female student at a table engaged in a conversation
January 27, 2022

The Power of Ungrading

Instructors at Andover explore a different approach to learning and assessment
by Andy Housiaux

What is ungrading?

Since September, a group of faculty and staff at Andover have met monthly to explore this approach to learning and assessment. Many were first drawn to this way of thinking by Jesse Stommel, a professor in the Writing Program at University of Denver. Stommel writes, ungrading means "raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply ‘not grading.’ The word is a present participle, an ongoing process, not a static set of practices.”

The Andover group of educators hails from departments across the campus: world languages, art, science, English, math, philosophy and religious studies. On their own, these teachers have sought ways to raise an eyebrow at conventional ways of grading and assessment. This group now brings us together to pose questions, share ideas, and build a community of inquiry around these central questions of grading and assessment.

Portfolios and Self-Reflection for Deeper Learning in Math

Heidi Wall’s efforts to rethink the relationship between learning, feedback, and grading go back a number of years. As a math teacher and Tang Fellow, Heidi explored ways to use portfolio assessments with students to help them reflect more deeply on their learning. Evidence of this engagement can be seen in the words of a 9th grader that she shared with the group last fall:

“Before coming to Andover, I’d never studied for a math test. Now I’m realizing that will never work at this school. For this upcoming final, I’ve already started reviewing and instead of just memorizing concepts, I’m focused on actually applying them to the problems.”

Many members of the discussion group remarked on how different this approach to math was compared to their own experiences in high school. The opportunity for students to have dedicated class and homework time to pause, think, and set goals gave them a deeper sense of agency. It also helped them to see math as more than just an exercise in getting the right answer; instead, it was an opportunity to better understand how they thought and how they approached learning, with lessons that they learned that could be applied to other contexts.

Student Agency and the Teacher’s Role

English instructor Tricia Har has used a version of ungrading for the past several years in her classes. For her, this pedagogical shift has led her to conference more frequently with students and explore ways to, in her words, “shift my role from content-provider to curiosity enabler.”

Har’s session led the group through several case studies and reflections, with particular focus on student agency. How does the classroom shift if teachers reimagine their roles from designer of the syllabus and assigner of texts to coaches who help students pursue their interests? Her questions led to a thoughtful discussion (both in the session and afterwards) about the role of foundational knowledge in a discipline, the value of educator professional judgment, and ways in which teachers have succeeded (or struggled) to assess and grade creative student work.

Broader Context

The multi-year educational disruptions caused by the pandemic have forced educators to improvise, reimagine, and triage on an ongoing basis. These disruptions have also necessitated new thinking about grades, learning, and student agency.

The innovative work and research undertaken at the Tang Institute provided a strong foundation for this kind of pedagogical reflection and reimagination. And the commitment of our faculty to come together in community during this time shows the importance of dedicating time and space to such collaborative, interdisciplinary conversations—one more way in which the Tang Institute supports our teachers to reflect on pedagogy and translate their learning into effective and inspiring educational experiences for Andover students.

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*The Tang Institute at Phillips Academy is a center for the advancement of teaching, learning, and partnership. To learn more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Notes on Learning.

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