Ungrading: a radical old idea, picking up steam

In the March edition of Edubytes, we look at the concept of “Ungrading”, examine why it has a growing community of advocates and share a robust collection of resources about the topic. Our guest editors are:

  • Dr. Firas Moosvi, Lecturer, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics Department, Faculty of Science, UBC Okanagan
  • Dr. Celeste Leander, Professor of Teaching, Departments of Botany and Zoology; Academic Director, First Year Experience
  • Dr. Jaclyn Stewart, Associate Professor of Teaching, Department of Chemistry; Associate Dean Academic, Faculty of Science


What is ungrading?

Ask a university student what outcome matters most about a class, and many will likely tell you it’s the final letter grade. Though grades have become the primary product of our educational systems, they actually did not gain widespread popularity until the 1940s. On the other hand, “ungrading” is a conscious effort to move focus away from grades and back to the learning process.

Practitioners adapt ungrading in various ways, with students often reflecting that they learn more and are under less stress when working in an ungraded environment. Ungrading relies more heavily on instructors providing feedback, which students can use to improve their work, make their own assessment, and build into future work. Feedback without a grade becomes a neutral platform on which students can improve, without the judgement of attached points or grades. In this way, learning and improving becomes the goal.

According to author and ungrading pioneer Alfie Kohn, there are three things that happen when students are graded: grading “reduces student interest in the learning itself”, “reduces students’ preference for challenging tasks”, and “reduces the quality of student thinking” (Source: Alfie Kohn, “From Degrading to De-Grading”; The Case Against Grades, 2013, Counterpoints, 451, 143–153.)

Ungrading advocate Jesse Stommel argues that grades are “not good incentive, not good feedback; not good markers of learning; don’t reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of learning; encourage competitiveness over collaboration; and aren’t fair”. (Source: Jesse Stommel, blog post, Why I Don’t Grade, 2017)


Why are so many people interested in ungrading?

The process of grading is not fun, for instructors or students. In fact, the saying “I teach for free, they pay me to grade” describes the views of many educators toward grading. In our early work investigating ungrading at UBC through analysis of student work and surveys, we have seen students report an increase in mental wellbeing and an increase in learning in ungrading contexts.

Without the competitive pressure of grades, students’ stress and anxiety levels are lowered and they take more ownership over their learning process. Many educators bemoan the low levels of intrinsic motivation many students have for learning, and we believe learning environments where grades are the sole motivator are the cause. Reducing students’ hyperfocus on grades has a number of potentially beneficial outcomes, including a decrease in breaches of academic integrity and increased interest in the subject matter at hand. The global ungrading movement is the outcome of the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, the recognition that traditional approaches are contrary to evidence about student learning and psychology, and the belief that the system can change.


Where (and how) to learn more about ungrading

Often educators who have discovered ungrading arrive at it almost by accident. The starting ingredients are usually the same: dissatisfaction with the monotony of ranking their students semester after semester, disillusionment about students’ laser focus on grades and points (usually at the expense of risk-taking and student interest), and a desperate hope for a better way. It is important to note that ungrading is not as simple as just removing grades and it is also not a panacea or magic bullet that will solve all problems. Advocates of ungrading realize that there is intentional and critical work needed to dismantle traditional and standardised approaches to assessment in favour of more authentic assessments.

In this newsletter, we have collated a list of blog posts, articles, videos, and upcoming events to help guide your journey to ungrading. The resources have been compiled as a “choose your own adventure” approach, so feel free to sample from each category. Let us know if you discover other resources on ungrading that you think are worth sharing, and we’ll add them to our list!


If you’re sceptical and need a bit more convincing…🤨

Perhaps the most compelling scholarly work on the misuse of traditional grading for learning is provided by Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, in "Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)”. Schinske and Tanner begin with a historical account of grading in higher education, then discuss some “purposes” of grades, and eventually discuss strategies for change. Though this paper is not specifically about ungrading, it lays the groundwork for a non-traditional grading system.

After that somewhat gentle introduction, we recommend Alfie Kohn’s paper, "The Case Against Grades". This is a hard-hitting opinion piece that is well-sourced with plenty of thought-provoking ideas, culminating in this final sentence:

“If I’m right—more to the point, if all the research to which I’ve referred is taken seriously—then the absence of grades is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for promoting deep thinking and a desire to engage in it.” — Alfie Kohn


If you’re curious and want to see some practical examples of others implementing ungrading…🧐

In our experience, it’s often helpful to see a reflective piece from a trusted educator that has made the switch to ungrading in a real classroom. We’d like to highlight two examples of this, one in Mathematics, and the other in a Biology course at UBC.


If you’re ready to dive-in and explore the pedagogy in detail…🤩

Excellent! We recommend starting with a book called Ungrading by Susan Blum (published December 2020). Some of us opted to try the audiobook version, and it’s been a fantastic listen. Here’s a summary from the author:

The moment is right for critical reflection on what has been assumed to be a core part of schooling. In Ungrading, fifteen educators write about their diverse experiences going gradeless. Some contributors are new to the practice, and some have been engaging in it for decades. Some are in humanities and social sciences; some in STEM fields. Some are in higher education, but some are the K–12 pioneers who led the way. Based on rigorous and replicated research, this is the first book to show why and how faculty who wish to focus on learning, rather than sorting or judging, might proceed. It includes honest reflection on what makes ungrading challenging, and testimonials about what makes it transformative.”


Come talk to us!

There is a thriving Community of Practice around ungrading and other alternative grading practices on Slack, with over 80 local educators sharing ideas, getting feedback on course designs, and looking for inspiration and motivation from other like-minded folks. Contact Firas Moosvi (firas.moosvi@ubc.ca) if you’d like to be invited to this Slack group and to dip your toes into the wonderful world of ungrading.



Ungrading is an exciting topic with a lot of momentum. There’s no better time to get started learning more!


Upcoming and Recent Events


Implementing Alternative Grading Practices

June 1 | 9:00 am–10:30 am | 2022 CTLT Spring Institute (upcoming)

With Christina Hendricks, Surita Jhangiani, Firas Moosvi, Jaclyn Stewart

Watch for registration coming soon on the CTLT Institute website.


UBC Skylight talk

December 2021

“How to get students to stop thinking about grades, and focus on learning instead” (see slides [PDF])









Enjoyed reading about ungrading? Learn about other topics we covered in the March 2022 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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