goals, about their goals for the remainder of the semester. And they would also propose a current grade for themselves based on evidence that they provided. And this is a similar activity to what we did at the end of the semester to determine their course grades. They were also assessed on their final portfolio, which had revised versions of their major assignments. So their work… basically as good as they could make it… their best version of their major assignments, plus another final self assessment of their work in the class. And then they were also assessed on class engagement, so their class attendance, their preparation for and participation in class discussion, the timeliness of their work, their support for the learning community and fellow students and things like that.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you provided your feedback on those assessments?

Emily: Sure. So for the writing practice assignments, usually I just wrote a sentence or two in response to students work to let them know if they were on the right track, or they may be needed to adjust slightly as they prepare for their major assignments. For the major assignments, I did do a lot of longer written feedback, and a lot of this looked like feedback that I would give in a traditionally graded class. But I think it was a little bit more oriented toward future growth, rather than reflecting on past work. It was giving them a lot of direction on how they might want to revise to make their work better in the future, not just for future papers, but for this particular paper. And with that feedback, I also gave them a rubric, where I marked kind of where I thought they were at along the specific assessment categories and criteria that we were using for that assignment. So for example, we might have a category for audience and purpose. Students could see whether I think their work on that category was still developing, whether it was at the level of proficient or whether it reached the level of excellent, so I had these different categories and these different kind of progress metrics, where I would indicate this is a skill that I think you’re still working on, or this is a skill that you’re doing really well in. And I also provided feedback to students through our individual conferences. So we met once at midterm, I met with each individual student, and then once at the end of the semester, to have a face-to-face conversation about how students were doing and if they needed to make any adjustments to reach their goals for the rest of the semester. And I didn’t give any feedback through letter grades or points. Those are not really great forms of feedback. They don’t actually give us a lot of information about our progress. So most of the feedback that I provided was kind of qualitative feedback.

Rebecca: You just talked a little bit about rubrics as part of a feedback that we were providing students, can you talk a little bit about how those rubrics were developed?

Emily: Yeah, so I’ve tried several different methods of creating rubrics. And one of the things that I like to do is co-create them with students or get students input on rubrics. And I attempted to co-create rubrics with students in two different classes and have done it a few times. And sometimes it’s a huge success, and sometimes it really does not work very well at all. And in my spring class, it didn’t work very well at all. [LAUGHTER] So basically, what I’ve done previously is ask students what they think makes a good argument or a good piece of public writing, or whatever it is that we’re working on. Or I ask them what kinds of things they believe their writing should be assessed on, and how we would determine whether or not their writing is successful. And then we have a conversation about that. I make notes on the board as we’re talking. And then I go away and distill those notes down into a rubric with about five categories in which student work is assessed. And then there’s the three metrics, so developing, proficient, and excellent. And sometimes this works really well. But in my spring class, I think the students were really at a loss when I asked them about assessment, and even when I asked them what good writing looks like. And I think that’s because that no one has ever asked them to think about that before. They’re used to being told what their work should look like by someone else, and then trying to conform their work to those expectations, or to someone else’s standards. And obviously, we need to have standards and expectations for student work. But one of the things that that does is get the students only thinking about what the teacher wants and not what they want. They’re not thinking about what they want their work to look like, or what their standards are or what they’re trying to accomplish. And so I think, ultimately, if we’re preparing students for the real world, whatever that is, this is what we want them to be able to do, not just to blindly follow somebody else’s standards, but to create and work independently in a self motivated way, and then assess their work independently. So I think we have to kind of start with baby steps in that process. So in the spring course, the rubric activity really turned into a conversation about how students have been assessed in the past and why they’ve been assessed that way. So when I ask them about their experiences, how their writing had been assessed, they would say things like, we were graded on the word count, or we were graded on whether or not we included two sources in every paragraph. And then we use that as a jumping off point to talk about the principle behind those what they viewed as arbitrary rules. And so if your teacher is concerned about word count, it’s because they want you to make a substantive argument. And what does a substantive argument look like? If your teacher is concerned about including sources, it’s because they want you to make an argument based on strong evidence. And so what would strong evidence look like? And so we use that conversation to think about the assessment criteria for their college level work, and how that might be similar or different from what they experienced in the past. So in that way, I do think that conversation was helpful. And I do think based on my few experiences, that it helps to have students extrapolate criteria from some examples, rather than from thin air, kind of as I was asking them to do, but either way, having a transparent conversation about what students are being assessed on and why and a purpose behind the criteria is key to their success.

John: In one of your blog posts, you describe some of the writing assignments that you used in your class, and they seem quite interesting. Could you describe some of the writing prompts that you gave to students?

Emily: Yes, I was really excited about some of the assignments that I developed for this class. And I think I’m going to keep using them or versions of them in future classes. So for this class, I had a menu of assignment options. So the students could, for each major assignment, choose the kinds of projects that they found most compelling, or they would really draw on your strengths. And I thought this was important, partially because we were working some with generative AI in the class. And I’m sure everyone is aware by now some very serious data privacy concerns, ethical concerns around the use of generative AI. So I didn’t want to mandate that students work with AI if they didn’t want to, and some really didn’t want to. So I tried to offer them several options. And I was really happy about some of the options that I came up with. So obviously, one of the things that I was thinking about going into this semester was how to deal with generative AI and I have a lot of thoughts about that. But one big way to think about how to discourage inappropriate use of AI or encourage appropriate use of it is to think really carefully about assignment design. So one of the things that I did to help students navigate AI was lean into some multimodal work, think about argumentation in media other than writing or that kind of worked alongside writing. So we didn’t abandon writing entirely, but I did include a photo essay as one possible assignment in a menu of options. And for this course, I asked students to take a look at a book of photographs by Cassandra Horii and Martin Springborg that’s called What Teaching Looks Like. It’s a really, really cool book with candid photos of college teaching. And so we use this book to talk about visual rhetoric and also to use the photos as a launchpad for this discussion about college teaching practices and students’ experiences in the classroom. And so the assignment that students did based on their work with this book was to create their own photo essay called “What Learning Looks Like.” So instead of what teaching looks like, what learning looks like, with a specific audience and purpose in mind. So that was one of the assignments that I liked. Another one that I thought was really promising was something called “share your story,” which asks students to tell a personal narrative about their educational experience, and then connect that to a larger issue of concern or a body of research in higher education. So of course, this is not totally AI proof. ChatGPT can make up a story, but it can’t tell my students’ own stories. And I think most of us really like to tell our stories to other people. So I think that provided a little more motivation for students to do their own work. And then the last assignment that I really liked was an assignment that actually asked students to work with ChatGPT. So they created a prompt based on a template that I provided for an argumentative piece that they then fed to ChatGPT, so they gave ChatGBT the prompt. And then they took the ChatGPT output and critiqued it. So they annotated it, noting what pieces they thought were strong, whether or not the piece had weaknesses, and what those weaknesses were, where it might need revision or overhaul. And then they had to totally rewrite the piece that ChatGPT produced and make it their own. So they had to do a substantial revision. And then they had to annotate their own work and tell me why they made the revision decisions that they did. And so I want to clarify that I do think it’s important that students learn to generate first drafts on their own, because drafting is an essential part of the writing process, and it’s where a lot of the thinking happens. But I like this assignment as just one assignment in the sequence, because it does help students learn about generative AI and develop some AI literacy. And it also helps students get over that terror of the blank page. So a lot of students procrastinate because they don’t know how to get started. They’ll open their laptop to begin a paper and stare at the blank screen. And I find it really difficult to get over that first hump of starting work, and just close their laptop and go away and try it again later, usually the night before it’s due. So I think starting in this way, with a ChatGPT prompt and an essay gives them a jumping off point, and it’s an easy way to help them start building the confidence they need to do their own first draft.

John: We should mention that we did talk to the authors of What Teaching Looks Like, and we’ll include a link to that discussion in the show notes. One of the things you described in your blog is that having this ungraded environment encourages students to be perhaps a little more open and honest with their instructors, but that could lead to some challenges in terms of additional emotional labor. Could you describe the challenges that you faced in this class with that?

Emily: I think one of the big themes in the spring class in particular was that I asked students to share with the class and for audiences beyond the class about their previous experiences in school, or their current experiences, and I think this also happens in a lot of ungraded classes. One common method of introducing an unfamiliar grading system is getting students to think about their previous experiences with grades. And so one thing that happened in this particular class is that students’ related a lot of past educational trauma to me, and usually that involves bad experiences with previous teachers. And I’m really glad that they were able to speak honestly about that sort of thing. And I think it helped them to have a teacher take them seriously when they related those stories. At the same time, it was pretty difficult to navigate those conversations, because I was managing their emotions, my emotions, and also doing that when sometimes I only knew one side of the story. And so that was a little bit difficult. Another thing is that students in this class didn’t seem to feel that their grade depended on telling me what I wanted to hear. So I think they were a lot more honest about their views than in other courses that I’ve taught. So in my traditionally graded classes, or I think, in any class where students are discussing hot button issues, they tend to think that they’ll be graded more harshly if they express views that the instructor disagrees with. So very often, I think, they try to say what they think you want to hear rather than what they really think. And that didn’t seem to happen as much in my spring course. I had several students endorse viewpoints that I definitely disagreed with whether they knew that or not. And I think that’s good, because students have to sort through their own views and values. But it also required me to do a lot of thinking about how I would approach and address students not just whose views I disagreed with, but whose expression of those views might be damaging to others or to themselves. And so, we need to do some work around community building and relationship building in the class. And then of course, when you build relationships with trust with students, they’re more likely to tell you about the personal problems that they’re facing, whether that’s their mental or physical health or their personal relationships or family emergencies or grieving. And it’s really just a lot. And I do sometimes lay awake at night worried about my students. And there’s a lot of care work happens, I think, in all classes and also especially ungraded classes. And so there’s a lot of work in referring students to other resources and helping them navigate campus resources, and also just a lot of kind of management of your own emotional state [LAUGHTER] that has to happen. So I did want to be honest on the blog about some of the emotional toll of the work of teaching in general and of ungrading too.

Rebecca: You’ve described the care work, you’ve described individual conferences with students, you’ve described students’ anxiety over not knowing where they are sometimes and allowing substantial revision. Can you talk a little bit about how all of those things play into workload and how you’ve managed things?

Emily: Yes, this is a good question. And I feel like I have a very complicated answer to whether or not ungrading has increased my workload, because I get asked this question a lot. In my traditionally graded classes, giving all that feedback felt like a waste of time for a few reasons. First, because I had the sense that students weren’t really reading the feedback. So we know from research that when students receive a letter grade and also feedback on their work, they tend to see the grade and then ignore the feedback, or at least receive the feedback as a justification for a grade, rather than something that’s going to help them improve their work in the future. So I also spend a lot of time in traditionally graded classes worrying about how students would receive my feedback if they got a low grade on their paper. So how could I write feedback that would be appropriately honest, but also appropriately encouraging, so that students didn’t just see a C-minus or a D on their paper, and then give up and throw it in the trash. So I don’t really worry about those things since I’ve adopted ungrading. I provide feedback honestly, and with the mindset of a coach rather than a judge. And I provide it with at least some confidence that students will read it and use it. So they have plenty of opportunity to revise. And in fact, their ultimate achievement of the course is measured by their growth in specific areas and their demonstration of learning that arises from taking a piece of writing from not so good to much better. And so the expectation is that what they turn in the first time is not their best work and they’ll only get to their best work after they incorporate feedback. So I do spend a lot of time responding to student work now that I’m ungrading. But the process is more efficient because it accomplishes my goals rather than wasting my time. And it’s more enjoyable, because it causes me less angst. So I guess it is more work to provide feedback, but it’s also more efficient and enjoyable work. I think I feel kind of the same way about individual conferences with students, that it does take quite a bit of time to do those and it would be, I want to acknowledge, so much more difficult, it may be impossible to do if I was teaching more classes and more students. I’m very lucky that I teach small class sizes. And because I work in educational developments and work in a teaching center for most of the time, I only teach one course at a time. So I think there are ways to do this with larger courses, but I’m very fortunate in my course to be able to conference individually with each student twice in the semester. And those conferences are incredibly time consuming, and they can be really draining, but they are also really joyful. And I think it’s really important that students are able to have those one-on-one conversations with me. And they are much more, I think, effective in accomplishing a lot of the goals that I have for student learning than just simply doing written feedback or peer review or things like that. Having that face-to-face time to give students some individual attention is a really both enjoyable and effective part of the learning process.

John: A question that often comes up from people who have not tried ungrading is how well do students’ perceptions of their learning align with your perceptions of the learning when you do have to assign those midterm or final grades in the class?

Emily: Yeah, this is a really good question. And I would say I’ve had to do a little bit of work on my process to make sure that our expectations are aligning well. Sometimes, there are cases where students don’t automatically start off knowing what I expect from their work and what good work looks like, even when I thought that I was clear about that. So that is an issue that I’m working on. I would say for the majority of students, they do understand what good work looks like. And when they’re asked to provide evidence for their course grade, most of the time they know what good evidence looks like and are able to demonstrate to me in really, sometimes ways that I hadn’t anticipated, that they really had learned in the class and progressed and improved their work. For those students who struggle, and I think it’s more frequent for first-year students to struggle with this than more advanced students, for students who do struggle, I think it is important to be able to show them models of student work early in the semester so that they can get a sense of what a successful assignment looks like or what’s kind of level of expectations we have for what student work counts as really excellent work. So that’s been really helpful. And I’ve also made some changes to my class this semester to help clarify for students a little bit what kind of evidence might be good evidence for specific grade proposals in the course. So if they are really shooting for an A or B in the course, what kinds of actions or behaviors or demonstrations of quality work do they need to be able to show in order to attain that grade?

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I struggled with in some of the classes where I’ve done ungrading is that sometimes the midterm conference feels like it comes too late. So I experimented, I think once with like a one-third, two-thirds, three thirds approach, but then that was so much more conferencing.

Emily: Yeah.

Rebecca: So I’m curious about your timing and how the midterm time works in the classes that you’ve been teaching.

Emily: Yeah, I think that’s where the self-assessment assignments come in. So I do think midterm is quite late for students to be getting the first level of feedback. And so I have students do a self-assessment form, I guess, a quarter way into the semester. So we start that process really early of having them look back at the work that they’ve done, and propose a grade for themselves based on that work. And when they do those self assessments, I don’t conference with students every time they do a self assessment, but I do look at where their grade proposals are. And I’m able to say if our expectations are very, very different, or assessments of that students work is very, very different, I’m able to reach out and say, “Hey, I don’t think we’re aligned here, and here’s why.” And being able to intervene early on that I think is really important.

John: We’re recording this near the end of the fall semester of 2023. And you’re currently teaching another ungraded class, could you tell us a little bit about what types of changes you made from the spring class to the fall class?

Emily: Sure, there are a few changes that I’ve made, because there were some things that I think did not go very well in the spring and I wanted to try to improve that. So what didn’t go well was that I had a real problem with attendance, there were quite a few students who struggled with their attendance, especially in the latter half of the semester, and quite a few students who struggled to submit their work on time kind of throughout the semester. And that made it difficult for me, but I think more importantly, it made it really difficult for the students who once they missed an assignment, they found it really difficult to get back on track. So my challenge is really to figure out how to motivate students to attend class regularly and submit work on time without penalizing them for absences or late work or without a kind of point system to encourage them to show up to class and to submit their work on time. So that was one thing I wanted to address. And then the other thing is that students’ anxiety about not knowing where they stand in the midst of the semester at any given point. So what I developed to address all of those challenges was a course progress tracker. And so this is a document, a pretty comprehensive document, inspired by David Clark’s Grading for Growth post about grade trackers that I read during the summer while I was designing this course. And so the document is really a series of tracking worksheets in three different categories. So the first category is readings and assignments, students can see each week at a glance what work they have to complete, and then they can check off boxes as they complete that work, and then note, if there are assignments they’re submitting late, they can record those late submissions. There’s a category for attendance and engagement where students can check off the classes that they attend, and then make notes about their in or out of class engagement during each week of the semester. And then there’s a section… the most important section… for learning and growth where students can remind themselves of what the course goals are, and then track their progress along those goals, so they can see and make notes about where they’re still developing, where they’re doing excellent work, and how they’re improving their writing as the semester goes along. So, so far, it’s been going really well. And I’ve had fewer challenges with attendance and late work this semester than last semester, though, I can’t say to what extent that’s just a result of a different population of students or the fact that it’s fall instead of spring. So I will add that caveat, but I have surveyed students about their use of the progress tracker last week, and I’m really looking forward to diving into that next week. So the last thing that I think the progress tracker does, which I didn’t totally intend, but which has been really excellent, is that I think it helps students a lot with their self-assessment work, which they also struggled with, to some extent last semester, or I should say, maybe I struggled to teach really well. So I had a realization at the end of last semester, that when I sat down to think about a student’s work over the course of this semester, I was really thinking about three things. And so the first thing is quantity. How much work did students do? How much labor did they put in? How many assignments did they submit at a satisfactory level? How many class days did they attend? How much time did they spend on their major assignments? So that was one category. The second was quality. So how good was the work that they were doing according to the standards that we laid out? Was it still kind of developing work? Or was it excellent work? And then the third thing was growth. So how and how much did student work improve over the course of this semester? And can they demonstrate that they’ve gained knowledge and skills that they didn’t have before? Or can they demonstrate that they’re better off from having taken the course. And so while we’ve had conversations about those things in the spring, I never articulated to myself or to my students, that particular model; I never kind of said it in quite this way. So the last section of the progress tracker includes a guide to determining final letter grades for students. And it gives them space to think about quantity, quality and growth, and how that might contribute to the grade that they propose for themselves, if they’re interested in the specific letter grade. And it gives them a sense of what kinds of evidence they could provide if they want to show good evidence for a specific letter grade. So you can provide good evidence for an A if your work rises to the level of excellent on multiple assessment categories. Or if you attended class every time that you were able and submitted the vast majority of your writing practice assignments. So all of these things are good pieces of evidence if you want to propose an A grade for yourself. So there’s some flexibility there, I don’t prescribe exactly what students have to do for a specific grade, but I do make suggestions and say, here’s a guideline for you. If you’re confused about what kinds of work you need to be doing, or what you need to do to demonstrate that you’ve attained a certain letter grade, you can take a look at this guide, and learn a little bit more about what the expectations are. Currently, it’s just something for the students to use for themselves. I have provided time in class for students to fill out sections of it, because I think that if I did not ask them to do it in class, they might struggle to keep up with it outside of class. But I think maybe in the future, I will consider asking them to keep up with it. And then periodically checking in on those progress trackers throughout the semester so that I can intervene early, if there are any issues and maybe leave comments on the documents to let students know if I think they’re struggling in a specific area, or if they’re doing really well in a specific area. I am playing around with that idea for my next version of the class.

John: So we always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Emily: So this spring, I won’t be teaching an undergraduate course, but I will be working with graduate students who are preparing to teach their own Writing and Rhetoric courses. And I’m really looking forward to talking with them about teaching. And I’ll also be continuing to write about ungrading on the blog. So specifically, I’m hoping to share a bit more about what I learned from my experiences this semester. And I’ve been collecting data from my current students about their use of the progress tracker, about their use of AI in their writing this semester, and about their feelings and impressions of ungrading. And what I’m planning to do throughout the spring is share some of those student thoughts with the readers of the blog, and I’m really excited to be able to share students’ ideas about ungrading and other topics as well.

Rebecca: Sounds great. We’ll look forward to reading that for sure.

John: Thank you, Emily. It’s great talking to you and we look forward to future conversations.

Emily: Thanks, this has been fantastic.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.