The end of the school year usually comes with all the fear and anticipation of final marks. But that’s not the case for the students in Stacie Oliver’s English classes. They already have a pretty good sense of how they did — that’s because they graded themselves.
Valentina Virviescas-Medina proposed a 90, up from the 82 she gave herself at the midterm. With a digital portfolio of her year’s work to show and a convincing verbal demonstration of what she had learned, the Grade 12 student is graduating from A.B. Lucas Secondary School in London, Ont., with, you guessed it, a 90 in English.
But this isn’t a story about marks.
It’s about an approach to learning, one where a top grade isn’t the ultimate goal. The love of learning is.
This past semester, Oliver introduced the concept of “ungrading” to her Grade 9 destreamed and Grade 12 enrichment classes. It’s a movement that flies in the face of the provincial government’s back-to-basics philosophy, but one that has had growing interest, especially during the pandemic when educators worried about learning loss and wondered aloud about more humane and impactful ways to measure student achievement.
Instead of grading assignments, Oliver gave her students continual, meaningful feedback. They were allowed to revise and improve their work. And last week, because Ontario requires a grade be submitted for students, the kids had to conference with Oliver and justify why they deserved the 65, 85 or 100 they had proposed. Oliver retained the right to veto, but she did so for only a few. The marks, within a point or two, went onto the report cards for the 2021/22 year.
“I’ve always hated putting numbers on things,” says Oliver. “I knew that it was difficult to do because how do you pinpoint a number that is completely, objectively accurate?
“But the biggest thing is the students internalize that because their identity is tied to grades and they see themselves, their self-worth as whatever that number is.”
Proponents of ungrading, which is rarely completely gradeless but rather a range of approaches that de-emphasizes marks, argue that the race for an A+ turns learning into a transactional experience that pits students against each other and teachers, encourages kids to game the system, contributes to anxiety and drums curiosity out of potential lifelong learners.
For Valentina, who is headed to Western University in September, marks have been important, but they “hindered my creativity throughout the years. It became more of just memorizing things for the sake of doing well on the test, rather than actually enjoying the content.”
This year, she took more control over her learning, doing additional research on languages and reading religious text to better understand the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” And because she loves music, she created a playlist to explore themes of “They Both Die at the End.”
“For the first time in my high school career, I felt that I finally had the opportunity to properly explore what it is that I was interested in.”
Ungrading advocates say the traditional system encourages students to chase grades. But what’s in a grade? Every teacher has a different metric: a B+ to one might be a C to another. A mark could be bell-curved. It might include participation, or not. It could reflect the benefit of having a tutor.
“When we give up this idea that we’re actually doing something precise and we instead focus on the overall learning experience of actual humans in our classroom, it ends up feeling more meaningful and humane,” said professor and author Susan Blum, one of three oft-mentioned pioneering gurus of ungrading (including Alfie Kohn and Jesse Stommel), on a recent podcast.
This need was particularly acute during the early days of the pandemic. Firas Moosvi, an instructor in physics, computer science, and data science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus, recalls a student emailing him because a family member was in hospital and they were worried about losing participation marks or missing a test. Moosvi said this, among other unavoidable student absences, made him consider the way he was conducting his classes.
“We were trying to find accepted ways of being more gracious to our students, in light of the pandemic … and then it just caused us to reflect on how much we hate grading, how it’s completely antithetical to the whole learning thing.”
Moosvi, who had previously been investigating ways to ease student stress over exams, including reducing the weighed score and allowing for open book, said the pandemic not only proved traditional teaching and learning could be turned on its head, but it opened up a willingness to experiment.
In May 2021, Moosvi co-launched a Slack channel to discuss ungrading: it started with five people; today there are 107 faculty, staff and grad students from UBC sharing ideas around this concept. He also recently co-hosted a seminar on alternative grading practices.
Oliver, who last week posted links to the final portfolios of some of her students, says she has been inundated by questions from curious teachers.
“(Ungrading is) absolutely a movement,” says Moosvi, who acknowledges that practitioners might still be constrained by institutional policies. “You’re trying to dismantle the structures that you are in and that’s very difficult work to do. But I think the key focus that even if you can’t do ungrading, let’s say you can’t because of logistical reasons, the thing that I think is still salvageable from this is the focus on the learner and the pedagogy of feedback.”
The concept can be a tough sell to administrators, parents and students, both high achievers and the unmotivated who feel more comfortable with a structured approach. And while ungrading can be applied to any type of subject, says Moosvi, the jury is still out on whether it can be applied to any kind of learner. Young children probably don’t have the maturity to self-evaluate, says Moosvi, who also found that some of his neurodivergent students struggled without set deadlines.
“So we have to do this ungrading in a way where there’s enough check points that you are meeting with these students and they don’t fall through the cracks.”
When Oliver introduced the concept at the start of term, she said her students were shocked: “They didn’t embrace it at first because they were scared … We’ve so conditioned them in the system that they couldn’t even comprehend what that meant.”
Oliver had her students begin by studying the provincial curriculum guidelines. Previously, students would do a unit and be done with it. This year, they could revisit concepts until they were satisfied they’d mastered them. Along the way, they built their portfolios to showcase their best work and demonstrate they had met expectations.
“Low risk allowed me to try new and different things,” Benjamin Helleman, 18, wrote in his course reflection. “I never would have tried these things before because I was always worried about my final grade. But here I knew that it was okay to take chances. It was okay not to be perfect the first time.”
Oliver reads the letter in awe before speaking: “I would argue that (Ben’s) well-prepared … He is thinking critically. He’s thinking deeply. He’s exploring. He’s asking questions. He’s pursuing interests because he has taken ownership of his learning rather than looking to me for the direction and the validation of what he’s doing. And so, that’s going to serve him moving forward.”
Charles Pascal, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, praises Oliver for enabling her students to learn in “creative ways.”
“We’ve been talking about lifelong learning forever. And yet we do precious little innovating about how to make sure that our students are excited, confident, lifelong learners,” he says.
For its part, the Ministry of Education says its primary aim is to get students back on track.
“Our number one objective is making sure students catch up both in terms of their learning as well as their physical and mental health,” says Grace Lee, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, noting the government has invested more than $683 million on learning recovery from two years of disruptions. “That starts with them being back in the classroom, on time, with the full school experience that includes extracurricular activities. We are committed to ensuring our students succeed in and outside of the classrooms with the confidence, tools and skills they need to graduate, and that means getting back to the basics.”
Pascal, who introduced his own form of ungrading while teaching at McGill 50 years ago, is critical of the emphasis on a back-to-basics philosophy at the expense of creative problem solving. “If the ungrading movement is to flourish in a big way, it’s going to require a change to Ontario’s education ethos that wants to foster innovation and input from diverse experts and educators.”
Janet Hurley is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star covering culture, education and societal trends. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org