What If We Just Stopped Grading?!

Content warning: this teaching tip provides general information on college students’ mental health and suicidality. Hyperlinks are included for those who want to explore these issues in greater detail. If you or your students are experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available. Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or another helpline in your area.

Somewhere around the middle of every semester (when I’m buried under ungraded assignments) I ponder why exactly we (faculty, collectively) are giving these assignments to begin with and whether we (faculty, collectively) are doing a good job conveying feedback about learning when we grade them. What’s the point of grading anyway?!

We’ve probably all had conversations with our faculty colleagues about the fact that students appear highly sensitive to any negative feedback, critique of their submitted work or any grade less than an A+ on an exam or paper. Data suggests that academic grades, and the pressure students feel to perform well, are directly connected to the mental health crisis facing higher education. In fact, a recent National College Health Assessment survey found that stress and anxiety are the two most noted factors negatively correlated with academic performance. This is especially concerning because students with depression or anxiety are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. CDC data indicates that suicide is among the leading causes of death for young adults and college students.

In light of these facts, it’s time to re-consider our approach to assessing learning. We should begin by understanding what we’re implicitly and explicitly conveying when we assign exams, papers, or projects and what we’re conveying when we grade those. Are we saying that their worth as humans and as emerging professionals is tied to their grade on any given assignment? Are we suggesting that anything less than mastery of a concept is cause for deep distress?

If we want students to understand that we care more about what they’re learning than the grade they receive in a course, we must start conceptualizing these elements differently.

Enter “ungrading”. Ungrading isn’t just one thing, it’s a set of strategies that emphasizes the learning process instead of encouraging fixation on a grade.

Here are a few examples of ungrading practices:

  • Have students develop an individual learning plan. This dynamic document provides students with the opportunity to assess not only their current knowledge about and interest in course topics but also how they can use their strengths and preferred ways of learning to leave the course with more knowledge, interest, skills, and abilities. This learning plan guides the work products that students create throughout the semester. This resource from the American Association for the Advancement of Science is an example of how this type of plan benefits students in STEM fields and can be easily adapted to support students in other fields of study.
  • Give students choices in how they demonstrate their learning. For example, instead of a term paper or exam, allow students to create infographics or podcasts. Students can also be tasked with creating their own evaluation structure and rubrics. Try it – the criteria they use might surprise you!
  • Incorporate various types of reflections into all submitted work. Self-evaluation is crucial to building critical thinking skills and the ability to connect knowledge to applied practice. David Kolb’s well respected experiential learning pedagogical approach posits that deep learning happens when an experience or activity is followed by meaning-making, linked to applying the learning in a real life context. This list of reflection questions from teachthought is a great place to start. Also keep in mind that reflection doesn’t always have to be written responses to questions. Encourage student choice here as well. Posters and Powtoon videos are creative options to consider.
  • Hold individual student conferences. At various points in the semester, schedule short conferences with students. Students can submit self-assessments of their learning (from their reflections and aligned to their individual learning plan) in advance to use as the focus of the conference or you can leave these more open ended, with prompts during the conference such as: “what have you learned so far?” and “how will you use what you’ve learned moving forward in or beyond the course?”

Even if your academic institution requires that you grade assignments or you’re not quite ready to throw grading out entirely, you can embrace the spirit of ungrading by centering student learning, not their grades. Consider making some assignments no-stakes, with a focus on the feedback, not the points. Incorporate self-reflection prompts into existing term papers. Offer choice whenever possible, even if it’s the choice between submitting a research paper and submitting a research poster.

For a deeper dive into ungrading, check out this 1 hour keynote address from the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Western University’s Spring Perspectives on Teaching Conference (May 9, 2022): "Ungrading and Alternative Assessment" by Dr. Jesse Stommel, Assistant Teaching Professor, University of Denver.

Happy teaching!



Lorien Carter, MSW
Professor of Practice (Social Work)
Faculty Instructional Coach
Faculty Fellow in Inclusive Pedagogies and Equitable Learning
Washington University in St. Louis