Watch a brief video about the Pedagogy in Practice on this topic.

Despite their prevalence, traditional grading methods are far from popular. Recent scholarship makes the compelling case that traditional grades are ineffective, unfair, and unethical (Blum, 2020; Eyler, 2018; Friend, 2021; Gannon, 2020; Kohn, 1993; Stommel et al., 2020). They introduce tensions between teachers and students, and they are all too often inequitably applied despite our best intentions. Fortunately, alternative grading approaches have been proposed and tested. This workshop covered three of those alternative approaches that can help teachers grade less: contract grading, learning records, and ungrading.

Contract Grading

Asao B. Inoue’s labor-based contract grading aims at an antiracist evaluation method. Students track their time spent on various assignments and class-participation. Grades are tied to the amount of assignments completed (determined by the instructor) and student labor. It’s important to note that such a system is not inherently antiracist, but that antiracism must be actively worked into the system by individual teachers.

Learning Records

Peg Syverson’s learning record system asks students to track their own work, and evaluate themselves three times: the first day of class, midterm, and final. The second and third of these evaluations include a grade estimate. Essentially, students argue for their own grade. The instructor provides ample feedback throughout the semester, including rubrics, but never puts a grade on any assignment. Students use that feedback and other course activity as evidence for their grade argument.


An umbrella term (and a Twitter hashtag: #ungrading) for all approaches to grading less, a more specific way of thinking about of ungrading is as an approach to assessment that prioritizes intrinsic motivation, meta-cognition, self-reflection, and the feedback loop. Without a sole representative design model, ungrading approaches can be flexibly implemented: from individual assignments to entire courses.

Instructors beginning an ungraded process might begin with one ungraded assignment in a course, where students create goals for their work, reflect on their learning processes, and provide a grade for that assignment as part of the final course grade. At the other end of the spectrum is the possibility of an entirely ungraded course, where students self-reflect and self-evaluate qualitatively throughout the semester; they then meet with the instructor at the end of the semester to discuss a final grade they select as representative of the sum total of their work.

Most importantly, this approach is entirely context-dependent; what works best in an English composition course might not address the needs of students in a Dance technique course or a STEM course. Goals and outcomes are often co-created with both teacher and learner or created solely by the learner, which brings assessment forward as part of an ongoing dialogue that helps learners see themselves in context, metacognitively.

The Effects of Ungrading

One major effect of an ungraded course model like the three above is that the student-teacher relationship is strengthened and can become more collaborative. When teachers cede some of their power to the student, the student is more likely to trust that the teacher does indeed have their best interest at heart. When students feel supported in learning rather than judged, they learn more, more effectively. Because some students see grades as a reflection of how teachers see them as people rather than how teachers see their work, eliminating grades allows for a less antagonistic, more humanistic working relationship to develop around a point of inquiry.

Another effect of an ungraded approach is students’ improved integration of feedback. Learning and grading are distinct processes that we often mistakenly conflate. As anyone who puts both qualitative feedback and a letter grade on a student assignment knows, students tend to look past all the feedback to see the letter. Regardless of the letter grade they receive, the feedback tends to hold less weight, if any; the work is overshadowed by the quantitative assessment of it. This becomes increasingly important in the Learning Record method where students have to cite instructor feedback as evidence when they argue for their grade. When grades are removed, the feedback becomes the important element, and the learning becomes central.

A third effect of an ungraded classroom is the community that develops. When students are not concerned with competing against their peers, either in the eyes of the teacher or in the evaluation of their work as compared to someone else’s, they can focus on the quality and direction of their learning. When students are not being sorted or ranked with grades, they are more likely to contribute freely in support of everyone’s learning.

Integrating any ungrading approach, whether for a semester or just for an assignment, allows teachers to see that their traditional grading methods are not the only way to organize a class. Even if teachers return to traditional grading later, exploring ungrading allows them to realize that grading is a pedagogic choice not a default. Done well, ungrading has the potential to eliminate some of the most harmful parts of teaching and learning while making the best parts even better.


Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning. West Virginia University Press.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 474–482.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation of interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58(1), 1–14.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. West Virginia University Press.

Friend, C. (Ed.). (2021). Hybrid teaching: Pedagogy, people, politics. Hybrid Pedagogy, Inc.

Gannon, K. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. West Virginia University Press.

Inoue, A. B.(2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Houghton Mifflin.

Stommel, J., Friend, C., & Morris, S. M. (Eds.). (2020). Critical digital pedagogy: A collection. Hybrid Pedagogy, Inc.

Syverson, M. (2014). What is the learning record? The Learning Record.

Jason Helms Jessica Zeller

This article was written by Jason Helms, Associate Professor of English, AddRan College of Liberal Arts and Jessica Zeller, Associate Professor of Dance, TCU School for Classical & Contemporary Dance for the Spring 2022 Issue of Insights.