‘Ungrading’ policy fosters new perspectives on learning outcomes

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Photo by Emma Sylvester for The Lafayette

Professors said one of the reasons they adopt “ungrading” is to alleviate inequities in the classroom.

The standard of letter grades is something that most college students are accustomed to. But what if this grading system was abandoned for a more unique approach? In classes that apply the “ungrading” system, this is exactly what happens. 

Ungrading is a teaching philosophy that attempts to take student focus off of the number or letter grade and instead direct it toward individual academic growth. Under this grading system, assignments throughout the semester do not receive letter or numerical grades, and at the end of the semester, each student’s grade is decided upon in a one-on-one discussion with their professor. 

Professor Chris Phillips, head of the English department, was one of the first Lafayette professors to apply ungrading in his classroom. 

“To me, ungrading is basically switching the emphasis in how we assess and evaluate what students are doing from a performance index to ‘let’s talk about learning,'” Phillips said.

Phillips began applying ungrading during his first year as an assistant professor at the college. He was motivated to continue using the system by his students’ increased creativity and classroom risk-taking.

“I loved how it changed the atmosphere,” Phillips said. “It changed the kinds of choices students would make. They took more risks. They did cooler things with assignments because they weren’t afraid to mess up.”

Visiting assistant professor of English, Enrico Bruno, was inspired by the college’s acceptance of ungrading grading policies to start applying it to his classes last semester. Though Bruno utilized “contract grading” – a system in which students and the professor agree to grading terms at the start of the semester – at his previous position, he applied an ungrading system in his courses when he began teaching at Lafayette. 

“When I got here, I was happy to find out that there were several members of the department here who already do ungrading,” Bruno said. 

Bruno has seen the benefits of ungrading in his students while teaching at the college. Similar to Phillips, he said that this system changes the way students view doing work for a class. 

“Now that I’ve had the chance to really do it, I do find that my students [have] changed their behavior around the way they think about their work, the way they approach their work, and it’s changed my relationship to my students in, I think, a really effective way,” Bruno said.

Bruno cited the increased revision process and feedback that comes with ungrading as the reason for the change in his relationship.

“Ungrading is a perfect vehicle for [open communication] because I have to be direct with them and my feedback, and I have to talk to them much more than I used to in previous classes because of the revision process,” he said. 

Phillips also sees ungrading as a positive factor in his relationship with students, and he said that this system allows his students to see his methods as an instructor in a more meaningful way.

“They’re starting to see their own learning at a deeper level because they’re getting a bit more of a window into my process as an instructor,” Phillips said. 

“I find that, you know, the level of comfort and the level of trust in the classroom really goes up when I do this kind of thing, and it can mean more openness and class discussion,” Phillips continued. 

Another benefit of ungrading that Phillips cited as particularly important to him is that it helps to alleviate the inequities that can greatly affect marginalized students in the classroom. 

“I want to ease back student fear that comes with a traditional grading system. And a few of the newer things over the years that have emerged for me are how much this is an equity issue,” Phillips said. 

“There are students who are just accustomed to getting graded lower because of the background that they come from, because of their positionality … There’s a lot of research that shows women will accept or claim for themselves lower grades than men will, and students of color will do the same relative to white students,” he said.

Philips sees this as one of the more important reasons why he uses ungrading.

“Part of this work, it’s not just about ‘I want a certain kind of learning to happen,’ but it’s like ‘I want a certain kind of justice to happen’ in my courses,” Phillips said.