Every Learner Everywhere

Ungrading and Equity: Does It Support Minoritized Students?

How well understood is the relationship between ungrading and equity for racially and ethnically minoritized, poverty-affected, and first-generation students?

Ungrading is difficult to define in active terms. It is often characterized by what it is not — attaching grades to most practices activities, creative work, or formative and summative assessments during a term — and less often characterized by what it is. The term can also be confusing because typically an instructor using ungrading still gives a course grade at the end of the term. One helpful definition of ungrading, in an essay in Inside Higher Ed by Robert Talbert, simply boils down to not grading assignments.

Instead of grading assignments, according to many commentators, faculty who use an ungrading approach will structure assignments to promote self-reflection, metacognition, and goal setting. Individual learning plans, portfolios, and faculty-student conferences are common tactics in ungrading. Often a final assignment asks students to summarize the reflection they’ve done throughout the term, and the instructor considers that in deciding a student’s course grade for the term.

Interest in the subject of ungrading has grown steadily over the last decade in response to the limitations of traditional grading, and there is robust discussion in independent blog articles, opinion pieces, conferences, and social media. Interest in ungrading accelerated during 2020 as colleges and universities resorted to emergency remote teaching during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which foregrounded the possibility that barriers to equity were widening.

Pushing back against inequity in traditional grading

Among the downsides of traditional grades, argues Jesse Stommel, co-founder of Hybrid Pedagogy: The Journal of Critical Digital Pedagogy, is that they don’t incentivize learning, don’t evaluate learning, de-emphasize giving and hearing feedback, and are not fair. He cites many studies demonstrating these limitations.

In another article, Stommel surveyed the language of grading from several college and university teaching and learning centers and found that in nearly all of them, “the language around grading emphasizes ‘efficiency’ (the word repeated incessantly) while reducing individual students to cogs in a machine that ultimately seems to have little to do with them. The work of grading is framed less in terms of giving feedback or encouraging learning and more as a way of ranking students against one another. Nods to ‘fairness’ are too often made for the sake of defensibility rather than equity.”

In an earlier article on this site, Three Steps for Centering Student Care in Assessments, Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at University of Mississippi, and author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching, says “The pandemic put a spotlight on grading. Because students were suddenly ripped out of the educational context they were in, educators began thinking more about how to assess students.”

Traditional assessments like standardized exams are built into the instructional culture of most institutions of higher learning, leading to a learning experience that favors a majority white, middle-class student and educator. As the pandemic further illuminated achievement gaps between that demographic and minoritized, poverty-impacted, and first-generation students, the focus sharpened on alternative assessment modes that could center equity.

The case for ungrading and equity

Evidence that ungrading as an alternative to traditional grading promotes equity or removes barriers to equity is less clear. We didn’t identify any studies with disaggregated data showing if and how ungrading closes equity gaps for Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, or first-generation students.

However, ungrading does appear to promote some of the characteristics associated with equitable teaching and learning. For example, done critically, ungrading prioritizes student autonomy, and it tends to open discussion about and highlight power imbalances in the classroom and in the institution. It also decenters counterproductive notions of objectivity and centers the subjective experience of learning and navigating educational institutions.

According to Eyler, by using peer assessment, self-reflection, and collaboration between faculty and students, assessment becomes more individualized and takes into account the culture and experience of the individual learner.

Daniel Guberman, Senior Instructional Developer with Purdue University’s Center for Instructional Excellence, took note of the dearth of studies on alternative assessment and conducted research of his own, published in the Journal of Teaching and Learning Inquiry. Guberman used ungrading practices in an online asynchronous history course to 50 students.

He found that at the end of the semester, fewer than 10 percent of the 50 students gave themselves a grade different than the grade Guberman had in mind. However, Guberman’s data was not disaggregated based on students’ demographic information.

Does ungrading reproduce inequity?

Ungrading alone doesn’t automatically create equity for Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation students. It risks just reproducing the same inequities if the practice is used uncritically. In a forthcoming report from Every Learner Everywhere, Stommel says, “You can’t just take away visible goalposts if you’re going to replace them with invisible goalposts, because invisible goalposts affect the students that we’re talking about even worse.”

For example, if an instructor who decides to do away with traditional grading is unconsciously assessing students on their ability to advocate for themselves, some students will be disadvantaged by that, and it doesn’t necessarily assess or promote learning. If the instructor rewards demonstrations of intrinsic motivations for education and discounts extrinsic motivations, that is not considering the individual student’s values, perspectives, resources, and needs. In these cases, the same privileging of advantaged students could result.

Similarly, in an interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education on The Unintended Consequences of Ungrading, Talbert likens taking grades away from minoritized and poverty-impacted students to taking away all the signs in a foreign country’s airport. “Sure, there’s a possibility that a person would focus more on the signs than on the journey they’re taking,” he writes, “but those signs can definitely be helpful, as well.”

Moving toward ungrading

An early step toward ungrading is to ask what the learning objectives are for a given activity, assignment, or quiz. Then ask if a letter grade is the best way to help every student achieve those objectives.

Many of the scholars and advocates working on ungrading emphasize that the practice is still in its early stages and a critical and challenging approach to the status quo is the most important thing.

“Grades are a morass education has fallen into that frustrates our ability to focus on student learning,” Stommel writes on his blog. “But, if grades are going to control so many of the conversations we have in education, at the very least can we be more creative in how we approach them?”

Read more in The Caring for Students Playbook