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Ungrading in Special Topics in Mathematics

Image of SaraAuthor:

Sara Billey, she/her, Professor, Mathematics, University of Washington, Seattle campus





Project Question

The rigors of mathematics instruction can leave students feeling “wrong” instead of feeling curious. With the topic of Kevin Gannon’s talk “Sustaining Communities of Hope” in mind, we will discuss the merits/demerits of using a variation of ungrading in some math classes and how it gives students hope, strength and support to carry on learning to achieve their goals.


Math 480: Special Topics. In fall 2022, I taught a course aimed at senior undergrad math majors using a variation on ungrading. Students specified their own grading rubric and proposed their own final grade. My role was to give lectures to elucidate the material, choose problems for practice, comments on their work and certify final outcomes. My goal with ungrading was to make the class more supportive, encouraging, and constructive via the comment/revision cycle.


I implemented a variation on the theme of “ungrading” in this course. I gave only feedback on homework assignments and never any partial credit numbers. The syllabus required students to do their own assessments with my input.


The students were very positive about the experience. We did two in-person technical interviews where I asked their progress and engagement in the course and answered their questions in a one-on-one setting, plus we did a final interview on zoom. I filled out forms for each student as we talked and will bring these to the workshop. One said it make him feel safe. Many said they read the comments much more carefully. They all stayed engaged throughout the quarter. The Course Evaluations were high: 4.9 Combined Median (4.8 adjusted), instructor’s contribution (5.0). Seven members in the class have continued on with me doing a research project this winter and they will do presentations next Thursday March 9, 2023 in the WXML Finale.


Learning to incorporate some of the ideas of ungrading into our classes takes a bit of work. We struggle with the notion of fairness and the practical side of implementation given finite time constraints. It was very helpful to me to get started by reading the book “Ungrading” and to hear a lecture in our colloquium series. I hope this presentation can help others to try some ungrading and to hear what others have done.

Additional Resources


The blog Ungrading: An FAQ by Jessie Stommel is a good place to start if you are interested in reading more. The master resource is “UNgrading Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)” edited by Susan D. Blum With a foreword by Alfie Kohn. West Virginia University Press, 2020.

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