8 Ungrading – But What Will People Think?

Professor Allison MacKenzie

MARCH 2021


“Experts in ungrading say it’s still relatively rare in higher education, due in part to inertia with respect to pedagogical innovation, the culture of assessment and professors’ anxieties about going gradeless. How will students respond? What will colleagues say? What will administrators think?” (Flaherty, 2019)
In an attempt to continuously improve my teaching practice and while taking a course called Special Topics in Assessment, I was introduced to the controversial topic of ungrading. As I consumed the thoughts and research of Jesse Stommel, Executive Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab, it was difficult to turn away from his bold wake-up call:  “grades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education”. A polarizing statement by anyone’s account, and one that I could not stop thinking about. I oscillated between being consumed by excitement as I planned to blow up all my courses, and being overcome by negativity and thoughts of “this would never work!”.


Intrigued and preoccupied by the concept of ungrading, I began digging a little deeper, wondering whether I could incorporate the practice into a course I was developing. In theory, ungrading sounded like a dream come true for everyone involved – an opportunity to focus on deep, authentic learning while reducing student stress and emphasizing meaningful feedback over assigning a judgmental number to a student’s efforts.
But, I kept coming back to the same questions, which Flaherty eloquently summarized in the April 2019 edition of Inside Higher Education: Would administrators ever approve of ungrading? Would students like the concept, or be upset that they are not being recognized with a grade? Would my colleagues think I was crazy?  I decided I should find out before I travelled any further down the ungrading road.
Venn diagram of the relationship between students, colleagues, and administrators with ungrading at the centre.

What Will People Think……Why Don’t We Ask Them?

In addition to Jesse Stommel’s lightning-rod statement about grades being an obstacle to education, another powerful quote from a thought-leader on the topic has stuck in my mind…
“The saddest and most ironic practice in schools is how hard we try to measure how students are doing and how rarely we ever ask them” (Fast, 2016).

As a former human resources professional and current enthusiastic collaborator, I have long believed in the value of seeking stakeholder feedback, communicating transparently and building consensus. In their article, A Stakeholder Theory  Approach to Creating Value in Higher Education Institutions, the authors agree that as “conditions [in higher education], as well as stakeholders’ demands, change over time, … it [is]important for organizations to assess the ideas and concerns of stakeholders through interaction and dialogue” (Langrafe et al., 2020).

Armed with my natural propensity to seek feedback as a way to create buy-in and academic support that this tactic is actually effective, I set out to create two surveys – one for faculty and one for students. The below surveys are in draft form and create a starting point for a research study that will be executed only after peer review, a research proposal, ethics review and approval.


What are your thoughts on ungrading? 


Fast, A. [@fastcrayon]. (2016, March 28). The saddest and most ironic practice in schools is how hard we try to measure how students are doing and. Twitter. https://twitter.com/fastcrayon/status/714604325146902528?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E714604325146902528%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.jessestommel.com%2Fwhy-i-dont-grade%2F

Flaherty, C. (2019, April 02). When Grading Less Is More. Retrieved April 02, 2021, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news

Langrafe, T.d.F.Barakat, S.R.Stocker, F.Boaventura, J.M.G. (2020), A Stakeholder Theory Approach to Creating Value in Higher Education Institutions. The Bottom Line, Vol. 33 No. 4, pp. 297-313. https://doi.org/10.1108/BL-03-2020-0021

Purdue Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). General Writing FAQs. Purdue Online Writing Lab. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/general_writing_faqs.html

Stommel, J. (2017, October 26). Why I Don’t Grade. Jesse Stommel.com.  https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/



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Ungrading - But What Will People Think? Copyright © 2021 by Professor Allison MacKenzie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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