By Rethinking Grades, CNM Instructor Engaging Students in New, Meaningful Ways
Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh

By Rethinking Grades, CNM Instructor Engaging Students in New, Meaningful Ways

She’s found that the grading process can lead to much more than just a letter or a number
May 05, 2020

CNM chemistry and statistics instructor Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh likes to compare learning to climbing Mount Everest. She says her job as an instructor is to act like a sherpa, or a guide, and help the students find their own way to the top. She’ll give them pointers, but they have to do their own walking.

One creative way she’s empowering students on their journey is through something called “ungrading.” Ungrading is a process where traditional grades—letters and numbers—are still given, but they’re arrived at through a dialogue with the students. The ultimate goal is to help students master their subjects in a deeper and more meaningful way.

“We need to trust our students and realize that it's ultimately their learning journey, not ours,” Clarissa says. “And one important way to help students lead their own learning journeys is to change how assessments are done.”

Here’s how ungrading works in her class. Students still complete traditional assignments, but next to all the questions Clarissa adds three emojis—a smiley face, a “meh” face, and an angry face. After the student answers the question, they choose one face to represent how well they think they did. A smiley face means, “I got that right and felt confident in my answer.” The “meh” face means they were unsure, and an angry face means they felt unprepared and probably got it wrong.

Next, Clarissa corrects each assignment and gives extensive and specific feedback if students miss answers. But she doesn’t assign a number grade. Instead, she sends the assignments back to the students and they have the opportunity to correct their answers and then make a written case for how many points they should receive per-answer. In those written statements, the students are required to identify what was missing from their knowledge base when they completed the assignment, and demonstrate to Clarissa how they plan to fill those gaps. 

Finally, the students and Clarissa both propose a final grade for the assignment. If Clarissa’s grade is higher, that’s what the student receives. If the student’s grade is higher, then Clarissa takes an average of her grade and the student’s grade. 

“Yes, it’s extra work, but it goes back to giving the students agency in their own learning process to be able to say, ‘This is what I learned and this is how I learned it,’” Clarissa says. 

Clarissa’s approach to ungrading is guided by a field called Critical Pedagogy that aims to not only empower students in their own learning process, but empower them to use that new knowledge to make real and lasting changes in their communities. 

Critical Pedagogy is important because it has helped Clarissa show that science and math-based fields such as chemistry and statistics, which at first glance wouldn’t seem to fit well with ungrading, can indeed benefit from a more holistic grading approach. More specifically, she’s shown that when students in these fields start to think about their work in a more complex way—instead of just finding the “right” answer—they develop the skills necessary to work through those fields’ most complicated problems.

For example, she says, both the scientists and the statisticians looking at COVID-19 are regularly arriving at different answers about how long the virus will last and what healthcare interventions will work best. By thinking about why their answers are different, and how they arrived at those different answers, she says these researchers will be able to move forward toward a real solution.

“It might not seem like it sometimes, but there are a lot of gray areas in these fields,” Clarissa says. “We don't have the exact same gray shades as the humanities, but those gray areas become more and more apparent the more you advance in the field.”

For other instructors interested in ungrading, Clarissa says it’s easier than they might think. Yes, there’s more work involved, but she says there are limitless ways to set up an ungrading system based on the subject matter and the instructor’s own individual approach.

“A lot of people assume that if I can’t do ungrading just like you, then I’m not doing the right version. And that’s not right. There are lots of different ways to do this,” she says. “If you’re divorcing the feedback from a number on a piece of paper, then pretty much the sky's the limit.”