Ungrading: A Review, A Retrospective, A Messy Path Ahead

July 21, 2021
Descending an overgrown path to Phil's Creek.

I ordered a copy of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) earlier this spring, during my second semester of experimenting with ungrading practices. Obviously, this means that I’m still not far along on my ungrading trek: I just set off in Fall 2020, when I first started teaching courses in MSU’s Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) program. My first forays have been at once exciting and daunting; the circumstances have been at once ideal and awful.

As is apparent from this timeline, this means that I’ve been learning to ungrade amid compounding traumas, political instability, social discord, and indescribable human suffering. Complicating matters further is that most of my students are, themselves, teachers. On top of everything else, they’ve been enduring their own unique struggles: “pivoting” back-and-forth between in-person and remote instruction, facing risks of infection when covid outbreaks strike their classrooms, experiencing extreme burnout, not receiving due compensation for their labor, on and on. So it’s been a perfect, necessary time to start ungrading. Ungrading has enabled me to keep my classes adaptable and to better extend the care that my teacher-students so desperately need. But at the same time, this also means that my students, co-instructors, and I have been bumbling around our ungrading trials, straining to learn the ropes even as we’re all too harried to really reach the ropes in the first place. It’s been a tough time to start ungrading.     

What was it that prompted me to start ungrading during this time? It was MAET itself: my joining the program just so happened to coincide with the rollout of MAET’s ungrading practices.

As Brittany Dillman, MAET’s Graduate Certificate Program Coordinator, explained to me, a few MAET courses had already been using some ungrading elements prior to the pandemic. However, the possibility of a program-wide ungrading initiative didn’t crystallize until the summer of 2020, after MAET had launched the Mini-MOOC on Remote Teaching and the College of Education’s Micro-Credential in Online Teaching, both of which continue to provide online learning opportunities for educators in response to the complex teaching circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mini-MOOC and the Micro-Credential were informative not only for their participants, but for their designers as well. Both courses asked educator-students to critically examine their own approaches to grading and assessment, to consider whether there were changes they wanted to make in light of covid contexts. These conversations incited Team MAET – spearheaded by Dillman, Candace Robertson, and Liz Owens Boltz (who is also DISC’s Director) – to reflect on the program’s assessment philosophies and to bring its grading practices into alignment with the recommendations that the Mini-MOOC and Micro-Credential were advocating. So, building from the models of those previous ungraded MAET courses, Team MAET spent the remainder of the summer constructing a programmatic approach to ungrading that would go into effect that August. 

I stepped into MAET just in time to be one of the first instructors to implement these new policies. Having long held objections to conventional grading, I was eager to be part of this vanguard. But even with the compassionate intentions, sturdy pedagogies, well-researched techniques, and collective support systems that have undergirded our efforts every step of the way, the process of learning to ungrade has been absolutely messy

Over the past year, MAET instructors have regularly met before, during, and after each term to discuss our ungrading experiences and to hear student perspectives: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, helpful anecdotes, ideas for how to continue tweaking and iterating and reiterating. We’ve heard poignant stories about how our ungrading policies held students afloat during hardship, giving them chances to navigate their personal crises and still succeed in their coursework. We’ve also had incredible moments where, thanks to ungrading, once-struggling students took ownership of their learning in ways they felt they’d never been able to before. We’ve received countless comments from students about the values they find in our feedback- and revision-intensive approaches, as well as their appreciation for our prioritization of care instead of penalization (e.g. our handling of extensions for late assignments). But along the way, we’ve also had plenty of failures, some of which have been acutely discouraging. At times, even the most carefully crafted devices have backfired; we still grapple with anxieties and uncertainties, both our own and our students’; some strategies just don’t, can’t work consistently; and some students still don’t succeed, no matter how hard we try to leverage ungrading’s flexibility to support them.

Indeed, it was the messiness of the Fall 2020 term that inspired me to give Ungrading (Blum, 2020) a read. My ungrading mess showed me that I needed to do some revising – after all, revising is a core tenet of ungrading. But I needed ideas for how to do so. I knew that listening to and learning from others’ stories would help me find fresh possibilities that I could share with my students and fellow instructors. Others’ accounts would help to redirect me from those treacherous spots where I’d wandered too far off-course and into gloomy doubts.

Published in December 2020, the book arrived just in time to aid me along my tumultuous path – and to, more generally, intervene in a period of growing interest in ungrading. Edited by Susan D. Blum, Ungrading is a compilation of essays from numerous educators, from numerous fields, from numerous educational levels. As such, the book offers a variety of ungrading approaches for a variety of educators, learners, and learning environments. Altogether, though, the contributions are united and emphatic in making their case against grades. They collectively assert – as the first part of the book’s subtitle suggests – that grades are detrimental to learning and that educators can and should, therefore, find ways to dismantle grading mechanisms in their own classrooms and mobilize together to resist dominant grading conventions. A line from Gary Chu’s essay, “The Point-Less Classroom,” summarizes what I think is the book’s main takeaway: “We, as educators, must be willing to acknowledge there is a problem, to recognize we are limiting the extent to which we are creating lifelong learners, to look at our own practices, and to take the first steps in eliminating grades” (p. 168). 

In support of these contentions, there are key points that recur throughout the book: that grades profess objectivity and uniformity, but are actually arbitrary and inconsistent; that grades don’t adequately do what they claim to do; that, as extrinsic motivators, grades don’t motivate students to learn (a task that will require intrinsic motivators instead); and that grades are damaging to students and harmful to relationships between students and educators. Cornerstone research also reappears to bolster this case against grading, such as Ruth Butler’s (1988) study on grades, feedback, and students’ self-perceptions of their learning. With these premises as their shared foundation, Ungrading’s authors describe their own attempts to subvert grades. Their stories provide a myriad of alternative possibilities to curious, new-to-ungrading educators like myself: process letters, peer-assessments, contract grading, learning conferences, just to name a few. They also underscore the functions of assessment as a dialogue between learners and educators; the goals of creating activities that foster self-evaluation and metacognition; and the values of authentic portfolios that can enhance learning transfer and strengthen the practical applications of student work.

Yet, the book’s clarion call to eliminate grading also has some not-so-helpful effects: its anti-grade emphasis and repeated theoretical bases make ungrading itself seem like a smooth track that awaits educators – if only educators would muster the gumption to give it a try. To quote Chu’s essay again, 

Going gradeless is scary. From what I gathered from my own unscientific poll, many teachers are unwilling to take this step into the unknown. Funny how that works: teachers are scared to take a risk, when they ask their students to do the same in their classes. (164) 

But what this angle inadvertently obscures is the messiness of ungrading. 

And that messiness includes the valid reservations that many educators have about ungrading; the risks that ungrading can indeed entail, especially for those in precarious positions or within institutions that are hostile to these practices; the labor required just to attempt an ungraded classroom; and the ongoing process of revision that ungrading asks of students and educators alike. 

To be sure, there are scattered statements in the book that do hint at this mess. Like from Sorensen-Unruh: “Instructional designs like the one I made for my ungrading experiment require constant honing until they work well. I know this honing process can take semesters or years” (p. 156). Or from Blum:

In many ways this nondogmatic, problem-based (design-thinking?) approach to learning how to teach in new ways is a model for how our students might learn anything as well: we’ve recognized a problem, learned about previous research, prototyped solutions, iteratively improved them, shared our experiences, failed a little, risked a lot, succeeded a little more. (15)

And there are also a few essays – like Sorensen-Unruh’s “A STEM Ungrading Case Study” and Schultz-Bergin’s “Grade Anarchy in the Philosophy Classroom” – that do discuss authors’ encounters with unexpected problems and their attempts to revise their approaches. Altogether, however, Ungrading’s assortment of illustrations tends to gloss over the mess in favor of magnifying why we should shift away from grades, accompanied by the contributors’ avowals of the net good that ungrading has done and will do for students, educators, and American educational systems

I came away from my read of Ungrading feeling like I’d been ushered forward with assurances of a well-trod and stunning hike ahead – only to then fall behind in the thick of the woods and get lost there. I found myself ruminating on my own struggles and about the concerns that colleagues have raised about ungrading, many of which aren’t reflected in the book’s narratives or examples. In my experience, for instance, ungrading has been immensely time-consuming, even for courses with small numbers of students. I’ve also spoken with educator friends who would like to try ungrading, but can’t, because the time-intensiveness makes it unusable for their large classes and heavy courseloads. (Though, this has also left me wondering about whether large class sizes and heavy courseloads would even be tenable without grading. Conventional grading seems part of what enables these situations in the first place). Ungrading does mention these time demands; but it has little advice about how to handle them, other than to repeat that ungrading is worth it, regardless. Consequently, the book doesn’t have much guidance or support for those with heavy courseloads or large numbers of students. Relatedly, many of the practices that the book does advise can necessitate herculean organizational efforts on the parts of both instructors and students. These privilege self-management and executive functioning capabilities that can impose undue burdens on neurodiverse folks, especially those with ADHD. Many of these issues go unnoticed. Others enjoy only brief recognition in the “Future Research” section of the book’s conclusion.

On the whole – and especially with the spirit of revisions in mind – I wished that the book would’ve included more accounts of missteps and failures, open admissions of uncertainty, places where things just didn’t work, and attempts to strategize improvements. I wished I could’ve seen more of the revision process in action, rather than so frequently encountering the moralizing about why I should adopt ungrading. Taking an example from my own ungraded courses: I’ve consistently had problems with students bailing on their final assignments. This has happened even in courses where the “final assignment” is the last installment of a revisions-based project on which students have, presumably, been working throughout the entirety of the term. A prominent theme in writing on ungrading has been to trust students. But it seems that an unintended consequence of building trust via ungrading is that students have come to trust that we won’t penalize them for putting little effort into a course’s conclusion. To be clear, even in our ungraded courses, MAET instructors are still bound by institutional requirements to issue final grades, a situation common to many ungrading practitioners. As such, MAET instructors make a commitment to communicate with students when their work is not meeting 4.0 standards, well ahead of any reductions to their final grades. So, this situation has put my co-instructors and me in the dilemma of having to decide whether to simply let end-of-course shirking (a betrayal of our trust) slide – or whether to dock students’ final grades at the very end, thus opening ourselves to accusations that we’ve betrayed students’ trust in us to warn them in advance of grade reductions. We’re still contending with how to deal with this. There aren’t easy answers. And no matter what we try, of course, it will never be infallible. Sticky situations will always arise. But it helps to hear from and share with other educators who have experience with similar predicaments so that we can learn, together, about how to contend with them and how to support one another.

The only chapter in Ungrading to truly foreground the messiness is John Warner’s “Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading,” in which Warner takes inspiration from his past ungrading failures to posit the ever-blundering, but ever-relentless, Wile E. Coyote as a model of pedagogical experimentation. Although Warner introduces the chapter as a discussion of “why ungrading will benefit the instructor, particularly the overburdened instructor, the never-enough-time instructor,” (p. 204), he later concedes that the “benefits of the change were not so much practical – though they were very real – but spiritual” (p. 214). The purpose of his essay is thus less about implementing ungrading when you’re already overworked, and more about preparing yourself for the emotional toll of making the shift. Ultimately, though, it’s about how this spiritual change left Warner unable to reconcile his second-class status as contingent faculty, prompting him to leave his position and exit academia entirely. Because it’s buried away as the book’s penultimate chapter, Warner’s essay and his Looney Tunes analogy – a go-it-alone figure of comedic derision with absolutely no hope of success – leave a starkly dismal impression of ungrading’s project and future. But the great value of Warner’s tale is that it thereby cautions against abandoning contingent faculty to take up these pedagogical experiments on their own, without the solidarity, coalition building, and support structures that will be vital for a movement that has any hope of reforming education.

Sharing our ungrading messes will be essential to building this solidarity. Yet, even if many educators do adopt a collective conviction that we must abolish traditional grades, the pathways towards alternate models of assessment are thorny, strenuous, and in some places, dangerous. To support each other in this work, we’ll need to be explicit about what we’ve experienced: not just the evident moments of success or our passion for ungrading or the assumed positives that will come of it, but the weedy tangles in which we’ve gotten ensnared, the roots on which we’ve tripped, the pits into which we’ve fallen. We’ll need to acknowledge that some pathways are more precarious than others and understand the obstacles that those precarious pathways pose. And we’ll also need to maintain ample space for skepticism. There are reasons to be hesitant about ungrading. We can’t let our critical lenses slip.

A famous screenshot (and internet meme) from the 1986 NES videogame, The Legend of Zelda, with an alteration. Link stands across from a hermit, who says "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this." However, the sword that the hermit hands link has an overlay that reads: "(My gnarly experience of learning to ungrade)."

My overall view of the Ungrading collection is, then, confusion (and some concern) about its target audience. To whom is this book speaking? Who is it attempting to persuade? Repeating the notion that grades are bad, ungrading is good can only do so much to convince skeptics – and, perhaps even more importantly, to support sympathetic audiences who may be interested in trying ungrading, but who have questions and concerns about its implementation. And if the book is not for this latter audience, then who is it for? I do appreciate that the book strives for accessibility in its writing and aims to be inclusive of educators across K-12 and higher education. I also appreciate the contributors’ suggestions and resources, which continue to provide me with wellsprings of ideas to try out in my own courses. But somehow, in its simultaneous fragmentedness and repetitiveness, the book has wound up feeling oddly alienating. It’s had the contradictory effect of making ungrading seem like a matter of individual choice and responsibility, even as it aspires to generate cooperation, alleviate feelings of isolation, and inspire collective action.

To echo a sentiment that Jesse Stommel (2021) has raised in his recent blog post, “Grades are Dehumanizing; Ungrading is No Simple Solution,” 

I’m a bit unsettled by the word “ungrading,” even as I’ve helped frame the term, because it feels like a Zeitgeist, a fleeting moment in time in which the thinking about grades is shifting, away from crude quantification and toward an equally simplified notion that grades can just as easily disappear into the ether from which they came. However, grades have a history, and I’d argue they’re a “technology”…This is the world “ungrading” lives within, and it’s not a world where easy answers, or universalized best practices, are useful — or possible.  

I’m feeling similarly perturbed where I’m at in my own ungrading trek. After a year of going without traditional grading, I have no wish to return to it and no intention of doing so. But I’m also wary about the prospect of ungrading – as a set of practices and associated proponent-practitioners – solidifying into a canon with its own tendencies towards reductiveness and oversimplification. I’ve had experiences that have stirred misgivings about popular conceptions of ungrading. I’ve received feedback from students that makes me question ungrading’s insistence that it “maximizes student agency.” I’ve also had powerful, impactful experiences with ungrading from which I want to continue to build. It’s a process – a messy one. And fortunately, even if the Ungrading book left me feeling a bit lost in the woods, I wasn’t there for long. The MAET community has been there for me to walk alongside, together sharing our troubles and our triumphs, together questioning and learning and revising. 

Thus, I want this review and retrospective to serve as an instigator of further, broader conversations about grading, ungrading, and assessment through DISC, the College of Education’s Digital Instruction Support Community. There’s much more to discuss and deliberate, there are more experiences to share, there are specific areas into which we can dive more deeply, and there are tangential trails that merit more investigation. (For example: a peripheral, yet recurring thought in the Ungrading book is that of school-as-game, of students “‘playing’ at school.” The game studies scholar in me thinks that this is absolutely fascinating – so of course I want to explore it, and its relationships to popular models of games-based learning and gamification, in the future). 

So be on the lookout for more to come. And always feel free to join in these conversations with us. There are many ways to do so. A few possibilities are: sharing your ungrading thoughts and experiences with us on Twitter using #CEDDISC; answering with a blog post of your own; requesting a consultation with us; taking advantage of our office hours. And there will be even more offerings once the fall semester begins, so keep checking back for more updates.  



Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020) Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Butler, R. (1988). “Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance.” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58(1): 1-14.  

Nordique. (2020). Descending an overgrown path to Phil’s Creek [Photograph]. CC by 2.0. https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/1bc11d3c-6e0b-47ff-837b-e3352efaa62d.

Stommel, J. (2021, June 02). Grades are Dehumanizing; Ungrading is No Simple Solution. Jesse Stommel. https://www.jessestommel.com/grades-are-dehumanizing-ungrading-is-no-simple-solution/