Ungrading for Student Success and Engagement

Poster Description: Ungrading helps instructors focus assessment on student growth and agency by moving away from traditional point grades and rubrics. What is ungrading? What are the benefits and drawbacks? How is it done? Examples from an online graduate information literacy course will show how ungrading has increased students’ success and engagement.

Poster: Click to view the Canva presentation. Click to view a PDF version.

Presenter Name: Robyn Hartman, Fort Hays State University

Presenter Bio: Enter presenter bio(s) here Robyn Hartman (she/her) is an Associate Professor and Information and Digital Literacy Librarian at Fort Hays State University. She holds her MA in Information Resources and Library Science, her BSE in Speech and Theatre Education, and is currently pursuing an MPS in Instructional Design. Email: rchartman@fhsu.edu.

16 replies on “Ungrading for Student Success and Engagement”

Robyn, I love this! Are other faculty on campus using these methods–I’m curious about the “explain ungrading to stakeholders” part–as so much of academic life counts on grades. I can’t see the Canva part (I’m early…attending on Sunday as it will be a busy week) so maybe there is more on that–will try to pop in in a day or two.

Mara, depending on your institution, I think you need to be prepared to explain what you are doing to the administration, colleagues, parents, and the students. While higher education usually has more academic freedom, having solid reasons behind your ungrading choices will help show why you chose that route and the benefits of it. I think ungrading can be misinterpreted as avoiding the work of grading or grading “easily”. This can also help you convince others to try it out in their own courses.

Hi Robyn, thank you for preparing an engaging and informative presentation! Can you share any specific resources related to your specifications and bundled grading approach to discussions? I am familiar with both concepts but trying to envision how you set students up to “choose the topics” (although I am not familiar with YellowDig so perhaps that would make it more clear?). If it is easier to email me something, I would welcome anything you can share and this sounds like something I would love to implement. I am moving towards Mastery Grading but struggling with how to do that for discussions. Thanks! megan.dempsey@raritanval.edu

Yellowdig has a separate point system that it then imports into our LMS. If students want 100% on their discussion points this semester, they must earn 12000 points in YellowDig. Their percentage of those 12000 points is then the percentage of the actual grade book points for discussions (300). So, for example, if you have 10560 (88%) YD points, you have 264 points in the grade book.
As long as a post, comment, etc., meets the specifications (usually word length), they get the points for that contribution. Now, this does mean that the conversation can get off-topic, so that is why I also have content points.
On top of posting points, they can earn content points for the different types of posts they can make. For example, if they share an artifact and how that represents one of the ACRL Frames, they earn 50 additional points. Or they can share a learning object (article, video, book, etc.) to help their classmates learn more on a topic for 25 additional points. I add these to their post points using YellowDigs’s accolades. (email me if you would like my complete list of options)
To help them get started discussing ideas, especially at the beginning of the course, I provide YellowDig discussion prompts throughout the Modules, such as “Have you ever considered the diversity of your resources before? Why is it important?”. I also post articles or videos that deal with information literacy in the news and current events. They are only suggestions, and students can post or comment about them or not, their choice. I find that as the class goes on, there are fewer prompt posts and more original ideas.

Thank you for explaining YellowDig a little more. I am not familiar with it. Is this a website, app, program that your institution subscribes to? I appreciated the options you presented about ungrading as I am interested in learning more about it. Thank you for the extra readings.

Hi Robyn. I like the idea of ungrading and one of my PhD professors used this method. You listed one of the drawbacks as students may spend more effort on other courses (I assume since they know they will receive an A regardless of effort put into assignments?). I’m concerned how prevalent this would be for undergraduate students that are already demotivated to complete work. We have a large student athlete population and some are there to play their sports and not excited about their coursework. What recommendations would your (or the literature) have regarding keeping students motivated with ungraded assignments and activities so they still put forth effort as they would with graded assignments?

I will quote Susan Blum from her chapter in Ungrading: “Some students— say, pre-med— may decide that their “hard” classes deserve more time than the apparently easy one without points, grades, scores. Here is where I take a step back and remind myself that the student in my class is also in other classes, has personal challenges, work obligations, and many other things that they juggle, just as I and others do. If I am treating students as adults, then recognizing that my course may not be central has to be acceptable.”
Depending on how you set up the ungrading, it doesn’t mean the students will get an A. Even when the students can assign themselves a grade, most instructors found that they were lower than what the instructor would give.
I would encourage you to have unambiguous specifications- the assignment must do XYZ to receive credit or for the student to move on to the next task. Riesbeck, in Ungrading, talks about critique-driven learning and how his students are never “one and done” with submissions. Also, make it very clear that an ungraded assignment will prepare them for topics further in the course or program. This changes the motivation from extrinsic grades to intrinsic growth.

Hi Robyn–really enjoyed this presentation! Following up on Bree’s comment, I was interested in your reflections on this method with graduate students (assumed to be a fairly motivated group) as opposed to undergraduates with varying amounts of intrinsic motivation. While ungrading can definitely help students shift to more intrinsic reasons for learning, what are your thoughts on students who are distracted by a large variety of pressing life circumstances and likely to see a library class as a “hoop” versus a useful skill set (that is, how do you get them to do enough initially that they start to buy in to the value this may hold for them?)

I feel this is something a library-based course will struggle with, no matter what type of grading you use. Currently, I only teach a graduate-level course, but we are launching a new general education program with information literacy as a set of objectives next fall. Library faculty will begin teaching an undergraduate course to fulfill those objectives, but departments can integrate them into the program or discipline-specific courses. I’ll be honest and tell you that some faculty don’t see these as essential skills to teach students.
However, I have yet to receive that type of feedback from my grad students. They mention that while they started out thinking this was a hoop-jumping class, most say that they should have taken the class much earlier and how it would have helped in their subject courses. I take care to scaffold the material in the course so that assignments build on each other and point out how to use those skills in their disciplines.
Grad students are motivated differently from undergrads, but we take the same scaffolded approach for the undergrad course. It will be aimed at sophomores and juniors, so they should be starting to dive deeper into their subject areas and grow more confident. I would have to design an ungraded course for first-year students carefully, but I think it is possible. It probably wouldn’t be completely ungraded- I think I would use ungraded practices more towards the end of the course.
I think providing thoughtful feedback, often, is key to motivating students. That way it doesn’t seem like the assignments are just to check off a list, but as a way to learn more and improve. I sometimes struggle with giving feedback and will be trying out some new techniques in the fall, such as video feedback, single-point rubrics, and building up a “library” of common feedback to help kickstart my thoughts.
I also try to be as empathetic as possible and practice a pedagogy of care. I truly understand that there is more to the students’ lives than that one class, and I design my due dates, resubmissions, and extension policies to be as flexible as possible.

Robyn, that is very interesting! I actually had the same question as Abby. I appreciate that you practice such care with the students and recognize them as adults with diverse responsibilities. That is one reason I’ve recently become interested in ungrading.

Hi Robyn! Thank you for this excellent presentation–this is fabulous. I started using specifications grading in an undergraduate, credit-bearing information literacy course last fall (primarily for first-years, so I was intrigued by some of the discussion you were already having with someone else above), and I’m still undergoing a bit of experimentation to try to figure out the best way to implement this. You mentioned that you used the pass/fail option with 4 specific assignments (with opportunities for revision)–did your other assignments (like the final paper) use more traditional point-values for the grading? If so, did your students navigate the different grading systems between the assignments well?

I don’t think it confused the students because those four assignments are crucial to preparing for the midterm literature review and final white paper. If you don’t have a strong topic, then the rest of those assignments will never be entirely successful. I call them “do not pass go” assignments and make sure that students know it is normal for those to get sent back to them for revisions. The lit review and paper have traditional rubrics and are pretty extensive. I am also trying to prepare them for their comp exam paper, so I use very similar criteria to how those will be graded. I plan to use more single-point rubrics on other assignments when I revise the course over the summer, which will help me give more personalized feedback.

Thank you so much, Robyn! I love that language of “do not pass go” for the assignments. I feel like one element that I underestimated in integrating more ungrading opportunities in my classroom was the complexity of conveying these ideas to students, many of whom haven’t worked with a system like this before. Granted, that could also be since so many of my students are first-year students. Like you’ve mentioned here, normalizing that process of revision is so critical! I’m hopeful that the ungrading trend will continue and make these conversations even easier in the future.

I try to explain how those assignments are graded in the introduction to the course, and then include that again with each assignment. It’s a helpful reminder- How this will be Graded.

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