UNgrading in action: Lessons from spring 2022

I just submitted final grades for my three classes in spring 2022. To complete my final step in this process, I read through my students’ reflections of our time together and was in awe of their words. In this post, I want to share an some highlights from my UNgrading journey for this spring quarter 2022. This is just the second quarter I have practiced UNgrading and I am amazed by how much my students are teaching me. In this post, I hope to share with you some of the wonder and amazement I feel as I reflect on this experiences and learn from my students. Enjoy!

Class Structure

I’ll start with a brief description of the structure of our classes. For each of my classes this quarter, I used a flipped learning approach. We worked as a team to create an expectation that students get their first exposure to course material outside of class and come to school ready to engage in dialog. I empowered my students to self-pace their learning. I gave students a course calendar with soft deadlines to create structure and encouraged each student to determine a pace that made most sense for their own journey. I reminded each student that they could make these decisions dynamically on a week-to-week basis and that I would help keep them accountable during our portfolio conferences, as discussed below.

For the first three weeks of class, students worked on both mathematical content and meta-learning activities. These activities focused on helping students develop a thoughtful and intentional plan to engage in deep learning. We also had students form learning partnerships. Each learning partnership consisted of two learners. Then, two learning partnerships came together to form a learning group, each of which had four team members.

We worked hard in the first three weeks to establish the goal that each student would be create a unique learning portfolio. To demonstrate what this might look like, I interviewed a previous student from my class and showed the video interview during one of our in class sessions. Below is that interview:

After we watched this video, we had a group discussion about what came up for students as they watched and listened. Then, I challenged every student to imagine they were going to write their own textbook in our class. I asked them to imagine that the goal of their work was to create notes that they could look back on in 10 years and understand all the technical content in full, glorious detail. Moreover, we developed the expectation that their portfolio would serve as evidence of their learning.

I feel very strongly that each of my students is the world’s leading expert on their own learning. I also know that each student is the best judge of the various responsibilities they need to fulfill in any given week. So, as we worked to develop the idea of a learning portfolio, I had a few rules that I asked them to respect during the quarter. These included all of the following:

  • Rule 1: Health must take priority over class content on any given day. I asked my students to protect their physical, emotional, and mental health as part of the work we do together. We spoke in detail about the idea that deep learning requires a healthy mind and body. I encouraged my students to be mindful about their health. I also asked them to promise me that if they had to choose between our class and their health, that they would choose their health first and come back to our class when they were in a better space. In this case, I asked that they reach out to me and their learning partners to keep us in the loop of their needs and let us know how we might support their learning.

    Side Note: This rule led to a funny and meaningful story from the quarter. During one of my learning portfolio conferences, a student apologized because she was a lesson behind in her work. She said she was stressed out and decided to sleep the night before rather than finish her work for that day. Upon hearing this, I celebrated her decision. I told her I was so proud that she did this. We then talked about her plan to catch up and together, we crafted an approach that she might use to get caught up by our next conference. Later that day in class, I asked the student to share her story with the whole class. During that group discussion, I celebrated her decision and applauded her thoughtfulness and self-care habit. We talked about her plan to get caught up and talked about the lesson. I concluded this group discussion by reminding every one of my students that I wanted them to be healthy and to center self-care. I reminded the class that deep learning happens best when we tend to the health of our mind, body, and soul.

  • Rule 2: Each student gets to decide what is best for their learning. As the teacher, I need to see evidence of progress and growth. I will have suggestions about how they might improve their learning, deepen their understanding, and become more sophisticated learners. However, each student has the right and responsibility to decide what activities they need to do to learn and how they will demonstrate that evidence to me and their classmates.

  • Rule 3: I need to meet with each student during a learning conference and see evidence of their progress. During these conversations, we get to talk about course content, learning struggles, and any other topic that students feel is valuable for their learning process in our class.

In order to make progress in the course, students would need to share their progress on their portfolio with me, their learning partner, and the other members of their learning group. This sharing would happen on a weekly basis during learning conferences.

Learning Conferences

Starting in week 3 of the quarter, I worked my way through the class and broke the 135 class period into four 30 minutes meeting blocks. During each 30 minute meeting block, I would have learning conferences with each learning group (meaning I would meet with one group of 4 students every 30 minutes). So, for Tuesday/Thursday classes, I would meet with four groups on Tuesdays and another four groups on Thursday.

During each learning conference, two of the four members of each learning group would present their current work. For a class with 32 people, each member had about 15 minutes to present and get feedback. For each portfolio presentation, students showed their work and spoke about their process. As they spoke, I looked carefully at the work they produced, listened to their words, asked follow up questions, and tried to get a sense of their progress. During this time, other members of the learning group might also interject ideas, questions, comments, or concerns that came up as the student presented. After about 8 – 10 minutes of dialog, we would work together to come up with some ideas about how that student might deepen their learning. I would give follow up reading assignments and concrete suggestions on how to deepen their process. I would also ask to see evidence of the changes students made based directly on the conversations we had about their portfolio.

I worked hard to make sure that I gave 1 – 3 substantive suggestions on how each student might improve their work, refine their learning, and go deeper into the content. Team members in each learning group might also add their suggestions and be in solidarity with each presenter. During all this time, the learning partner who was taking notes would capture the gist of our conversation. Then, to wrap up the meeting, the presenter would give a synopsis of what they learned and what improvement they would make before their next presentation. At the end of each presentation, I sometimes would ask each group member who was not presenting to share something notable that came up during the conversation so that every team member’s voice was part of the dialog. Then we would move onto the other presenter for that day.

Assuming regular attendance, this structure meant that every student would present their work once every two weeks. So, say student A and student B form a learning partnership. If student A presents their portfolio during week 4 while student B plays the role of note taker, then during week 5 the roles reverse. In other words, in week 5, student B becomes the presenter and student A becomes the note taker. We continue this dance throughout the quarter until the final two weeks. If a student misses their conference, I would reach out to that student to schedule a one-on-one appointment so that we could connect and make up that work.

My Learning Conference Log

With this structure in mind, the first artifact I want to share is my learning conference log for a 34 person class that I taught this quarter. In Figure 1 below, you’ll see my handwritten record of all the learning conferences that I had with my students. You could think about this as my grade book, thought you’ll notice that there is not a single reference to a grade on this entire sheet. In each entry, I captured the date when each student presented and the most recent content the student had completed. So, the entry that reads Mon 6/6/22: Lesson 12 means the student presented their work up through Lesson 12 on Mon 6/6/22. During that presentation, I checked for evidence of improvement for all work since the last presentation.

Figure 1: Learning Conference log for a 34 person class I taught in spring 2022. This is my record of the meetings I had with each student.

The following are some features of this document that I am very proud of:

  • I met with every student in this 34 person class at least 3 times. Many of these meetings lasted much longer than 15 minutes. Students were very patient and generous with me and each other. When meetings had to go later than planned, students were willing to stay after class, show up early, and reschedule. The class worked as a team to make sure we could support each other and that I could have very meaningful conversations with every student.

  • I saw a lot of evidence that students were looking after each other, caring for each other, and learning with/from each other. During our meetings, students would often report they made changes to their work based on their learning partner’s presentation and feedback. Students also engaged in deep dialog about the course content together, tested each other, and worked together to learn as a team.

  • The last meeting of the quarter was a final portfolio check. For most students, this was much quicker than the longer presentation. In fact, by around week 9 of the quarter, many students were iteratively improving their work without my feedback. They were showing strong signs of self-directions and really taking ownership of their learning.

  • 100% of this work was UNgraded. My policy in this class was that every student who finishes their portfolio would earn the right to assign their own grade. In fact, the only time grades entered into our discussion was during the final assignment when students chose their own grade.

One thing that I know to be true and that my students learned as the quarter went on is that the learning conferences are so much more meaningful than timed exams or in class quizzes. Each student gets to create a custom portfolio that represents their best attempt to learn the material. Then, during the presentation, we pay tribute to their strengths and give targeted, timely feedback on what they can do to improve. During the next presentation, we look for evidence of that improvement and continue to iterate throughout the quarter. This leads to a cycle of continual improvement, growth, and very rich conversations. Moreover, the dialog and customized nature of the feedback that each student received during a 15 minute conversation is orders of magnitude more meaningful than red marks, deducted points, and grades earned during a timed exam. In fact, grades on timed exams rarely lead to changes in behavior because the feedback mechanism is so poor.

However, with this structure, I saw compelling evidence that almost every student I served grew in significant and meaningful ways over the entire academic quarter. For most of my students, the work they produced in week 11 looked substantially different than the work I saw in weeks 3 – 4. One student captured this reality in his final reflections about his learning portfolio notes when he commented:

“When Jeff said ‘your notes will look completely different by the end of the quarter,’ he was not wrong. I did not understand how notes could look really different. Now I do. I understand the importance of notes and how they can help with learning. My notes look completely different. It’s like night and day… This course has allowed me to experiment and test which ways of learning work best for me. There was no ‘right’ way to do an assignment. Everyone could complete a task in their own preferred method. For me, I tested many ways to take notes for this class. I learned that it was important to be able to referred back to your work. I learned many methods to improve my organization and my note-taking methods.”

How can I justify allowing students to choose their own grades?

I’ll end this post by addressing the elephant in the room! Yes, I allow most of my students to choose their own grades (Note: if a student does not complete their portfolio and does not engage with the conference process, they lose the right to assign their own grade. I’ve never had such a student that passed one of my classes). Yes, most (but not all) of my students chose to give themselves an A grade. Yes, I agreed with their assessments and assigned mostly all A’s. Yes, I feel this is an accurate reflection of the work they did. Lets explore more.

In Section 55023 of Title 5, the state of California stipulates the following:

Figure 2: The legal meaning of grades as defined in Section 55023 of Title 5, the legal code that determines my responsibilities in assigning final grades.

Notice that in order to earn an A, my students have to demonstrate excellence in our course. I have a lot to say about what it means to build excellent understand in mathematics. In fact, my students and I discuss this at length during our first three weeks of the course and throughout our individual conferences. My firm belief is that students demonstrate excellence when they understand mathematics at a deep level and set themselves up for deep learning in the future. I ask students to demonstrate multidimensional knowledge and multiple types of mastery for each mathematical concept that we study. I ask students to build evidence of robust concept images into their learning portfolios and challenge students to think flexibly about course content. I do not believe that being able to solve problems under time pressure is a sign of excellence. In my own career as a student, I got straight A’s on math exams and had no idea of what I was doing. I figured out how to game the system without learning deeply. I am a living counterexample of the proposition “If a student does well on a test, then they have an excellent understanding of the material.”

I expect so much more from my students. Of course, I want them to be able to problem solve. But I believe that flexible problem solving skills are built via robust neural networks that students build to encode each mathematical idea in their brain. I believe that knowledge is most meaningful when students can describe each idea from multiple approaches and have a deep understanding of the interconnections between mathematical ideas. I want to see evidence that my students can articulate complex mathematical ideas in simple, intuitive language and relate that to many other features of the concept they are studying. For more about the type of evidence I ask my students to produce, please take a look at my Create Lecture Notes Systems and Progress Through the Five Stages of Deep Learning that I have my students read as they build their portfolios.

In other words, for readers who worry that my students are not achieving excellence, I challenge you to re-examine your understanding of exactly what is happening in traditional classrooms where teachers use high-pressure, timed exams to measure student learning. I claim that grades determined in that context do NOT create a bijection between excellence and A’s. In fact, such proxy measurements lead both students and teachers to under-perform in so many ways.

Through the learning conferences, the individualized feedback process, and the iterative improvement cycles, I see every single one of my students demonstrating excellent levels of both mathematical knowledge and academic achievement. Thus, I have no qualms what-so-ever about empowering students to assign their own grades. It is literally very difficult for students to get through my class without engaging in meaningful ways with the content and creating a foundation for future learning.

For those readers worried about grade inflation, I challenge you to re-examine your assumptions about grading. The entire premise that we should create artificial scarcity for A grades to me is ridiculous. That premise is rooted in this eugenics movement. This also has root in an attempt to preserve and justify income inequality by limiting students’ access to elite spaces. Moreover, I claim that most exam-based classrooms do not achieve excellence in the ways I am seeing in my class. I know this because I taught using traditional lecture-based methods that included timed exams for over 10 years of my life. When I compare the results my students achieved in my past life as a teacher with the results I see in my ungraded classroom, it’s like night and day. I have a lot more to say about this. But, instead of taking my word for it, I want to share some words from one of my students this quarter. She assigned herself an A grade, which I elevated to an A+. When I asked this student “Why did you make this choice for your final grade? What led you to this decision?,” this was her response:

“I made this choice for my final grade by thinking about my work from previous math classes. If I think about grades in the context where they had meaning to me, I mostly think about my calculus course where I got either an A or an A-. At the end of those course, I didn’t ever feel confident that I really learned something substantial that was important for my future. So, because I do feel like I learned in this class, I gave myself an A. I think I worked the hardest in this math class than any other math class, so I think under the current grading system, an A makes sense for my performance. However, I did not really want to assign myself a grade in this class because I feel like it goes against everything I learned through this class and that it is an injustice to myself. I really wish grades were not a part of the college experience because they do not encourage me to learn but to do the bare minimum to get the coveted A.”

After this question/response, I asked this student to respond to these questions: “How meaningful is this single letter in summarizing your learning during your 12 weeks of experiences in this class? How accurate is this ‘measurement’ of your performance?’ She responded as follows:

“I do not think this letter is meaningful in its reflection of my learning in all 12 weeks of this class. It does not reflect the time and energy I dedicated to getting the most out of my learning experiences in this course. I see a grade mostly as how I have performed on assignments and tests where that performance is measured by how many questions I correctly understood and prepared for. I also do not think it will reflect the effort you (Jeff) put into my learning experience. I have been thinking a little bit about how I have heard that some professors want their students to fail and that a student getting an A would mean that the professor is not making their class challenging enough. I relate to the 8th observation about grades (see below) because they do not make me want to be honest with my teachers and go to them honestly for help. I think that part of the idea of my grades in my head are how much I understood the teacher’s grading process and what exactly they are looking for. My work for a grade is partially determined by how much I dedicate myself to the teacher, which I think is a harmful model. I do not think that the grading model encourages students to decide for themselves what success looks like. That’s one reason why it feels weird assigning myself a grade in this class- I am so used to the teacher/professor deciding if I deserve praise or punishment for what I did throughout the course. I feel like I did exactly what I needed to do this quarter for my own learning experience and for my linear-algebra related needs. And I do not think that I did any better or worse than anyone else in this class. An ‘A’ only means something to me when I think of my performance as a series of graded successes and mistakes that I need to feel happy or ashamed about, none of which I experienced in this class this quarter.”

Note: In this final reflection document, I share a number of observations about the harms that grades cause in our classes. The 8th observation states that “8. Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students.”


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