Elisabeth Gruner, an English professor at the University of Richmond, is known to many for her alternative style of assigning grades, called “ungrading.”
In 2022, she wrote an essay for The Conversation that explained her process, in which students receive feedback for work they submit with no grade attached. Instead, they keep a portfolio of their written work that they submit to her at the end of the semester, along with what they’ve decided their final grade should be. Over the past few years, several professors at UR have begun using their own grading alternatives, even bringing the practice into STEM.
Most of these grading styles focus on revision. In Gruner’s case, students write out their goals for her classes at the start of the semester and are encouraged to revise their work throughout, receiving feedback on as many drafts as they are willing to submit.
Senior Shaylin Bonefont took Gruner’s Children’s Literature course her first year and still remembers when the grading style was explained to her.
“At first, it was a little confusing,” Bonefont said. “But then, once you turn in the first paper and she gives your revisions, you’re like ‘Oh… so this is how it works.’”
According to Gruner, this is typical. When she first made the jump to ungrading in 2019, she made the transition optional, giving students the choice to use a traditional grading structure.
“They were deeply skeptical,” she said. “We spent an entire class period, almost, with them quizzing me about it.”
She was surprised when 17 of her 20 students chose to be ungraded, she said, and the class ended up going smoothly. She has tweaked the system since then, but the core concepts have remained the same. Now she has students, including Bonefont, who prefer ungrading so much that they purposely take more classes with her.
Kylie Lambert, a sophomore currently enrolled in Gruner’s class, thinks that being encouraged to revise teaches her to be a better writer, which she thinks is more important than a grade, she said.
“Once you get the grade, you’re never looking at the comments again,” Lambert said, which is something Gruner listed as one of the main reasons she made the switch to ungrading.
Gruner encountered ungrading when she was an undergraduate at Brown University, where she had the option to take any class she wanted as pass/fail, she said. This is similar to what UR offered during the pandemic. Some schools, including Brown and UR, refer to this as credit/no credit, where students receive credit for passing the class, but it has no impact on their GPA.
Ungrading and other alternative grading methods are growing more popular in universities across the country, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic caused many schools to make temporary grading adjustments. UR, Duke University and Virginia Tech were among those that offered students the pass/fail option when classes were switched to online learning.
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Priscilla Erickson, a biology professor, brings her own grading style into STEM. Since she started teaching at UR in 2021, she has used “specifications grading” for her upper-level classes. In this model, students are graded based on which of several thresholds of acceptable work they have met, depending on the course.
In Erickson’s Advanced Genetics class this semester, students have five quizzes throughout the semester with three questions each, plus five more questions on the final exam, for a total of 20 questions. To get an A in the class, students need to give a satisfactory answer on at least 15 questions. Erickson allows students to revise insufficient work for half a point back.
“I don’t think [specifications grading] makes the class easier,” she said. “I’m not letting students scrape by with subpar work.”
Chris Rawson, a senior biology major who has taken several of Erickson’s upper-level courses, likes that the grading style encourages revision. He said that the revision process increases the workload, but makes the class less stressful.
“When you look at an assignment the second time around, you can come up with a fresh perspective,” Rawson said.
Specifications grading has encouraged him to produce some of the best work he’s done at UR, he said.
Erickson knows her classes require a lot of effort, but feels it pays off in learning outcomes. By emphasizing revision and the goal of having a growth mindset, she said, she can remove the need for the traditional practice of grading students based on a handful of assessments at certain points in the class, as many STEM classes at UR do.
“A lot more classes in STEM are using this now,” she said. “This semester I have quite a few students that have experience with this sort of style.”
During the pandemic, Lauren Tilton, a professor of rhetoric and communication studies at UR, started using what she calls a blend of “labor-based grading” and “contract grading.” In Tilton’s classes, students decide on a “contract” that corresponds with a grade and a set amount of work to complete, she said. They may choose the A contract, the B contract, or the C contract, and then must do the designated work by the end of the semester to uphold that contract and receive that grade. Most assignments are graded as either complete or incomplete. Similar to Gruner and Erickson, Tilton always accepts one revision.
Tilton’s students were happy with the system, she said. It was clear what was expected of them in the course, and that significantly lowered stress during the pandemic. She has since made this her permanent grading system.
Tilton has always encouraged her students to take risks and be creative in their work, sometimes by submitting projects made in unique mediums, like a 3D model or a video essay. Since she switched to contract grading, she has found her students are more comfortable taking these risks, she said.
“I saw how much more creative people were when they stopped imagining what an A was, or a B,” she said.
Tilton knows her grading style may not appeal to every student. The A contract requires a lot of work, usually including extensive revisions, and many students find relief in getting an okay grade on an assignment and just being done with it, she said.
Contract grading lowers inequalities by allowing students to do what they can, Tilton said. It’s one of the reasons she continues with it, even though it means more work for herself.
Gruner also said her grading system requires more work. Ungrading would be more difficult at a bigger institution with larger class sizes, as it would take too much time for her to provide feedback for multiple revisions for each student.
“It takes a lot of front-end work,” Gruner said. “You have to design a class for it. You have to plan the flow of the assignments so there’s enough time to read them and provide feedback.”
But like Tilton, Gruner continues grading her way because it's more equitable. For years she has studied “inclusive pedagogy,” which is the act of teaching in a way that ensures every student is engaged in meaningful learning regardless of background.
At the end of the semester, Gruner’s students submit their portfolio, now full of revised work, along with a self-evaluation in which they reflect on how well they met the goals they submitted at the beginning of the class. Here, students can see how much they’ve improved their writing since then, regardless of how skilled they were at the start of the semester, she said.
Gruner does this to allow students with less experience in college-level writing to succeed, in line with her inclusive pedagogy research, instead of giving them lower grades because they came into the class lacking the experience to write a traditionally A-level paper, she said. Students submit the grade they think they deserve, which usually ends up being their final grade for the course, though Gruner reserves the right to change that grade if she deems it necessary.
“But I rarely do, and when I do, I raise grades almost as often as I lower them,” Gruner wrote.
Gruner said this is the aspect of ungrading she’s worked the hardest to develop, as students are never trained to assess themselves in this way. She wishes she could teach without assigning students a letter grade at all, and only does so because the university requires one, she said.
Lambert, who is in Gruner’s class currently but has taken other ungraded courses in the past, said that giving yourself a final grade can be harder than it sounds. She’s been hesitant in the past to say she deserves an A, even if she feels she’s worked hard enough to deserve one. With the self-evaluation, she can make her case.
“Saying I deserve an A can be nice, and I can explain why,” Lambert said.
Contact contributing writer Kieran Flood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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