Many post-secondary institutions in Canada use the tiered grading system, in which student achievement is quantitatively measured and represented with a grade point average (GPA) or a letter grade. In recent years, several universities, e.g., University of Calgary, University of Toronto, and Queen’s University, have modified their grading policies (with conditions) to include a pass/fail or credit/no credit option for students, i.e., in addition to receiving a letter or numerical grade (Dunch, 2020a, 2020b; Svrluga, 2020). Other universities, e.g., the University of Alberta, Stanford University, and the MIT, have opted to make pass/fail or credit/no credit grades mandatory, mainly due to the current COVID-19 pandemic (Fung, 2020).
…without grades, students can learn what they want to, the way they want to. They can be creative and take risks.” (Susan D. Blum)
Among educators and policy makers, there have been many discussions and debates on the appropriateness of using grades as a measure of student learning, with many educators suggesting the removal of grades altogether, i.e., ‘ungrading’ (Blum, 2017, 2020; Kohn, 2011; Stommel, 2017, 2018, 2021). The positive effects of ungrading on student wellbeing and their learning experience, is well-represented in the literature; however, most studies report on students enrolled in the humanities and social sciences, i.e., there are few articles written about the use of ungrading in science-based courses. The aim of this article is to examine and discuss the use and relevance of the ungrading approach in post-secondary, science-based courses.
What is Ungrading?
Ungrading (also referred to as ‘going gradeless’ or ‘de-grading’) is a type of formative assessment in which the instructor provides feedback on student work, without assigning a number (or letter) grade (Brown, 1994). The ungrading approach involves removing or minimising the use of points/numbers or letters to assess student work and replaces this with detailed and meaningful feedback (Sorensen-Unruh, 2020a) to encourage learning through self-reflection (Leboff, 2020). Ungrading can also be defined as an assessment tool since it is a technique or method used to measure a student’s academic skills and progress. Individuals such as Jesse Stommel, Alfie Kohn, and Susan Blum have been writing about ungrading for many years, as is evident by their presence in the literature. According to Blum (2017), “grades do not provide adequate information on a student’s ability to learn new material nor do grades motivate students to learn, i.e., students are driven to accomplish good grades with little attention paid to the learning process.” In Stommel’s (2017) opinion, “grades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education”. Despite the volume of literature in support of the ungrading approach in post-secondary education, the use of ungrading in science-based courses is still unclear. Many science students proceed to professional schools, e.g., medicine and pharmacy, in which admission uses grades to rank and evaluate students.
Ungrading in the Sciences: Is it Relevant?
“…grades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education. And they’re a thorn in the side of Critical Pedagogy.” (Jesse Stommel, 2017)
Stommel (2021) offers an honest perspective on the ungrading approach (in addition to his comment that “grades are dehumanising”) in his appreciation of the fact that eliminating grades entirely is not a simple process. Although the ungrading approach has been picked up by instructors teaching in the humanities and social sciences, Stommel points out (as cited in Jarvis, 2020) that its use in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses is not the same, i.e., educators teaching STEM courses tend to disregard the benefits of the ungrading approach to student learning. He believes that a possible reason for this is that most STEM courses use traditional exams, e.g., multiple-choice tests, compared to those used in non-science courses, e.g., written assignments.
In the literature, there are numerous articles in which instructors of STEM courses voice their support of the ungrading approach (Blum, 2020; Jarvis, 2020); however, this support might be due to the success that these instructors have had with ungrading. Sorensen-Unruh (2020b) described how she used ungrading with students in her Organic Chemistry II class. Her approach involved giving meaningful feedback and having a one-on-one discussion with the student about their work and to resolve any evaluation discrepancies. Despite incorporating a qualitative approach to assessment, Sorensen-Unruh (2020b) submitted a letter grade for the student, due to concerns that the course might not be recognised by medical schools (as cited in Jarvis, 2020). Perhaps ungrading should not be used in assessing standard/traditional exams in science-based courses, but the possibility remains for its use in assessing written work in science classrooms (Jarvis, 2020; Thall & Bays, 1989).
Effects of Ungrading on Post-Secondary Science Students
Many educators show interest in using the ungrading approach in their classrooms, and although there are some negative effects for science students, there are many positive effects. Commonly reported benefits of ungrading are an increased motivation to learn, increased enjoyment of learning, decreased stress levels in students and faculty, a sense of wellbeing and confidence, and less fear of the evaluation process, i.e., students report a decreased fear of failure (Ungrading, n.d.; Flaherty, 2019; Kohn, 2011; Blum, 2020; Sorensen-Unruh, 2020a). An important consideration in determining whether to use ungrading in a science classroom, is the type of assignment, i.e., written, or final exam. In written assignments, instructor feedback allows the student to learn more about their knowledge and writing skills, compared to receiving a letter or numerical grade only (Thall & Bays, 1989). Although there are not as many reports of positive effects of ungrading occurring in science classrooms, the fact that ungrading does have positive effects, indicates that it is possible for science students to also benefit from ungrading. Since the effects of ungrading seem to depend on a student’s academic goals, science students in particular should be informed by their instructor and given a choice on their preferred grading system.
An online search of several top universities in Canada revealed that some universities gave students the option to choose the pass/fail grading system; however, this did not come without a warning. Several of these universities, e.g., University of Ottawa and York University, stated that although some courses may be reported as a pass or fail credit, most credits must be reported as a final grade (or GPA) for students to be eligible for admission to medical school. York University included a note stating that “if you plan on pursuing further higher education, please check the admission requirements prior …”. The final warning was that “many medical schools will not consider ungraded courses as part of a full-time load which may disqualify you for admission.” In addition, certain undergraduate programs do not allow for the pass/fail (ungraded) option (York University, n.d.).
Although many students welcome a change in their grading policy, i.e., to pass/fail, some students are uncomfortable and worry about their success in gaining admission to professional schools (Svrluga, 2020). Blum has acknowledged the fact that many undergraduate students progress to graduate or medical school, but she does not comment on the consequence of not assigning students a letter or numerical grade (Supiano, 2019).
Abolishing the current grading system and replacing it with the ungrading approach is unlikely to happen very soon for science-based courses. The most obvious reason being that many second-degree programs, e.g., medicine, law, pharmacy, and graduate studies, require students to submit their GPA to be considered for admission. If grading is removed from undergraduate education, then it must also be removed as a requirement for admission to second-degree or graduate programs. This does not mean that grading must be used fully when assessing undergraduate students, i.e., modifications to the current grading system may be incorporated so to remove some of the stress that grades have on student learning. A solution to the problem of mis-matched grading systems between undergraduate and graduate education, might be to use a grading system that combines qualitative and quantitative measures of academic achievement, particularly when evaluating students for admission to second-degree programs (Dunch, 2020b).
Schinske & Tanner (2014) make several recommendations for change: (i) reward students for participation and effort (i.e., some tasks are not graded using points, but rather for completion); (ii) provide opportunities for students to receive meaningful feedback through peer and self evaluation; (iii) abandon grading on a curve to remove competition between students for high grades, and (iv) grade student work anonymously to remove any biases and/or use rubrics and consider sharing with students so that expectations are transparent and clear.
To begin the process of moving away from traditional grading, all schools and programs must be onboard with the ungrading approach and use it consistently, i.e., in undergraduate and graduate or professional-degree programs. Students will not benefit from removing grades if grades are not removed from the entire post-secondary education system. Perhaps the complete removal of grades is not ideal, but rather incorporating a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures of achievement might be more appropriate and relevant, especially for students in science-based courses.
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