Refining the Grade

Refining the Grade

Like most things to do with teaching, the way I ungrade is always evolving.

A photograph of a street that is possibly European, with buildings reflected in a puddle.
reflection, taken by Pawel L., from

When I started my practice, some seven years ago now, I still awarded grades on major assignments, but I introduced student self-evaluations of each piece, and met with students to collaboratively decide on what their grade would be. Gradually, I moved to more and more feedback, and fewer and fewer letter grades, and for a good couple of years now, I’ve had students assign themselves their own grade for a given course after writing (or recording) a substantive reflection on their work. I provided some structure to that reflection, posing a series of questions they might answer, but left them with a lot of freedom to determine how best to assess their own learning.  Last year, I added [some wonderful phrasing from Emily Pitts Donahoe], asking students to think about the quantity and quality of their work, and their growth over the trimester. That provided a framework to the endeavor that I think my students had been missing.

In reading end-of-term reflections, I always wished I could have a conversation with students about what they’d written or recorded. Students were sometimes quiet about things I thought they should shout about, or perhaps missed an opportunity to really grapple with something that had challenged them. And as more than one student said to me, in class and out, it’s strange to assess your own learning for the first time.

I realized last trimester that I needed to more intentionally teach my students how to reflect upon their work. After all, I’ve been giving feedback for thirty years – things that look obvious to me are often not to them. In that respect, learning how to assess and reflect is no different from learning anything else.

So, this trimester, in my upper-level history seminar, I provided my students with a series of questions to guide their reflections. In creating the questions, I thought about how I had structured the course and why—why we’d done particular pieces of homework, or spent time in the library, or invested hours in drafting and redrafting papers. And I made sure there was space for students to tell me things that I hadn’t considered—anything they thought it was important I know.


We took a class period to work on the reflections, which allowed students to ask me clarifying questions, and also to have the time to really delve deep into the work they’d done, the strategies they’d employed, and the skills they’d refined. With my expectations more clearly expressed, I found that all the students in the class wrote a series of really thoughtful, wise, honest, and thorough reflections. I was deeply impressed by their own assessment of their learning.

I followed up on these reflections with a one-on-one conversation, using their reflections as a jumping-off point. The conversations allowed me to answer their questions, provide some last feedback on their draft papers where appropriate, clear up misconceptions (you are a good writer!) and affirm their own assessment of their strengths. It was also a wonderful way to end the semester, spending some dedicated time with every student in turn. I’m going to adopt this approach to reflection in my other classes, with some adaptations to appropriately match the work that each group of students undertakes.

I love that I am still learning how to ungrade, and that reflection is key to that process—that I’m mirroring what I’m asking my students to do.  I love that this is also a collaborative process; that my students are helping me shape my future courses, and teaching me how to provide the best support.

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