How To Ungrade Gradelessly In Two Steps

I’ve been told that going gradeless and ungrading are different. While that’s certainly possible, I haven’t seen a clear difference so far. That is, between blogs, Facebook groups, books, and the rare research report under either term (plus more), the similarities stand out way more than any notable differences. There’s quite a bit of consensus among even the most discerning of grading systems related to reducing or eliminating grades. Even a few systems that fall under a generic “standards-based” approach have basically the same features as those that fall under the “gradeless/ungraded.” Whatever you want to call these approaches, this post will show you how to get rid of all the points, scores, and assignment grades while keeping the focus on learning. There are two basic steps:

  1. Have students put all their classwork, assignments, and assessments into a portfolio.
  2. Students self-grade, citing evidence from the portfolio.

I could end this post right here, honestly, and you would have all the crucial info you need. That’s it: portfolio & self-grade. Done. Are there nuances? Sure, but they’re not essential. Of course, you might be wondering what that looks practically, so here are *some* ideas on how to make that all happen.

Portfolio
This can be digital, or literally a physical folder to put stuff in. Nothing that goes in here needs to have a number on it (because students self-grade when you need them to…like towards the end of progress reports, quarter, semester, or year). WARNING! Don’t confuse no points/scores/grades with completion only, lack of review, and lack of feedback. Give feedback. Correct things. Review submissions for more than done/not done (even a quick 10 second glance is enough to be an assessment). Do all of that, just don’t bother wasting time and student attention on percentages and other scores. Keep class focused on content. I’ve settled on using Google Classroom itself as the portfolio, with individual assignments as places for students to attach their stuff (e.g., “Learning Evidence #1,” etc.). I add feedback in comments. Students review each one before self-grading.

These assignments can be reported in your school’s gradebook as completed or missing. For example, in PowerTeacher, I have the option of setting up an assignment with no points, instead just a green check mark if done, or an orange square for missing. WARNING! Don’t confuse this green check mark with completion only and lack of review. Feedback is given directly to the Google Classroom assignment as a comment. The green mark in the gradebook let’s everyone know things are good. The orange square let’s everyone know that the student hasn’t added learning evidence to their portfolio. Too many of these and it doesn’t matter how they self-grade. There’s no evidence to back up their claim.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to recognize one major benefit of this system. The student CHOOSES what work is evidence of their learning, which could be any number of things they’ve done in class that you as the teacher planned as learning experiences or checks for understanding. There’s no chasing students down for a scored assignment that otherwise in a traditional grading system is averaged to get their category grade. If you *need* a particular assignment/assessment in the portfolio, tell them (and mark as done or missing accordingly).


Self-grading
Giving students grades to choose from (i.e., 55, 65, 75, 85, 95, 100) and providing guidance with clear criteria is a good idea, but you’d be surprised how insightful and accurate self-grading can be without any of that (e.g., “I think I should get an 85(B) because I understand most stuff, but I didn’t really do as much as I could’ve”). You don’t need an analytic rubric and 10 different dimensions to arrive at that same conclusion. Most kids own up to shortcomings and hold themselves accountable. Only a few research reports I’ve reviewed resulted in very different student grades from what a teacher would have expected. Self-reported grades are usually real close, and benefits like time-saving for the teacher and building self-reflection skills for the student are among the top reasons to have students self-grade.

You could hold a brief conference, or set up something virtual—asynchronous, even—which works for a massive number of students. I’ve settled on students writing a rationale for their grade in the comment of another Google Classroom assignment. After all, they’re already in that platform to review the learning evidence they’ve added. In some cases, I have time to give feedback in real-time as I monitor students writing these. Otherwise, the commenting becomes a dialogue back-and-forth if a rationale is pretty flimsy, or learning evidence they submit is more like documentation of participation.

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