If you’re not assigning points and letter grades, what are you doing when you ungrade? Four core principles shape the answer:
What are the 3-4 key things you most want students to be able to do by the time they’ve completed the course? Write these as clearly as possible on your syllabus, and return to them often—in class sessions, on assignment prompts, in feedback on student work. You may also consider having students add a personal goal, or brainstorming the course goals as a group on the first day of class.
Ungrading will be new for virtually all of your students, so you will need to explain, and explain again, what they’re being asked to do, and especially why—in ungrading, it’s important to clearly communicate the rationale for almost everything you do in the course.
Students haven’t generally been trained to think reflexively about their learning or about their work in general. Why do they study/write/participate in the ways that they do? What actions lead to learning and growth? What detracts from growth? Whether the final responsibility for evaluating their work falls to them or not, every student assignment should ask students to reflect on what they’ve done and what they’ve learned. Practicing this skill of metacognition will enable students to take greater control of their own learning and understand their own goals in a given task more clearly.
One of the first questions many faculty and even students ask when they first hear about ungrading is: “But what if the students cheat?” Ungrading advocate Jesse Stommel has argued that the first rule of ungrading is: trust the students. Approaching students with the assumption that they are trying their best, and making efforts to show them they can trust you (such as giving them power over their grade), is fundamental to the success of any ungrading system, and has the potential to transform any classroom into a vibrant learning community.
For an example of what the operational side of ungrading can look like, download this handout for syllabus and assignment prompt language from one of my own courses. Many more examples appear throughout this resource, and particularly in the bibliographic resources at the end.