Posted on April 15th, 2022 by

By Professor Kathy Lund Dean

When I read about the current state of mind our students are carrying around, I see descriptions from educators all over the world like, “They’re so done” or “They are completely disengaged” “They are not interested in learning anything.” From my perspective, and what seems to be going on with my students, I think we need more accurate adjectives in considering where students are right now: Defeated. Exhausted. Routed. Overwhelmed. 

These young adults have suffered through some of the worst years of their lives due to factors (and responses) well beyond their control. I am absolutely not blaming them for exhibiting their burn out and wearing it on their sleeves. This spring (2022), I found one of the manifestations of that emotional exhaustion was an odd situation in my teaching, and it was clear I needed to make an adjustment. Since about midterm, I have been experimenting with ungrading, which is a learning philosophy, a movement, and a practical amalgam of empathy, trust, and epistemology often orthogonal to routine teaching norms and course designs. I will revisit what did about ungrading after sharing The Situation that drove me to it. 

So here’s what was happening: during class time the discussions were terrific, even among students who were zooming in due to sickness and quarantining. Activities designed to elicit particular learning outcomes were sources of robust and technically excellent reflective conversations among students. Students asked for more role play scenarios (this is not a joke) by which to practice their managerial skills in a collectively supportive space they had created with and for each other. Teams cared for each other, and worked effectively on their assignments. An engaged educator’s dream, right? But outside of class time, their written assignments based on all of this in-class energy and generative conversation were… how shall I say… really not good. Like, “what the hell is going on here?” not good. My intent to have class discussion and activities inform their written work was not only not realized, it seemed like students actively decided not to do it that way. I had never seen this type of mismatch in my 22 years in the classroom. 

It seemed not only ineffective for learning but an act of teaching malpractice to simply continue my course design as-is this spring. It seemed clear to me that once they stepped outside that classroom door, they had given all they could to their learning experience. The post-class written assignments became annoying afterthoughts—busywork I controlled through class marks and rubrics. My course assessments and requirements became part of the noise students were wearily trying to manage along with everything else they had to do. 

Things are empirically different now, post-COVID. There is some evidence that our colleagues are trying to make up for perceptions of lost learning during online instruction by adding to even pre-COVID work loads and course requirements for students. Others have noted that the scope of issues associated with trying to live and learn during a pandemic, especially prior to the widespread access to vaccines, has had lasting effects on cognition and resilience, increasing stress-induced trauma and degrading mental health. Still others have found that the additional responsibilities that many of our students undertook during COVID, like household financial contributions and family caregiving, did not simply disappear once we decided to go back to in-person campus life. These students are carrying weights, responsibilities, and losses that are visible in the aggregate; they seem physically bent toward the earth when they walk. Something had to change.

I had been toying with the concept of ungrading for years. Its return of agency and voice to students from me, in the form of removing reductionist marking schemes and completely reframing their work toward articulating what they learned vs what I wanted them to learn, spoke to the constructivist educator in me. As defined on an ungrading open source community page, “Ungrading is the process of leaving out grades, but it is not a method in which teachers stop evaluating students; instead, they are constantly evaluating their students’ progress by giving feedback or tips to help them improve.” Popularized by a widely shared essay from Alfie Kohn titled, “The Case Against Grades” and a book titled, “Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)” edited by Susan D. Blum, its hallmark is returning intrinsic learning motivation to students by eliminating the extrinsic and other-determined marks. Final course marks, when required by an institution to be recorded, are either determined or suggested by each student who articulates what mark they think they have earned, and why. In some ungraded courses, students earn what they say they should without negotiation with the instructor. Other ungraded courses allow for dialogue between the student and instructor; the student suggests a mark, supplies a reflective rationale, and engages in dialogue with the instructor to help open up any blind spots the student may have.

Metacognitive reflection, or, having students think about what they’ve understood and why, is the currency of ungrading; as the instructor, I am merely there to ask good questions, to guide their individually determined a-ha moments, and to offer the learning activities and classroom discussions by which our learning objectives can be realized. That means pulling me out of the assessor role, because my assignments were designed to ascertain how well they knew what I thought was important without honoring the invisible-to-me cognitive processes students were undergoing. 

I consulted with an experienced ungrading practitioner, Adjunct Assistant Professor & Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Organizational Behaviour Kate Rowbotham from Queens University in Toronto. Kate, who is also a member of the Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society, was so generous sharing her time and experiences. Kate urged me to consider my goals for moving forward in the class, so here’s what I decided: I wanted to continue the amazing in-class experience, foster empowerment by allowing students to determine what was interesting and important for them, eliminate the busywork, and help alleviate the stress so many of them were carrying. 

After my talk with Kate, I talked with my students and floated the idea of ungrading and how it would work. Crucially, I think, was them believing my commitment to making sure their overall course mark would not be worse than if we continued as-is, and the commitment to a clear process where their voice would be heard. Here’s what I did: 

  • Removed the grading rubric from assignments due going forward. Students still complete them, but only in the service of responding to the learning reflection questions…
  • …which are now a separate document with 4-5 reflective prompts based on what they did and what they learned from it. I do not mark these reflection papers with grades, but offer comments and additional prompts for them to consider. 
  • Assignment and reflection due dates were moved back a full day; some ungrading practitioners remove due dates altogether, but that did not go over well with my students. They wanted deadlines. 
  • Class time can serve as a proxy for any written assignment I think they have already ‘completed,’ meaning, if what I hear during class hits what I want them to learn, and they can articulate those metacognitive reflective prompts, I eliminate the written assignment. 
  • I am keeping some marked assignments that lend themselves to it, as suggested by students. Low stakes quizzes keep them up on the readings and text, and they like that accountability. Class participation and attendance marks remain, for much the same reason. Per usual course design, students have many different ways of earning participation points, especially if they are sick and miss class time, and this design feature continues to work well for them. 
  • Marks earned on assignments prior to this switch can be taken into consideration when they determine what final course mark they think they have earned; I don’t think they have to be. 
  • Also due to students’ wishes, I use the CATME peer evaluation system and those peer-determined outcomes will inform that final mark discussion. 

I don’t want to overstate my expertise here—I have done three assignments like this so far. But so far, I can’t even tell you how much more I am enjoying reading their work without having to determine a mark. Even though I tweak my rubrics from student feedback every term, they still cannot capture that metacognitive process I now see in the additional writing they do. And, they are completing the reflections in addition to the other assignments, so it’s actually more engagement with what we’re doing, but it’s the opposite of busy work. 

So far, I have been humbled by the complexity of the learning descriptions they have provided me and have to admit that I had been underestimating what they could learn by reading the enormously sophisticated connections they are making among course materials. My favorite two reflection prompts so far are, “What have you learned from your classmates about this topic?” and “What 2-3 questions about this topic do you still have?” The questions they are producing.. wow, the questions. They are integrative and real-life and reflect their deep curiosity about how to be great at their future organizational roles, especially those who want to be managers. Not only great, but kind and ethically-grounded managers. 

I don’t know what will happen yet this term. It may be too early to call this a win. Maybe I will regret this, and I will have to write a follow up telling you what went awry, which I am totally willing to do. But I don’t think I will need to. They were genuinely relieved something was going to be different. I think they know I am on their side. If nothing else, that’s the victory.


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