On ‘ungrading’ in a creativity course

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I talked about grading and ungrading here before, in the post ‘On rankings, grades . . . and actual experiences‘ in August 2021. The following month, I was again teaching my course ‘Your Creative Self’, and so I started doing ungrading there. Here’s my statement about it that I put in the syllabus:

The tyranny of grading

The University aims towards ‘decolonizing’ its teaching and operations, even though, of course, aggressive colonization already happened, and cannot be unpicked just by changing some of the things we talk about in a university classroom. It seems to me that one of the most central things to overturn is the idea that your subjective, thoughtful and creative work should then be given a grade by me, an older white man, which enters the system and becomes a pseudo-scientific ‘fact’ about your performance.

When looking at the work of 90 students, it is highly unlikely that I will be able to fully appreciate what you came to this work with, and what your intentions were, and what you did or didn’t know already, and whether real learning and growth happened for you or not. If we are suggesting that a person grading your work could know all these things, that’s just a deception, and it seems like one of the worst Western-colonial type ideas, that I’m going to know it better than you.

On top of that, there’s a whole other set of reasons why traditional grading is a bad idea. There’s good evidence that grades are the enemy of real learning. Worrying about their grade affects students’ work, but not usually in a good way. We are used to grades being at the heart of education, but ironically, grades destroy learning.

What does this mean in practice? You still want a grade, probably, because we are in a system where all courses lead to grades and that’s how you get a degree. So don’t worry, you’ll get a grade in this course, but the grade will be proposed by you, and you will be able to write some reflections on your learning, to explain your choice.

This kind of approach is called ‘ungrading’, and is a growing movement. As Jesse Stommel explains in ‘Ungrading: An Introduction’, if we as educators value the humanity of students, want to support their needs, and engage them as full participants in their own education . . . well, grades are the opposite of all those things.

As he highlights in that piece, grades are designed to pit students and teachers against one another, to rank students in competitive ways, and to measure output with little concern for the learning process. Grading values extrinsic over intrinsic motivation, and is rooted in a suspicion of students. And research shows clearly that grading reinforces bias against marginalized students.

So, none of that seems good, which is why we will be doing something a bit different. If this causes you any worry, you’re welcome to talk to me about it of course. We will be talking about all this as we go along.

(If you want to dig more into this – I think it’s fascinating, and Jesse Stommel writes about it very well – see also his FAQ and bibliography about ungrading).

Meanwhile . . . we still have assignments!

The syllabus then goes on to describe the assignments, which are centred around student’s reflections on their own creative journey in the light of things we’ve experienced and discussed during the course.

As I only thought to put this on the blog in January 2022, after the course has finished, I believe I can report that the students very much liked this approach. I’m pretty sure they worked just as hard as they would have done otherwise, and they felt much more supported by the approach which centred their personal growth over some punitive and judgmental grading system.

I hope you found this helpful, and I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences around ungrading.


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