Review of Susan D. Blum’s Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)

Reviewed by Michelle Tram Nguyen, Bowling Green State University

Blum, S. D. (Ed.) (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

For those educators whose lives are defined by the mission of building a more genuine, effective, and meaningful teaching and learning practice, you will find yourselves deeply resonating with the journeys shared by the fifteen dedicated teachers contributing to Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). These teachers in many ways troubled with the consequences of and reasons for grades, rating, ranking, and sorting. They, therefore, strive to develop various alternative assessment approaches and methods and implement them in different teaching contexts as part of a collective effort to bring back what they believe is the true focus of education—the “real learning of real individual learners,” not the grades or grading (p. xxii).

With thirteen chapters organized into three parts: foundations and models, practices, and reflections, the book does a great job of providing the readers with not only a strong rationale for going gradeless but also solid conceptual frameworks and concrete pedagogical suggestions for classroom action. The second section of the book—the practices—is no doubt the highlight of the collection. It offers authentic and vivid descriptions of what has been done in the class, what the practitioners learned along the way, and especially how the students reacted to many new ways of assessing and evaluating their work. In this section, the authors share their experiments with many approaches and methods of practicing ungrading in the classroom. Jesse Stommel, a college professor teaching humanities, is concerned with the reality in which grading emphasizes efficiency over the needs of individual learners, particularly learners from historically marginalized communities. He, instead, decided to let his students grade their work and find ways to engage them in meaningful conversations on authentic assessment, learning process, and formative feedback. His goal is to create more opportunities for learning, rather than punishing or limiting possibilities for success. Aaron Blackwelder, an experienced writing instructor in a secondary school, believes that assigning grades discourages students from the learning itself. He purposefully eliminated points and letters from the assessment practice and re-designed his instruction with project-based, problem-based, and inquiry-based learning. After employing such pedagogical practices, Blackwelder found that his students had greater satisfaction and ownership of their learning.

Additionally, Starr Sackstein, a teacher with decades of ungrading experiences, calls for a shift in the use of assessment language. For instance, a change from “getting good grades” to “achieving proficiency or mastery” (p. 75) could help reduce the side effects and unintended consequences of merely assigning a score. Such changes in the assessment approach, according to Sackstein, also help to put the emphasis back on assessing the learning progress and the understanding, rather than a temporary product. Gary Chu, in the discussion on “The Point-less Classroom: A Math Teacher’s Ironic Choice in Not Calculating Grades,” shares his experience of using the learning-assessment-feedback cycle, instead of the traditional points and grades, to offer individualized descriptive feedback and allowing students to demonstrate their understanding in multiple ways. Christopher Riesbeck, a teacher who works with college students in programming courses, advocates for a critique-driven assessment model that emphasizes effort, progress, and accomplishment. Some contributing authors (such as Susan D. Blum, Arthur Chiaravalli, and Laura Gibbs) suggest the use of “all-feedback-no-grades,” self-reflection, self-assessment, and conferencing. Other practitioners (such as Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh) share their experimentation with contract-grading, learning journal and portfolio assessment, and badging methods. Despite notable differences in approaches and methods, what these pioneers of the ungrading practices have in common is the desire to build a stronger bond of trust with their students, to give the power and agency back to the learners, and to create opportunities for substantive communication that fosters learning and growth.

In the last section of the book, the authors especially invite the audience to engage with them in their honest and earnest conversations on the failures, objections, risks, and possibilities that ungrading affords. They point out the fact that the current practice of teaching and learning operates within a structure that heavily relies on quantitative measures. And because of that very reason, they believe “challenging the conventional system does require a revolution and daily action” (p. 219). One of the huge challenges for implementing ungrading, as the authors recognize, is to get the buy-in from students, parents, and institutional administrations. To overcome such obstacles, teachers will need to devote considerable time and effort to communicate openly and richly with students and stakeholders about their assessment approach and how it could enhance intrinsic learning motivation and promote a more humane form of education. The authors also note that more research studies are needed to examine and assess the feasibility and efficacy of various ungrading approaches and methods, particularly in large-size classrooms and STEM education.

While the book makes clear that it does not address all possible considerations and questions surrounding grading and ungrading, the pioneering work these educators have done sparks insights and important ideas for teachers across areas of studies and teaching levels to reconsider all aspects of their pedagogical practices. Rhetoric and writing studies is a particularly relevant discipline to utilize the benefits of an ungrading approach. Going gradeless or de-centering grades and grading in the classroom, as the authors shared from their experimentation and experiences, can create a space for building a more equitable classroom. It also helps us fully focus on doing the “actual work” of teaching and learning—the work of building trust and relationships with students, meeting the needs of each individual learner, and providing as many opportunities as possible for taking risks and learning. As Aaron Blackwelder, one of the contributing authors, asserts: “Ultimately, I wanted my students to see learning as a process of ongoing trial and error rather than as a judgement of who they are. If my students did not fail, they did not learn” (p. 47).