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Ungrading Empowers Students to Value Progress over Perfection


  • Tabitha Kirkland, she/her, Associate Teaching Professor, Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle campus




Project Description

Ungrading is a practice that minimizes or eliminates the use of points or grades in a course, focusing instead on feedback. Students set and work toward course-wide and personal learning goals. At the end of the course, the student and instructor collaborate to decide the final course grade based on the student’s progress toward their goals.

Project Question

I implemented ungrading in a senior writing seminar. Ungrading is based on the idea that the primary purpose of assessment is to help students learn. By removing points, all assessments became formative rather than summative. I wanted students to recognize that learning involves hard work and progress over time rather than getting things perfect the first time around. I wondered if this approach would help students become more curious, engaged, and accountable for their own learning, and if they would be better able to use the class to meet their own goals.


Psychology of Emotion (PSYCH 440) is a 35-student, upper division elective with writing credit for psychology majors that is taken mostly by seniors. In Spring 2022, I taught it in-person, with a mix of lecture and discussion. This course explores psychological research and theory on emotion, including biological, developmental, cognitive, social, and cultural perspectives. Assignments include writing practice, annotations, discussion questions, and papers.


On the first day of class, I told students that I was not going to grade their work and would instead be focusing on feedback. We collaborated to establish learning goals for the course, which gave students buy-in and ownership. Students also wrote their own personal learning goals. In week 3, students shared what was working and what they would want to change. In week 6, students reflected on their progress toward the goals and what they wanted to change. At the end of the quarter, students completed a final reflection about their progress related to the goals. Students reported the final grade they thought they had earned and explained why this grade best reflected their learning in the class.


The best measure of students’ learning is their own words. Comments from their final reflection show that students worked hard, learned a lot, took pride in their work, and were motivated to improve over the quarter:

  • I know that I developed my [skills] immensely and I worked extremely hard in the course. Even in areas I felt very proficient already, I found ways to stay engaged and grow.
  • I struggled a lot in the middle of the quarter, but I was able to get back on track. I think the quality of my [work] improved throughout the quarter. And I know I was a big part in the learning of my tablemates.
  • I did show substantial progress throughout the quarter. My ability to engage in [goals] all improved significantly, and I believe these abilities will benefit me for the path going forward, as well as give me some courage in the things I do.
  • I believe I earned [grade] in this class because I achieved all of the class goals as well as my personal ones. I worked very hard in this class and am proud of what I accomplished.
  • I am proud of my papers, especially my second one which was a great improvement from the first.
  • For me, it was more than improving communication skills. More importantly, I gained confidence to spread my own ideas, and that is life changing.
  • To be honest, the majority of classes I took won’t have a impact in my life going forward. But I think this class will always have a special spot in my heart, and will make a serious impact on my life going forward.


I hope you will consider trying ungrading in some or all of your class, even in just the smaller assignments. Grading used to be my least favorite part of our job: agonizing over how many points to take off for some error, ensuring consistency in judgment calls across everyone, giving written feedback and then seeing the same mistakes on the next assignment, and so on. Ungrading completely changed all of this. Students look at the feedback, become motivated to improve, and start thinking about their coursework in terms of the skills they are developing. Ungrading does take more work for the instructor in the sense of giving detailed feedback and meeting with students about their work. However, in my experience, this was work that brought true pleasure and meaning.

Changing the structure of my course to include ungrading was easier than I thought. The hardest part was convincing myself that I could do it. Creating buy-in on the first day was easy – students were excited to be a part of a class that would be so student-centered. I believe that a fully ungraded class works in a class at least as large as 40 students. I think aspects of ungrading could be implemented in larger classes. For example, I’ve included a greater degree of student input and flexibility in scoring in a class size of 400+.

Additional Insights

Are you concerned that everyone simply gave themselves a 4.0? I found this was not the case; most students held themselves to high standards and I generally agreed with their final grades. I also compared students’ self-determined final grades (M=3.67) with the same class taught in AU22 using traditional grading (M=3.54). These averages were not statistically different, t(36)=0.46, p>.05. Thus, this grading method did not seem to have the effect of artificially inflating scores.

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