FLO Friday – Ungrading Unpacked

On Friday, October 8, we were joined by Dave Smulders, faculty in UBC’s Department of Educational Studies and program manager of faculty development at the Justice Institute of British Columbia.

Post by Olaolu Adeleye and Helena Prins, advisors, Learning and Teaching

Dave facilitated a highly discursive session that he opened by engaging with participants’ understanding and interpretations of ungrading. Some of the salient ideas that surfaced included the following:

Ungrading is…

  • Aiming to remove the grade from the motivation for students to complete an assignment to provide formative feedback on learning
  • Involving the student in the assessment of their work
  • Scaffolding learning and giving options that focus on learning centring relationships
  • Evaluations of assignments that do not assign grades but still work within a system that requires an end-of-term grade, often involving students in assessment
  • Unmapping from the traditional grading practice of needing to attach a number or percentage to each piece of work; feedback provides greater growth than a number
  • Removing the artificial “carrot” or grades so students can be motivated by more sustainable, intrinsic goals (e.g., desire to improve, connection to personal goals, etc.)
  • Evaluating mastery (while also including self- and peer evaluation) and focusing on discourse between student and instructor (formative assessment)

The myriad of responses captured an eclectic and evolving understanding that emphasized student-centred collaboration, open dialogue, and appreciation for students’ processes. Dave then offered this chart and a series of other definitions for participants’ consideration:

Ungrading is notUngrading is...
gradingpart of your pedagogical intentions
abandoning assessmenta way to liberate your feedback
a shortcuta process that needs to be communicated to and shared with students
a formulaapplicable to different faculties/disciplines
free and easy teaching 

These experts offer the following thoughts about grading and ungrading:

“A grade is administered by a biased and variable judge.” — Paul Dressel

“Whatever grade the student arrives at is where we should ‘agree.” — Alfie Kohn

“Highlighting constructive feedback, an approach that is focused on engagement between student and instructor; thus the exam is just the beginning of the assessment.” — Clarissa Sorenson-Unruh

One big takeaway was an understanding that ungrading presents an opportunity to refocus assessment and allow greater feedback, both formative and summative. To this end, Dave shared, “If we can uncouple feedback from grading, it can be more satisfying with less dispute over the grade itself.”

In their four “big findings,” Kohn (2011) and Tannack (2017) reiterated that ungrading leads to a better understanding of pedagogical intentions:

  • Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they are learning.
  • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.
  • Grades discourage collaboration in favour of competition.

In our group discussion, FLO participants discussed how current institutional culture around grading and students’ expectations about grade delivery may present barriers to ungrading approaches. The following are some suggested strategies for how to effectively incorporate ungrading practices.

  • Grading interpretation: Offering clarity to assessment criteria by eliminating misunderstandings about what evaluative terminology may infer but not explicitly state. For example, what is meant by “exemplary”?
  • Learning agreements (group / individual): Can be used to establish congruency. If used with the right timing and frequency, these can create greater lines of communication and positively impact learners’ attitudes.
  • “Preliminary” feedback: Uncoupling feedback from the grade by giving formative assessment over the course of an assignment rather than only when it has been submitted. 
  • Peer/self-assessment: Providing an opportunity for metacognition, where students engage and share their own interpretations of assessment criteria and or help create it. Ensure you provide clear criteria for them to consider.

After the session Dave reflected that there are many ways to approach this wide-ranging topic. For some, this is an issue of radical pedagogy and challenging the nature of power distribution in the traditional classroom; for others, ungrading offers new and different ways to meaningfully engage with students. Still for others, this represents a fundamental shift in how post-secondary institutions record student progress and deal with ongoing concerns around academic integrity. Educators benefit from discussing these issues at multiple levels.

Opening the conversation around grading/ungrading compels us to get to the heart of our role as educators. It was great to have a session where so many educators from around B.C. and beyond were able to express their closely held pedagogical intentions and then consider how we can all best support students. It is encouraging to know how much good work is being done.

If you want to dive deeper, here are a few of Dave’s favourite articles and presentations:

If you missed the session, listen to a recording of it at any time.


Kohn, A. (2011). “The Case Against Grades,” Educational Leadership, https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/

Tannock, S. (2017). “No Grades in Higher Education Now! Revisiting the Place of Graded Assessment in the Reimagination of the Public University.” Studies in Higher Education, 42(8), 1345–1357. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1092131.

The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels