Some Ungrading Challenges
And a self-assessment form
This blog post is part of an ongoing series of reflections completed during my Spring 2023 writing course. While the post is being published in June of 2023, it was originally written on March 3, 2023.
I’ve tried to be transparent along the way about what challenges I’m encountering in this class, but I thought it would be good to recap some of them here, while I’m in a lull of the feedback cycle. I’ll also share the Self-Assessment form that I asked students to complete this week and which is due on Monday, before we begin individual midsemester conferences.
A small caveat first: I’m not sure to what extent the challenges below proceed from my specific ungrading practices and to what extent they may be attributable to other factors. Since 2019, I have moved from grad student to postdoc to CTL staff/instructor; have moved from a private religious institution to a public state flagship; have moved from traditional grading to ungrading; have weathered a pandemic; have implemented several brand new assignments; have made many, many adjustments to my pedagogy in general. Too many variables have changed in the last few years to know what, specifically, is contributing to the challenges below. But perhaps you can help me untangle it.
Some students are struggling to turn in assignments on time (or at all).
This is one of those problems that might be the result of many things. I’ve tried all the tricks I have to help students stay on track, sending reminders about due dates, scaffolding large assignments, being flexible (but not too flexible?) with late work, noting that both quantity and quality of work will help to determine end-of-semester grade negotiations, and making the work as motivational, relevant, and interesting as I possibly can.
But I’ve got several who are starting to fall behind, even with frequent, individualized email check-ins. Is it that I’m new to this student body and institutional context? Is it pandemic fall-out/malaise? Is it ungrading? Is it the fact that my class went into the catalog quite late, and so the students who registered for it are the students who weren’t on top of their registration and may struggle to meet deadlines? Is it that I’m a fraud as a teacher and educational developer? Who knows.
Attendance continues to be erratic.
I’ve got a few students who show up every time, one or two who show up rarely to never and many who are all over the map. Lots of them have been sick (and I believe them when they tell me they’re sick). A few have also been traveling for some reason. And I think many are overwhelmed with work for other classes or personal problems.
I have tried everything I know to do, short of a strict attendance requirement, to help students attend regularly. I talked about the importance of attending class in the first few days. I design class sessions to provide knowledge and skills that are essential to success on major assignments. I try to make these sessions, again, as motivational, relevant, and interesting as I possibly can. Students set goals for “engagement” (which includes attendance) at the beginning of the semester, and these will be one of the metrics by which we determine their final grades at the end. But attendance still hasn’t been up to the standard I would like.
As I said in an earlier post, I’m not sure if the dynamic would be better with a strict attendance requirement. I suspect it would simply make class sessions feel like a hostage situation (or a sick ward) and result in absent students automatically failing the course despite the fact that they have the skills to attain the learning goals. I think I’ll need to teach a few more classes at UM to sort out whether or not this semester is a fluke and how I should adjust expectations around attendance going forward.
A few students still haven’t got their heads around ungrading.
I’ve still got students asking questions like…
“What is the late penalty?”
“How many points will I lose?”
“How much does this assignment count for?
“Will this hurt my final average?”
To be fair, the students asking these questions either 1) registered for the class late, after we had already discussed the grading scheme extensively, 2) have missed several classes, or 3) haven’t been paying much attention. That accounts for a smallish but nontrivial number of students.
I think I’ve uttered the words “There are no points” a bajillion times by now. But I know how difficult it is to conceive of this system when traditional grading is all you’ve ever known. I’m hoping the midsemester conferences next week will help clear up some of the confusion. But first they’ll have to show up to the midsemester conferences…
I truly am looking forward to talking with students next week about their progress in the course. Before these conferences, I ask students to fill out a self-assessment form. This is the first of three self-assessments I’ll ask them to do over the course of the semester, and they are one of the assessment metrics we’ll use in determining final course grades (alongside weekly writing practice assignments, major assignments, and general course engagement).
The form asks students to answer the following open-ended questions:
Take a look back at the course objectives on pages 1 and 2 of the syllabus.
How would you assess your progress toward these goals? Where do you see yourself improving and what do you still need to work on? Reference specific examples from your work to support your claims.
Go back to your previously submitted Writing Practice assignments.
How many have you completed? What have you learned from these assignments? Reference specific assignments in your answer.
Look at the description of “Class Engagement” on page 2 of the syllabus.
How would you assess your engagement in this course up to this point? Reference specific examples of your in- or out-of-class engagement (including attendance) to support your claims.
Take a look back at the personal learning and engagement goals you generated at the beginning of the semester. (These should be under the Week 1 module.)
How would you assess your progress toward these goals specifically? Reference specific examples to support your claims.
Do you plan to revise any of your Major Assignment submissions? If so, what are the biggest areas you plan to focus on? What is your target date for submitting a revision?
Given your answers to the questions above, what letter grade (A-F) would you assign yourself for the course at this moment? What evidence would you provide as support?
These are the required questions on the form. I also ask them to optionally identify the issues we’ve discussed that have most interested them, ideas they’d like to pursue for future assignments, and ways I can continue to support them in the course. Additionally, for this iteration of the form, I asked students how they were finding the grading system in the course and whether or not they were okay with me quoting their comments anonymously in this blog. I hope to be able to share some of them with you over the next few weeks.
I’ve used a self-assessment form like the one above in previous classes, though this time around I made the questions more direct and specific. I also provided space for students to outline their revision plans, since I haven’t assigned formal deadlines for revised work. In general, I’ve been happy with how past students responded to the questions. I think asking them to provide evidence for their claims is key. We’ll see how students respond this time around.
Stay tuned next week for the moment you’ve all been waiting for—reports from midsemester conferences!
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