An Ungrading Experiment at Grand Valley State University

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Dr. David Clark, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University, joins the podcast to discuss the findings from his recent ungrading experiment and why he believes this may be a better way for higher ed to teach.

That's a critical part of an ungraded class. Is a chance to act on the feedback to show that you've grown or you've learned. You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect Edu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education and we're here today with Dr David Clark, associate professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University. David, welcome to the show. I good to be here. Really excited to have you here and talk to you today about findings from your recent ungrading experiment. But before we dig into that, can you get the listeners a little background on both yourself and Grand Valley State? Sure so. I'm a mathematician. I taught at Grand Valley for about eight years and we are really a teaching focus institution, or a place that really supports innovative and interesting teaching as a something I love about being here. So Grand Valley is a large, regionally comprehensive university. We're in the western part of Lower Michigan, your grand rapids Michigan, if you're familiar with that, and it is a wonderful place to be. And he's saying this in February, folks, so you know that easy. They're honest, crazy, a little bit of both. But, as he said, grandbaly state is known for their innovative experimentations with pedagogy and that's what we're excited to dig in today. So, David, to dig US down this rabbit hole, can you give us a high level overview on the concept of ungrading to kick us off? Absolutely. So something to know about ungrading is it's not a monolithic thing. If you ask five different people, you're going to get five different explanations at five different levels. So I'm going to give you a sort of a...

...functional definition, meaning if you want to do on grading, what's the key thing you do? What did I do, which is the goal is to remove grades from assignments as much as possible and all of the incentives and weird little things that come with them and replace them instead with feedback and the opportunity for students to act on a feedback and grow based on it. So remove grades from assignments. Of course they're still going to be a final grade coming yet, but remove those incentives during the semester and give students all the chances they can to grow based on feedback. And that leads well into my exact next thought, which was this fear of that without grades, what is the feedback mechanism? Where is the feedback mechanism? How do students improve? So so talk about how you've replaced feedback in a assessment list. World Right. Well, we're not assessment list. So there's definitely assessments. The thing that's missing is the grade. So if you're in one of my classes, what doesn't happen is, you know, you write out of proof. Right on, mathematician, we write proofs, a lot of arguments. You never get a seven out of ten or a be or, you know, eighty percent. Those are the grades, but the feedback is a totally separate thing and that's the really that's sort of the important insight for ungrading is that written feedback, verbal things, those are much more effective at communicating to students where they doing well? What do they need to work on? How do they improve? A seven out of ten doesn't tell you any of that, right. It tells you, of well, there's something to work on, but I don't know what it is. It's the written feedback that matters. So one thing that comes up a lot when we talk about ungrading, especially in maths, is this idea of if there's no grade, I mean, are we just pretending there's no right or wrong? And it can't be any farther from the truth on that, because in that feedback that's where students are learning. You know, this is something that was wrong, this was an important logical flaw, this is something you got to work on, but this is a little thing you got to work on, or this is something about your communication style. The main thing we're doing, though, is we're just removing all...

...of the numbers, the letter grades, all that kind of stuff and focusing only on the useful, actionable feedback. It's interesting, as you were as you were clarifying that, I was thinking about in my own life. I haven't had a boss give me a grade in twenty years, and yet I get constant helpful feedback from them. This is this is totally how the real world works, right, and I mean this is what a performance review is like, right, like here's what you're doing well and here's what you're not, and here's that you need to do right, show me you do it, and that's sort of the other critical part of removing grades is when you get a grade, that can be sort of a final judgment. There's nothing to do. I got the seven out of ten. Too Bad. When you get feedback, you need a chance to act on it right and do something and show how you improve. So that's a critical part of an ungraded class is a chance to act on the feedback to show that you've grown or you've learned or you've figured out how to do this thing, and then that counts. Right you get to that point by the endd of the semester. That's what matters, and academics, I think, are going to recognize this a lot too. I mean, this is pretty much exactly the same as writing and submitting a paper to a journal. You don't get back at ninety percent. You get back needs revisions, right, or you get back rejection or you get back in acceptance right. So you get back feedback. That helps you understand what you need to do and a chance to make it happen. I love this. So, David, maybe transition now into your first semester with this. How did this pilot experiment turn out? You have me philosophically excited and convinced that this is interesting. What it looked like played out in your classroom? Right. So the class that I did this in was sort of a junior senior level geometry class for future teachers, and one thing I want to say is this is Grand Valley. Is Sort of the magical place and by the time I'm teaching these students, they've been through a lot of our education program their used to you know, the very first day I class, if I say all right, everybody, you know, find three more people, go to the board and do this thing right, that's the...

...first thing I say walking into the room. They will do it right. So these were students who are very ready to collaborate, to try new things, to, you know, to give me the benefit of the doubt as a teacher. So that helps a lot. But what I can say is it was very successful at doing what I wanted of removing these weird incentives that grade to give you and giving students room to sort of grow and focus on that, grow and focus on learning stuff without the sphere of getting this final judgment that a grade provides. And actually this is I think it's a good point to mention. I'm not just making the stuff up. We actually have known for decades of educational research that once you put a grade on a paper, even if it also has feedback, that that tends to sort of steel things off or it's a final closure, and that students who get only feedback tend to be more intrinsically motivated and interested in learning and developing and improving. And as soon as there's a grade, even if it has feedback as well, that sealed it off and they do worse in future assessments. They show less motivation of the grades. Do that right? Those are the incentives. So, at any rate, that's what I wanted. That's that is very much what happened. So, you know, we do final teaching evaluations rights student surveys, and they say, my student said things like this. Made it easier to focus on learning instead of trying to get a good grade on the assignment or you know, it allowed me to work on learning the content instead of earning the great and that is what I's I observed during the class to so this is a class where I ask students to really stretch intellectually, but also to do things that they can be absolutely scared of. Usually, at some try to come up with an argument right, a proof of something and presented in front of their peers. So they get up front, they say, okay, this is the thing, this is why it's true. Excuse me, this is why it's true, this is how I know it, and then they sort of face strike the questions from their peers and from me that this is a difficult thing to do, but as future teachers that's...

...something they're going to have to do as well. I don't want them thinking about a grade when they're doing that. And what seemed to be able to happen if they could actually get up there? They knew they might mess it up, they knew they might be wrong, but they weren't going to be judged. That wasn't the final judgment. Right there, and the students really said that right. They said I felt like I could focus on learning these things and not worrying about that great judgment happening. So that's that. I think is very much the positive thing, right. It gave students this freedom during the semester. It wasn't perfect by any means. So one thing is, even in an ungraded class you still have final grades, right. I am at an institution, I have to give a final letter grade and students know that and I know that, and so toward the end of the semester it just became bigger in everyone's mind and so students were thinking more right about. Well, I'm about to have to get a final grade. Am I where I want to be? What do I have to do? Where do I have to go to get to that? Man, they sort of started reverting a little bit to more traditional grade behaviors in that way, but I had some things built into work on that. One thing that happens a lot in ungraded classes is conferences with students, one on one discussion or maybe are written back and forth, where students tell you where they're apps compared to some criteria, and then I might go back and say, well, you know, I think you're actually missing out in this part, or you know your maybe need to work on this other thing. Actionable feedback, right, sort of the job review feedback and by doing that that help the students understand what they needed to do at the end of the semester. So even though they got more great focused at that point, they still sort of had clear, actionable things that they could do that didn't require actual grades to motivate them. Love that overview. So the fact that we are they're not relying on you constantly for quantitative feedback, but you're flipping the roles a little bit and the...

...student is asked to self evaluate and be conscious and thoughtful about how they think of their own performance. Maybe help us think of the difference, if there is one, between ungrading versus student self grading? MMM, yeah, okay, so there is important difference here and different ungraders will do this differently. So for me, right I'm giving students feedback on the work that they've done, and so they at least on the level of individual assignments, they're not saying well, I suppose whenever a student hands in an assignment they're implicitly saying I think this is right, right, but they're they're not making that just as themselves. My feedback is where I'm saying yeah, this is right or no, this is an important thing you need to work on or something like that. So in that sense they're not self grading, not on the level of individual assignments, in terms of final grades. This is where things can really be different between different UNGRADERS. I provided students in the syllables a list of criteria right, basically a narrative description. Here's the things you need to do to earn an a, here's a similar, but usually smaller, list of things you need to do to earn a beat, and so on. And what students did is they took their work right, and this is where they're making a judgment and saying, okay, I have met these criteria for an a, say, and their final assignment was to assemble a portfolio that contains that work and right out reflective essay, essentially explaining why they believe that this work meets the criteria for an a or a B or whichever. Now, on the other hand, my final job was exactly what it would be in any other semester, which is to take that work, to look at my criteria and say did their work meet the criteria? But as future teachers, I think it was good for them to practice that skill of looking at a collection of work, evaluating it against some clear standards, even if it's their own work as opposed to another students, and saying what's level does this rise to? So in the end they're not choosing their own grade, they're...

...arguing for what their own grade should be, but there's still clear criteria that they can meet and throughout the semester we spent a lot of time talking about how to interpret those criteria to make sure that we were all on same page right so we all understood what they meant. I'm struck by a parallel with Moox and I think one of the the seeming road blocks to Mooch success and scaling has been this realization of if you build it and you don't offer a credential for it, only the very, very very self motivated will come. And I guess the parallel here to me is do you anticipate your success and your students enjoyment of this approach this last semester being because it was a higher level course that you were experimenting with students who were much more selfmotivated toward this curriculum? Do you assume that there is some corallary here? I think that made it easier on me. It made it much simpler for me to implement it. But I don't think that that's a road block. I alread should say I don't think that that killer. Right. So I come from a world with a lot of different sorts of alternative assessment methods. You know, ungrading is just one of them, and in all of these students are used to the incentives of points and partial credit, whether they're good or bad, and so all of these require a lot of encouragement and helping students understand what do they need to do, why is this different? Why is this in your best interests? And that's going to be true for any students. But you need do more of that if it was, you know, a introductory level class or something that students are required to take but are maybe less motivated by. So it's going to involve more encouragement, more structure, more scaffolding to help them understand the benefits. But it's totally doable. I just benefited from having a lot of that already done for me. Right, it was easier for me thinking about some of the potential road blocks here in terms of...

...moving to this more institution wide and thinking about GPA's that are currently requirements or admissions considerations for Grad School. I'm thinking about credentialing and the fact that we need to prove learning outcomes to confer a degree or credential to our students. Do you believe that ungrading could work university wide, and would that be moving to a simple pass fail system for the majority of our courses? Yes, so absolutely it could work university wide well, and here's the thing. It does already in the sense of there's actually many institutions out there that don't do even final grades, right so you, I mean certain you've heard of some of them, like Brown Evergreen. I mean even this little place called Mit doesn't do grades for its first year students, right they doesn't even record failed. It's a pass or no record and you have to try again. It's like this is actually been tru ride and done and all of these problems have been worked out by pretty wellknown places. So I don't think that's actually a problem. We don't we have to be willing to do it. I'm not saying it's easy, but this is actually something that has been done. It is implemented in a lot of places already. Of course, that's final grades. How do you change what you do during a class if you are changing everything to credit, no credit for final grades, and you're giving completely traditional in class assessments and somehow just turning them into, you know, above a see or below a see? You're not seeing a benefit from it there. It's not going to be a big change. So the changes within the classroom are where things need to happen. But the credentials, the GPA, Grad school admissions, that's all been done before and so that's that's the wonderful thing here, David, amazing thoughts. Finally, leave us with some next steps advice for institutions listening to this maybe started out very skeptical, perhaps like I was, at the end of going like boys on a something here they're considering their own tiptoes into this world, or having a few faculty members launched their...

...own ungrading experiments like you did. What are some good next steps? Right? So I think getting a few faculty members started, perhaps through a teaching and learning center or something like that. You want a kernel of people who give this a try and who demonstrate the feasibility, and I think the best thing that a group of people like that could do there is a book that has inspired a lot of us. It's called ungrading by Susan d bloom. Go get that and read it, and the best part about it is it's got a bunch of a whole bunch of separates. Chap or's written by different instructors, different institutions, different discipline, case studies, philosophical things. This sort of covers the whole range. So get that, get some people together, give them the support, have them supporting each other, and that's going to give you a kernel with people to start us and to see how to do that at scale. Needs to start with that little colonel first. So I think go get the book, do it through a faculty learning community or something like that. Get colleagues who are supportive of each other, give them some space and some time and that's going to start. Is going to start getting people excited. Right, once people have seen what they can do is it starts to get other people excited. Then I will say one other thing too, which is ungrading is it's a ultimately a big change. Right, philosophically it's a big change. There's lots of things you can do that are within that philosophy but are small and easy to do within an existing class. So one of the key ideas right is that students need to get feedback of so focus more on feedback. Students need to be able to act on feedback, so give them opportunities to show that they've learned something without penalty so that if they struggle early on, that's not averaged in if they managed to succeed. Things like that can make a huge difference and it doesn't require blowing up your structure. It's doable in an existing course. David, thank you so much for your time today. What's the best place for listeners to reach out if they have any follow up questions? So I think the best thing to do is Google me, find David Clark at Grand Valley and if you do that you'll find my website site, you'll find my twitter handle. You'll be...

...able to get ahold of me that way and I would love to talk with anybody who's got questions. Awesome, David, thanks so much for joining us today. Thank you a good talking with you. Attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies, helix educations, data driven enterprise wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges. Downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Playbook. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

In-Stream Audio Search

NEW

Search across all episodes within this podcast

Episodes (264)