Grading Off The Grid

Faculty members find success grading for feedback and growth

Good students are accustomed to striving for good grades, but once they get into college, a laser focus on grades and traditional measures of academic success can impede higher learning. Risk-averse students will be unlikely to take chances or try out new ideas or ways of thinking, which is where true discovery and knowledge often happens.

Gabe Kramer

Gabe Kramer

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Several Behrend faculty members have been experimenting with “ungrading,” an umbrella term for alternative assessment based on grading for growth. While methods vary, at the heart of ungrading is providing feedback without judging too soon before students achieve the desired competency.

“Conventional grading methods tend to reduce students and their work to a snapshot in the process, while ungrading practices motivate students to own their learning process by shifting their attention away from a definitive number or letter grade,” said Dr. Qi Dunsworth, director of the Center for Teaching Initiatives, who hosted a Grading Differently Open House this spring.

To learn more about alternative grading, we talked with three faculty members who have used the approach. Gabe Kramer, assistant teaching profes­sor of mathematics, applied it in teaching Calculus I and II; Dr. Matt Levy, associate professor of art history, used it in three of his classes; and Dr. Ashley Russell, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, used alternative grading in two of her molecular and cellular biology courses.

Dr. Matt Levy

Dr. Matt Levy

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Why Did You Try Grading Differently?

Kramer: I was unhappy with having students’ first attempts at a skill being permanent in the grade book. I wanted to allow them to make mistakes and learn from them with minimal negative consequences.

Russell: In 2020, I implemented a “journal club” assignment in which I asked students to read original research articles that pertained to the material and summarize them. Students liked the assignment but were stressed about trying to include all the “right” information. It felt unfair to expect them to accurately summarize everything when some of it was so foreign to them. I wanted to keep these assignments but focus more on the reading and learning.

How Did You Apply These Alternative Grading Methods?

Levy: I did away with high-stakes exams and replaced them with frequent, low-stakes, pass/fail assignments. My new assignments prioritized personal reflection and application of class concepts over memorization and content recitation.

I gave students more opportunities to learn from their mistakes, allowing them to retake quizzes and revise papers.

Dr. Ashley Russell

Dr. Ashley Russell

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Russell: I utilized specifications grading for the journal club assignments. Each section of the summary was graded based on the specification, “Did you hit all the key points or make a valiant effort to?” and it was graded pass/fail. For each section that they passed they got one point. I added the points and multiplied them by a factor, and that was their grade for the assignment.

What Were The Results?

Kramer: Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. This type of grading allows for freedom in ways that traditional grading doesn’t. You can ask rich or complicated questions without fearing they are too difficult for students to answer, and students can attempt to answer without fear of a “bad” grade.

Levy: Because students were less worried about accumulat­ing points, they took more intellectual risks and produced more personal and reflective writing. Students reported experiencing less stress and feeling they were learning for their own gratifica­tion, not just to earn a grade.

What Do You Want People To Know About Ungrading?

Kramer: It isn’t just unlimited do-overs. It’s a philosophy that embraces mistake-making as part of the learning process, and it gives students autonomy to learn at a pace more suited to them.

Levy: Some might assume it will result in a decrease in rigor or increased grade inflation, but my grade distribution is relatively unchanged from when I used a more conventional grading system.

Russell: It’s not a wishy-washy thing that lets students off easy. I still expect a lot from my students, and they know it. The pass/fail aspect actually seemed to light a fire under them to get it done.

All three faculty members say they plan to continue ungrading in some form, though each of them sees it as a work in progress, subject to refinement.