Review of Ungrading (Blum 2020) for use in UTM math courses

My brief, unfair summary

At its best, the book Ungrading (Blum, 2020) and its authors

  • Provide many blueprints, implementations, and reflections on ungrading practices.
  • Address many practical difficulties of implementing these practices.
  • Repeatedly make calls for revolution, and provide tools and recipes for making that happen.
  • Encourage critical pedagogy.
  • Come from a variety of disciplines and settings (K-12 vs post-secondary).

At its worst, the book and its authors

In a sentence, the ideas and practices of ungrading have many merits, but the book is flawed: its target audience is those who are already convinced, and has little time for skeptics. Given the revolutionary scope and vision of the authors, and the immense effort required for the recommended changes, their arguments are insufficient for even the moderate skeptic.

“the ideas and practices of ungrading have many merits, but the book is flawed”

It is best to approach this book as a series of personal journal entries of colleagues on the front lines. This is a valuable type of scholarship, but I expected something more robust about an idea that’s been around for decades. “Hard stats” and longitudinal studies aren’t the only measures of learning, but they are conspicuously absent from this book. The editor does claim that she could have filled “a thousand page tome” (p. 221) with all the ungrading articles not included.

All that being said, I am excited to try these ideas in a third year combinatorics course at UTM in Fall 2021.

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What is Ungrading (the practice)?

Ungrading is an umbrella term for practices of teaching that minimize or eliminate the use of grades. This can take many forms:

  • Returning assessments with feedback comments only and no (visible) grades.
  • Emphasizing drafts and ongoing learning, instead of “one-chance” assessments.
  • Empowering students to choose their own path through a course (e.g. by choosing their own learning objectives and ways of achieving them)
  • Allowing students to choose their own final grade. (This is extreme. More on this later.)

The forms that ungrading takes in teaching is motivated by some assumptions. These are stated explicitly in Alfie Kohn’s 1999 article “From degrading to de-grading”:

  1. Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself.
  2. Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks.
  3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.
  4. Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective.
  5. Grades distort the curriculum.
  6. Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning.
  7. Grades encourage cheating.
  8. Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students.
  9. Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other.
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What is Ungrading (the book)?

Ungrading is a 2020 collection edited by Susan D. Blum and published by West Virginia Press. It contains an introduction by ungrading hero Alfie Kohn, an intro/conclusion by Susan D. Blum, and 13 articles by various authors.

The authors are from a variety of disciplines (Writing, English, Philosophy, Math, Chemistry, Computer Science, etc.) and teaching both in K-12 and in universities. Seemingly all the authors teach in the US, where the context of teaching can be significantly different from Canadian universities, like where I teach.

It is quite welcome that the authors are at many different stages of their careers.

I am thankful that the authors took the time to explain and reflect on their (often very personal) experiences.

This book has received a fair bit of attention this summer (2021) as many universities are using the pandemic as a catalyst for radical change. I was part of a reading group at UTM this summer with 10 colleagues from various disciplines.

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Common arguments in the book

Argument 1: Ungrading is the solution

One common argument the authors make is of the form:

  1. “Here are the issues and pain points in teaching in a school.”
  2. “Change must be made.”
  3. “Change is good.”
  4. “Grades are obviously the causes of these issues.”
  5. “Ungrading is the solution.”

Points 1 and 2 are usually true and both the author and reader agree. Point 3 is a fallacy of appeal to novelty or that change must be good. Without justification, the authors present ungrading as a natural and obvious cure to the woes we all agree on in point 1. It is a powerful argument precisely because the reader and author agree on the symptoms of their pain, but it does not adequately diagnose the causes.

The best evidence presented by the authors is often work about why critical pedagogy at large is useful (I agree wholeheartedly), but then they fail to explain why ungrading is the solution.

This is one of my largest sources of frustration at the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) more broadly. As instructors we are caught between the false binary of traditional = bad and new = good. With the best of intentions, SoTL gets swept up in fads and fashions (remember the debunked learning styles?) where we will try anything and delude ourselves with weak and anecdotal evidence.

Choosing the status quo is a choice; it comes with its own costs and benefits. It is important to question who is benefiting and who is paying the costs, especially when the status quo is reinforcing racism and discrimination.

But choosing to go gradeless has serious costs and seemingly has the potential for harms, and the benefits are not always clear or as rosy as the practitioners make it seem.

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Argument 2: Grades contain no information

Another common argument used in the book is of this form:

  1. “A native French speaker can easily receive a B in a course they did not engage in at all, and a student learning a language for the first time can completely engage but receive only a B.”
  2. “Therefore, grades do not contain useful information in this case.”
  3. “Therefore, grades do not contain useful information in all cases.”

Points 1 and 2 are true, but this does not give us the third point. This is a fallacy of generalization and has many counterexamples:

  • A student who uniformly receives ‘A’s in their first year courses is a good candidate to enter their preferred program of study.
  • A student who uniformly receives ‘F’s in their first year courses is not ready to enter their preferred program of study.
  • A student who receives a C in an intro language course will struggle in the intermediate level course.
  • A student who receives a D in an intro calculus course has learned something, but cannot competently use most of the tools on their own.

Another telling feature is that some of the authors still speak in the language of grades. For example, saying that: don’t worry, even when students assign their own final grades the distribution is close to the expected one. I don’t understand how the authors can simultaneously say that grades have no meaning, but then also assure us that they do have the meaning we expect.

One thing that is clear is that when grades are used by these authors there is an emphasis on transparency in what the grade means. This is achieved in many ways, such as:

  • Rubrics
  • Descriptive features of what the grades mean (Chapter 5)
  • Contract grading (Chapter 7)
  • Explicit, public formulas for determining grades (Chapter 8)

This transparency is something we should strive for regardless of how gradeless our teaching is.

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My use of ungrading in Fall 2021

Despite all my criticism and poo-pooing of the book, I think that the authors and I are broadly aligned in our values:

  • Students are junior colleagues and peers.
  • My teaching should empower and enfranchise students.
  • Intrinsic motivation is better, and longer lasting than extrinsic motivation.

For Fall 2021 I’m planning on teaching MAT344 (Intro to Combinatorics) in a complete ungrading way. I will be ecstatic if there are success in this format, which I think has a high potential for success (but also has a non-zero chance of failures).

I’ve learned a lot about the successes, failures and reflections of the authors in this book and I think there’s a large potential for successes using this format (and also non-zero chances of failure).

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Citations

  • Blum, Susan D., and Alfie Kohn. Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press, 2020.
  • Kohn, Alfie. “From degrading to de-grading.” High school magazine 6.5 (1999): 38-43.

One thought on “Review of Ungrading (Blum 2020) for use in UTM math courses”

  1. I appreciate this review! I also just read this book and had mixed feelings about it. I’m a high school math and science teacher dipping my toe into ungrading and there isn’t much out there for math so I am interested to see how your course goes!

    Like

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