On [De]Grading

I have not jumped on the #ungrading hashtag but glance at it often and respect the efforts people share to move away from point system approaches and quiz/testing as measures of proxies of quasi-indicators of learning. The participation in the Ungrading Book Club and now EdCamp is impressive.

This post has bounced in my heads as a cranial draft (that word combination just reeks of wrongness) slipping down (if there is a list) as I question if I have really anything to add. Plus my teaching experience, compared to many others, is not quite overflowing on the shelves (that’s mine on the left in the image below).

Empty shelves at a grocery store
Empty shelves at a grocery store flickr photo by waitscm shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Then I have a running thought that I have nothing to say about Ungrading as I don’t think I have done much grading when I teach. Yes I have to issue grades but loathe making them so foregrounded. My meager amount of teaching is been in atypical courses (mostly media making) that lend to grades being based on creative outputs. And all of this has been as adjunct faculty where you do not really get any leverage to buck the tide on what an institution requires- so I always have had to report grades.

Mostly I try to create a setup where student work, participation is visible and self documented. Rather than assigning so many points for say comments on blog posts or discussion forum replies, there is a way for students to reflect and articulate their own perspective on how active they have been,

I think of my approach more as “De-emphasizing” grading. That gets dangerous, saying “de-grading” but if there is a way to move the experience of being in the class and being part of something as the focus, rather than The Grade.

But I hesitate to say for sure like a blanket that All Grading is Good or Bad. I watch the way my wife Cori grades both her high school and university students, and she does in such a beautiful and constructive way that I see never end up being punitive. And so I take the Ungrading movement as less a “Burn the Grades Down” and more of seeing how educators are reframing and redesigning their approaches to move grades themselves from the center.

While I boasted of never having taught where course grades were based on formal assessment techniques, assertions may be subject to inquiry:

when I dug into my early teaching below, I found I did issue a quiz or two.

But before tossing out my likely unimportant thoughts on grading, I felt it was better first to start with reflecting on my experiences with grades as a learner then a quick review of the courses I taught. And pretty much from the first classes I taught at community college in the 1990s I asked my students to produce projects that showed their skills/knowledge to create works, but also to write about their methods. And the grading was almost more wholistic than arithmetic tallying.

Me and Being Graded

My unfounded theory is that our perspectives on grading are somewhere resting on a pile of experiences being graded ourselves.

I loved school from my very first day at Bedford Elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland (home of the Bedford Bees, still). Something special happened to me in second grade in Mrs Foreman’s class the images and text below from a talk I did on teachers and school being memorable/unmemorable (or hear me tell the same story).

I sat in the second row, 3rd seat in, for Mrs Foreman’s 2nd grade class in Baltimore. I thought of myself as just another kid, not very special until the day she returned a math quiz. She said that only one student had earned a distinction- a check plus fantastic.
I did not imagine it was me, until that was on my paper she handed back. Now just a simple assessment, but that was the day I felt a magic sensation for wanting to doing well in school. I wanted more.

I got hooked on getting the good grades, and found with a almost photographic memory, fondness for writing and doing math, I found the test part of school rather easy. I did most of my high school exams without studying (I remember this group of kids whining about doing all night cramming when I got bby just with what I remembered in class). I even found the standardized tests more of a puzzle to figure out patterns than a stressor.

What I found was, by tests or writing paper being something I could do readily, I could focus more on pursuing things that made me curious. I did get a rude awakening my first semester at University, because the assignment and exam stakes were not as easy as primary and secondary school, but I still never found that performance part of doing tests and quizzes really problematic.

Grades were just something to take care of so I could do other things.

That sounds a bit glib or even egotistical, and I am sure I am forgetting some harder and more challenging graded items (calculus? Physics? GREs?). But I always felt I could learn the school rules which means finding the most direct path to a good grade.

Me and Teaching

Now to summarize my meagerly stocked teaching shelves. I am leaving out things that I do consider informal teaching (like the story of Writing HTML) for the specific times I was in a position of issuing grades.

ART184AA (Scottsdale Community College, Spring & Fall 1987, Spring 1988)

In my role as an instructional technologist at Maricopa, I sought opportunities to teach. I was encouraged to do so my Director (who also had me take an instructional design course or two at Arizona State University), but my gut told me the faculty I worked with would respect my ideas more if I had real teaching experience. I forgot to reply to this twitter poll by Maha Bali (blogged too)

I absolutely agree it is essential/desirable/beneficial for anyone working to support faculty to have course teaching experiences (not just tech workshops). I think that is why even earlier at Maricopa I took the opportunity to adjunct teach a night class at Scottsdale Community College, ART 184AA, a one credit introduction to animate course.

This opportunity came from the department chair Bill Martin, who I worked for on some other projects, who knew I had some skills in Macromedia Director, the software the class was taught around.

Being in my pre-blog era I cannot find or remember anything how I developed my course. I likely had someone else’s syllabus to start with. But I did find on an old hard drive some of my teaching materials. They seem to have the same tone as my much more recent courses. You can see this in my syllabus.

Right there on page 4 is my grading and attendance guidelines- see the side note “Basically, if you show up to class and work on your animations, you can easily earn a good grade. Your instructor is an easy grader!” and right there is the mention of a Mid-Term Exam. I apparently gave this as a take home exam, and it’s all stuff they could find easily in the course materials.

The class was built around a lot of in-class hands on practice learning techniques of animation (I have all of these in my hard drive, each had example files they could access as models). The bulk of the class was a process of working towards a final animated story, and built up over weeks with assignments like a proposal, and developing characters, and showcase sessions where they gave each other feedback. It’s an early version of how I built later media classes. Looking back I am impressed with my early teaching self.

I even had a CD-ROM showcase reel– to give a sense of the student work, I actually loaded up my Sheep Shaver Mac Classic OS 9 emulator where I could launch the Director App… here is a bit of a screen recording of some student animation. It’s crude for what we can do now, but for that era? I am happy with how it holds up.

What does this have to do with grading? Well I do have points based system. I had to give grades. But beyond that simple exam, it was all based on what students did in the class environment, which even then I had in mind of being more like a studio than a class.

I had forgotten so much of this early teaching, but I am certain that the entire practice of being responsible for a credit course (be it a once credit survey course), managing students, doing the admin paperwork taught me so much about being a teacher.

CIS 236 Web Based Teaching (Phoenix College, Spring 2004)

As often it happens here, My Blog, My Outboard Brain recalled more than the one between my ears. I had no easily accessible memory of this 2004 experience co-teaching an online course in a 2004 post titled Confessions of a Lousy Online Teacher. As the dust gets blown off the memories, this as an online professional development course offered at one of the Maricopa Community Colleges, Phoenix College (taught in WebCT of that slaps a timestamp on the vintage of this memory) that one of my colleagues Kurt Chambers invited me to co-teach with him.

Here is my “glowing” reflection of the experience:

The natives are restless and rumbling among the online web teaching course I am co-teaching this semester. One student’s self-evaluation referred to the “hostile” environment (a week’s worth of angry posts to the discussion board).


Ah I found a few more shreds in my blog by combing through the archives, https://cogdogblog.com/alan/archives/2004/04/08/copyright.htmlone post referring to a lesson on copyright, landing me on an Internet Archived copy of a Maricopa Learning eXchange Copyright and Fair Use: Doing the Right Thing.

That is about all I can remember. I may have led it more than once or maybe Kurt fired me. There must have been some kind of quiz/assessments given.

The DS106 Era (Spring, Summer Fall 2012, Spring, 2013: UMW @ Spring 2014 @ George Mason University)

It’s going to take some discipline not to blog too much about DS106 (and avoid the droll history), but like it has been for my technical growth, so much of my approach to teaching came from several experiences teaching it. I’m able to parse and link quite a bit from the History of DS106 page. So I have:

First of all, none of these classes had a textbook- the open web was our reference. You will not find any quizzes or final exams. All of the grading, even if there are points are percentages, were based on the work that students showed and reflected on in their blogs, including a mid semester group audio project (the radio show) and a final comprehensive project. The weekly “assignments” were things I blogged, and included things like doing some number of DS106 Daily Creates (small creative activities where responses were tweeted) and student selected responses to a number of medium sized tasks in the DS106 Assignment Bank. Students were also tasked with adding both new Daily Creates and DS106 Assignments to those collections.

You can find an example of the work for Week 6 on Design from my Spring 2013 course.

I guess I did give a quiz -it was more a gimmick to get feedback from my students, I heard from more than half, plus David Kernohan, that guy will follow any link.

A few notes that seem worthy:

  • That first class in Spring 2012 pushed me hard. I remember being in awed of the Jim Groom persona, having scene how he playfully teases fellow faculty in meetings and students in class. It quickly settled in that I was not going to emulate him, and I had to work hard to find my own style. I tried to have as little me in front of the room; I think it was Jim’s idea to include in each class a good portion of time doing something creative. There was something magical in the way we (and later with Martha Burtis) taught our own sections in parallel. We would collaborate on the weekly tasks and projects, but we taught them our own way. The interactions online often blurred students between sections (not to mention mixing with the open online participants).

    Jim had a method I did steal, at the end of the semester we had students book a 10-15 minute individual appointment where we asked them what grade they would give themselves, and then I would ask them to share their own highlights or proud moments. I always remembered Danny, a student who always sat in the back, hoodie up, face behind a laptop. During the semester I wrongly assumed he was not paying attention, but the way he articulated what he got from storytelling in hat interview blew my assumptions apart. Also, during the last 2 weeks he was actually filming me in class- I played the part of a “boring professor in his project. Hah!

    I also had 2 or 3 students who lingered after class, we walked home across campus, and I so appreciated the way they described in words their interests, their desire to create media, not just check off assignments.
  • The way things were set up, with students blogging, their blog posts syndicated together, having links that they can use to show their responses to assignments, their participating via twitter and the Daily create. I did not have to count and tally their numbers, instead they were asked to use those links to discuss their own level of participation.
  • And I have to credit Martha Burtis with something I used often after for end of semester summary, the request to “Pay it Forward” — students were asked to create and post in some media form (audio, video, graphics, their choice) a message of advice they would give to future students. By speaking to a future person, they always ended up saying more about themselves. I collected for these a few years in Storify (which went south) but you can find a good chunk of them still sitting there on the DS106 Advice to Students page
  • For one semester were there was no DS106, I combined all of the materials many of us did for the 2013 “Headless DS106” indicating that there was a class with no teacher. That too flowed into what still exists as the Open Course “timeless” version and I believe is still used at least in structure by Paul Bond, who has carried the teaching torch longer than anyone, in his DS106 teaching.
  • I spent a significant amount of time reading student blogs and giving constructive feedback, especially in the beginning, when they were new to it, and before they picked up that load. But reading all of their posts is what told me the most about their work.

Grades were given along the lines of percentages for the 2 major projects, then for weekly reflective blogging, and some measure of participation (twitter, creating new assignments, blog commenting).

Easily all of this ds106 experience was a foundation for much of my later work.

Networked Narratives (2017, 2018*, 2019, 2020, 2021: Kean University)

#NetNarr was a course I co-taught with Mia Zamora at Kean University, and in many ways was a direct descendent of DS106. Students blogged and we syndicated posts to the main site, we had something like Daily Creates, even a few times a Bank of stuff to do. I put a SPLOT to use as a form of collecting final projects written like they were journal articles. We offered many parts of it to open participants.

The set up was unusual in that Mia and the students were in a room in New Jersey, and I would be online during the week and show up in those old days using Google Hangouts on Air. Most years we co-taught the course, the 2018 asterisk is for because that year while Mia was on a Fullbright in Noway, we taught courses more in the parallel style. I actually taught class at Kean and never was in the classroom (that’s another story) I’m easy in danger year of over explaining the course…

The work that students blogged did was syndicated to a course site, grouped by year, and within categories and tags to see responses to different activities. Something seems to have gone awry from my FeedWordPress site, but I had a listing of all student blogs in my course as well as open participants, with links to their twitter stream, hypothesis annotation activity… for example here is the entry for one of our stellar open participants, Kevin Hodgson (thanks @dogtrax for being there every year):

NetNarr – Kevin's Meandering Mind (see all syndicated posts by dogtrax) • Twitter: @dogtrax (see in in TAGS Explorer) • Hypothes.is: dogtrax

This was what was available as well for all students (as an important note, the class start up process, built as a Choose Your Own Way experience, encouraged/allowed students to use pseudonyms for blog names, twitter names, and even to opt out of using social media), a listing where their activity in the class is visible. Pretend Kevin is a student in my class, I and he has a reference to:

This “data” is not just for me to use, it is for the student too, and I would much rather read how they describe their activity and contributions rather than tally up numbers in a spreadsheet.

We also made use of grade contracts as a chance for students at the outset to declare their goals for the course. At the end of the course, they had to report back and self assess if they achieved their goal. I developed a system for this using Gravity Forms for the students to submit their initial contract (and they get a copy by email). At the end of the semester, I was able to resend these notifications, and another form used for students to share their response. This worked quite well both as a means to do these, but a way for students to honor their commitments. Learn more how this was done

Grading the Grading

I’m not sure all of this amounts to much. I certainly cannot assert that my approach to grading is anything to be emulated. And it’s not to say grades are just evil bad. For myself as a learner, they always worked as an incentive, but the grade itself was not the ultimate goal, it was more like a carrot hanging out there. And until the whole system changes and we are all Freire schools, well, the machine requires grades.

I favor approaches where it’s not me grading students, like a thing I am doing to them, there is action and responsibility on both parts. Grades ought to be a process of give and take on both learner and teacher side, but anything that can be done, be it ungrading or de-grading, to move them out of the ultimate goals for a learning experience.

I am now at the end this long post and maybe giving myself a grade on it of ……

Featured Image: I am fairly sure this photo was a piece of old road equipment spotted at Goldfield Ghost Town in Apache Junction, Arizona, on a visit there with my friends John and Bobbi Ittelson.

This is How Your Work is Graded
This is How Your Work is Graded flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license