Exploring Innovative Pedagogies
Our understanding of how learning works is changing all of the time.
This section of our site is where we highlight more cutting edge approaches to our work in the classroom. The research behind these practices is growing, but sound. That said, these discussions may not be for everyone.
It’s important to know who you are in the classroom and/or who you want to be, and make deliberate choices about how you’ll approach that. And then, of course, it’s important to experiment and keep things fresh and engaging—both for our students, and for ourselves.
What ungrading is not: a lowering of standards. A way of getting out of doing hard work. An absolutist approach to our classes (and the academy more broadly) that eliminates grades entirely.
What ungrading is: an effort to reduce the distracting impact that grades can have on students. A means of leveraging greater student reflection upon and agency toward their own learning. Sometimes also referred to as Collaborative Grading. An approach that faculty can incorporate in their classes at varying levels. A well-researched and theorized approach to instruction. An evolving approach.
Resources related to ungrading:
- It’s probably not a bad idea to begin with this introductory essay by Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades.” It lays out in great detail the ways in which traditional grading forms can actually diminish student learning.
- Mathematician Robert Talbert has started an entire blog called Grading For Growth dedicated to alternative methods for grading. If you’re new to the ungrading conversation, you might find his first post—“Entering the Feedback Loop: Robert’s Origin Story”—useful.
- Clarissa Sorenson-Unruh is one of the few STEM folks working with ungrading in her chemistry courses. She’s dedicated an entire section of her blog, Reflective Teaching Evolution, to exploring the topic. Note as well several podcasts and recorded talks where she discusses the use of ungrading in her courses.
- Jesse Stommel is another leading thinker in the practice of ungrading. Check out this webinar from Plymouth State University on ungrading featuring him—as well as Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh and a panel of students. Note, as well, that the slide deck from the talk is available on this site.
- If Kohn’s article (above) wasn’t enough for you, this piece by biologists Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner provides more detail about how the practice of grading evolved—and the ways in which it can often be detrimental to learning.
Variations: Specification Grading and Contract Grading
There are varying approaches to ungrading. These materials clarify a few of them.
- An overview of specification grading by Linda B. Nilson of Clemson University.
- This resource from the University of Virginia discusses how specification grading may be a means of supporting greater equity. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page where you will find very detailed information about how to implement ungrading in your courses.
- This article on contract grading by Peter Elbow and Jane Danielewicz goes into great detail on the concepts behind contract grading and the varying ways it can be implemented in our courses.
- If you’re interested in a good example of a course implementing contract grading, you can explore Dr. Christina Radar’s (Colorado College) syllabus for her course on decision making.
Mastery-based testing (MBT) is an assessment scheme that challenges students to provide complete answers to questions derived from clear course concepts.
While there are various implementations of MBT, in each case students are allowed multiple attempts to demonstrate mastery throughout the course, which helps create a classroom environment where students value persistence toward thorough understanding.
Course content is divided into 14-20 topics. In class instruction/discussion/group work is done as usual. Periodically, mastery of topics so far covered is assessed via one or two questions per topic. Answers are graded as either “mastered” or “not mastered” (no points are used, there is no partial credit). Once a student masters a topic they need never attempt it again on future tests. If a topic is not mastered on a given attempt, it may be attempted again (with a different question) at the next mastery opportunity, no limit on attempts. There is no penalty whatsoever for multiple attempts being needed to master a topic.
Mastery-Based Testing has Benefits for both Students and Instructor:
- Clear content objectives
- Reduced test anxiety with multiple lower-stakes opportunities
- Intelligent studying, test preparation, and use of feedback/office hours
- Learning Tenacity/Perseverance
- Removal of artificial deadlines for understanding content
- Student-oriented pacing
- De-centering numeric grades, focus on understanding content and learning how to learn
- A clear path to improvement of grade, understanding of which topics need focus
- A clear measure of which topics in the course students do or do not understand
(Text courtesy of Paul Gregory.)
- There’s not a ton of material on this blog dedicated to mastery-based approaches to teaching undergraduate mathematics, but what’s there is thoughtful and relatively easy to translate to other fields. Topics covered include basic nuts and bolts, teaching core concepts, specifications grading, and what to do when you fall behind. Be sure to scroll down past the “recent posts” to get the full content.
- An interesting study comparing mastery-based with traditional testing in a Calc II course.
- This piece on alternative grading practices does a nice job both of contextualizing a mastery-based approach and of providing an overview of resources and studies on the practice.
- This powerpoint from an AAC&U STEM conference does a nice job of walking us through some of the basic steps of building a mastery-based approach. As is the case elsewhere, the material will have to be translated for non-STEM/non-mathematics courses.