Ungrading can work in STEM: A conversation with Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh

Grades can cause anxiety for students and stress for instructors. All too often, it can feel like concerns about grades actually get in the way of authentic learning. I interviewed Central New Mexico Community College Chemistry instructor Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh about how she brings students into the conversation about assessment – a technique called “ungrading.” Watch the video of our conversation, or take a look at the highlights below. To learn more about Clarissa’s teaching approach check out her website or this new book in which she has a chapter!

If you’d like to discuss how you could implement an “ungrading” approach in your own course, feel free to make an appointment with an instructional designer!

The interview highlights below are adapted from our recorded conversation.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes 15 seconds

Can you introduce yourself a little bit? Where do you teach and how did you become a teacher?

I have a master’s in organic chemistry and a master’s in statistics, and I’m currently getting a PhD in learning sciences. So I’m also a graduate student. I have been teaching at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) since 2002. I’m starting my 19th year and I teach five classes a semester, three semesters a year. In terms of how I became a teacher, that’s really interesting. Such a fascinating question! Because it was actually by accident. I really had no plans at all to become a teacher. I got out of graduate school and was applying for jobs at Intel. I didn’t get a job at Intel like I thought, I got a different job. That didn’t work out. I was on unemployment and I was applying to 2 jobs a week that I was qualified for. And CNM happened to be one of them. That’s how I fell into teaching. And in fact, I went back to graduate school in order to get the masters in statistics and the PhD in learning sciences. Because I did not feel like I was able to teach, assess, and evaluate the way I wanted to. It’s not that it hasn’t turned into a total passion, of course it has, but how I fell into it was rather odd.

I know that you’ve been implementing “ungrading” in STEM courses. What is ungrading, and how did you come to implement this in your courses?

Ungrading is a batch of techniques that one uses to include students in the conversation about their own evaluation. Ungrading came from the idea that if you put some student feedback on the same paper that you put a grade on, students are only going to look at the grade, not the feedback. But for me, it is really about including students in the conversation. The first time I did it as a STEM instructor, I didn’t feel like I could really get away from the grades. And so I ended up implementing exams in which students did a self-assessment on the exam before I did the grading. Students got a chance to say how many points they thought they got on each question and then justify. The second time I did ungrading I just let students assess themselves, but I noticed that women and people of color tend to grade themselves lower than I would, which required some adjustment. In general I’ve seen that the folks who do ungrading with me over multiple classes get better at it. I can trust that people who are taking my class right now who say “I got an A- on this exam”, if I actually graded their work I would give almost exactly the same grade. So I’m trying to go towards more self-assessment. Right now I ask them to do a self-assessment, reflecting on their growth after the exam, and I give an accuracy score. We try to maximize those two. Sometimes a student will grade themselves higher than I would, and that requires a conversation. I ask them to explain what they are thinking and go over some of the questions they got wrong. And you can almost always tell immediately that they probably do deserve that score. They just couldn’t put it on paper the way they should have.

Can you walk us through the specifics of how assessment works in your class? How does a student’s final grade in the course get determined?

The components of the class include online homework because that’s something the whole chemistry department does. It is graded automatically, and I’m not sure I’m totally for that, but it is awfully convenient. And then students write reflective learning journals that they do as blogs or on the Slack channel. We have a Slack channel going throughout the semester where students can post funny things or take snapshots of their homework problems and help each other. They have to do five or six learning journals during the semester. They are about 400 words long and open-prompt. It is a chance for them to consider where they are in their learning journey, what has worked well, and what resources they are using. Those are binary graded, meaning they either get a “complete” or “incomplete.” Then there are exams which are take-home and collaborative. I tell them they can use any resource they can possibly find except for kind of collectively known cheating sites like Chegg and Course Hero. My favorite kinds of questions are multi-part questions that build on one another. I want them to understand that this is not just about learning the course material, it’s also about learning something about yourself. For the final exam, they get a choice. They can do an essay in which they connect their learning in chemistry to their experience dealing with COVID, in terms of what went well, and how COVID impacted the semester. They can also do a project, or they can do a take-home final.

What do you think have been the successes and challenges of using this approach?

Here’s the biggest problem with ungrading: Once you do it and you implement it, it’s very hard to return to how you were. It’s a road that once you start taking, it’s really hard to do anything else. Having said that, it takes more work most of the time to implement well, because you’re trying to give feedback. You can’t just arbitrarily put down numbers and be like “minus three” and call it good. I would say that moment of giving really good helpful feedback that they interpret correctly is really the hardest piece of ungrading, and it is a skill you need to build. That’s difficult, but it is absolutely worth the time.

Can you tell me more about how you use your time as an instructor? What are the most time-consuming things that you do?

Probably communication. Trying to build community among students. Trying to be very active in communication and trying to get back to people very quickly so that they know that they have been heard. My time is not spent as much in content creation. What I am trying to do is to form the groups and the relationships between the students. I just think that if you’re going to learn this stuff, the high likelihood is you’re going to learn it better from your peers than you’re going to learn it from me as the instructor. There is no way that I can actually start at point A the same way that students who are learning it for the first time can. Also, when I first did ungrading, I gave feedback on every single paper. Oh my gosh, it took so much time! The second or third time I instead did whole-class feedback sheets that are useful to everyone. I like to spend more of my time talking to the students to try to build relationships. Students are all unique and the same things don’t work from semester to semester. I’ve even tried the same thing twice in the same semester with the same set of students and it didn’t work the second time. So you know, it’s very contextual. And I think that’s what we really lose in STEM. We think of students as a generalizable crew.

It sounds like you really focus on the students’ learning rather than worrying about what you as the instructor are going to teach from day to day.

A long time ago, probably 10 years ago or 11 years ago, I decided that teaching the content wasn’t enough. Why do I assign learning blogs? Because I really believe in developing an information and digital literacy in my students. Why do I assign so many problem-based activities? Because if we can do problem-based activities that help students understand the fundamentals of the problem, but also recognize that there’s some ambiguity, then we can start talking about wicked problems! How do we solve global warming and such?

Some instructors might think an ungrading approach in STEM courses is not as rigorous as a traditional grading approach. How would you respond to that?

When you actually look at what I’m asking my students to do, it’s almost always more than what most other instructors ask them to do. So I’m adding stuff, I’m not really deleting stuff. Most people actually think that makes a course more rigorous. But for me personally, I think rigor is a made up word that we use to try to make our courses “hard.”

You’re a community college instructor. Do you have a sense of how your classes prepare students for four-year colleges or careers or whatever else they transition to?

I’ve had more feedback from organic chemistry than almost anything else. I tell them at the beginning, I’m preparing you for the MCAT. I’m preparing you for the times when you get a question that you’ve never seen before. Many students have said that everything was so much easier at the four-year institutions than they expected it to be because of the preparation they got. I’ve also had people come back and say, “I still use the lessons I learned about myself in this class.”

Thank you so much for being willing to talk to me and share your experiences with ungrading.

There are more detailed arguments you could have about why STEM can do ungrading and why STEM should do it. But I think the whole point is to help folks learn about their learning journey.

Reading time estimation from https://niram.org/read/

Sarah Silverman is an Instructional Designer in the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. You can read more about Sarah on her author page.