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In this episode, we are talking all about how to get buy in from various stakeholders for ungrading. We will talk about teachers, administration, parents, and students, and how we can make this work.

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Show Notes

This week, we thought we would talk a bit about how to get buy in as we plan for ungrading for the new school year.

It’s a challenging question because here in Ontario there are grading requirements and categories that we have to use, so it makes us feel a little boxed in in terms of what we are able to do or change. It also makes teachers hesitant to change grading practices, and it also makes parents hesitant when they hear about ungrading.

For these reasons, we though it would be a great idea to share some ideas and strategies on things to consider and how to get started with these challenging conversations.

Start Ungrading with a Conversation

bitmoji of Katie and Rachel; Text: "How's Your Day?"

The process of ungrading begins with conversations with admin, teachers, etc. We need to talk about current grading practices, and how/why they aren’t working, and how we can move forward.

We often have conversations with our colleagues about student progress, and how they aren’t reading and using the feedback that we provide on assignments. Teachers take a lot of time to mark and provide corrections and feedback on how students can improve, but when it’s provided on a task that has been assigned a grade, students don’t see the value of that feedback.

These conversations occur often in workrooms – so perhaps it’s time to talk about how this system doesn’t work to improve student outcomes, and why it isn’t effective. Why are we marking something before providing this personalized feedback to students? How can we make this feedback more meaningful and purposeful, and make students motivated to use it and improve their skills?

So start to leverage these conversations as an opportunity to open the dialog about ungrading, and how we can make small changes to fix what isn’t working with our grading practices! Teacher/colleague conversations are where changes begin.

Think small, and build from there! Ungrading doesn’t mean turning everything into no marks, and it doesn’t mean abandoning all grading practices. There are so many different aspects to ungrading, and it’s important that you figure out what works best for you, your students and your curriculum area; and it doesn’t need to be a complete overhaul.

It could look like mastery-based grading, standards-based grading, or looking at competencies. It could also be the other end of the spectrum where it’s all based on providing feedback, conversations with students, and collaborating with students to determine a grade. These are all different forms of ungrading, and it is such a huge spectrum.

It comes down to having these conversations, determining what method could improve student outcomes and skill development, and slowly implementing changes.

There is a lot of wiggle room in education to support some of these changes. If you are in a leadership role in your school or district, it’s worth having a conversation, or scheduling in time during department meetings to talk about assessment and evaluation, and how we can improve our practices. It could be as simple as talking about the 100 point scale, how it is skewed towards failure, and how big of an impact a zero can have on a student’s grade.

How do we set students up for success?

Once the conversations have started, it is important to keep the momentum going. This should include printing out students’ grades, and looking at how each of the assignments, tests, etc. have impacted their overall grade. Examine the data, and ask if we are setting our students up for success.

We should also take time to examine the rubrics that we are using to grade student work; what are they telling students? Are they clearly laying out all of the criteria that students need to include to be successful? Are they full of “eduspeak” and curriculum terminology that can be difficult to understand?

Here in Ontario we typically use Levels 1 – 4 on rubrics, where each level corresponds to a mark band based on the 100 point scale. These rubrics often use language such as “limited,” “some,” “efficient,” etc. along with some very general language. Students don’t really understand this type of language, or what it’s referring to – this could be an area that you focus on as you shift towards ungrading!

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel each giving each other a thumbs up, with a big green check mark between them

Instead of a 4 point scale, it may be worth using a single point scale that tells students in simple and clear language what is needed to be successful. It could be a checklist of criteria, or it could be “I can” or “You can” statements. Along with this single point rubric would be enough space for notes/feedback so that students know what they did well, and what they need to do to fulfill criteria that they did not yet demonstrate.

If you still like the more traditional looking rubric, you could consider using a 3-point (or 4 point) rubric that is based on mastery versus the traditional levels used in Ontario. Each point will have a description of what the skill looks like or sounds like, and students can see the difference between the different levels of mastery, and what they need to do next to further improve.

The number of levels you have on a rubric don’t really matter – what matters most is how we describe success to our students. They need to clearly see and understand what the teacher’s expectations are, and how they can further improve their skills.

Whatever you choose, make sure you are having conversations with your course teams so that everyone is on the same page. It’s important that everyone understands the rubric or success criteria being used, and is comfortable with implementing it with their students. We all teach and mark differently, so we need to work together to share our ideas with one another, and find a system, or systems, that allow students to be successful. Team dynamics are important!

Thinking about how we assign grades

As we have mentioned previously, the 100 point system that is typically used in education is skewed towards failure. A zero can have a significant impact on a student’s mark and their motivation to learn in a course.

We have mentioned mastery-based rubrics, as well as other methods of assessing and providing meaningful feedback to students, but at the end of the day there still needs to be a grade assigned. So how do we approach this from an ungrading perspective vs a traditional grading system?

Rachel recently came across a resource while reading “Rethinking Letter Grades” by Caren Cameron and Kathleen Gregory. It’s a pretty short read, if you’re interested! At the back of the book, there are conversation cards with various prompts to get you talking about grading/ungrading. For examples, one of the prompts asks: What is an A? This will largely depend on your school/district and where you are located! Here in Ontario it is anywhere between 80-100; in BC it’s 86-100; in Maine it’s a 90-100. What what IS an A?

These conversation cards do a great job of getting you thinking about grading and our approaches to grading. Have the conversations! Get people talking and really thinking about our grading practices!

It may even open up an opportunity to sit down and mark as a team. It’s important to know how our colleagues determine success, and what an “A” looks like in their class versus in your class. This will help course teams to better understand grade mindsets, and to find some common ground.

Grading is very personal. Joe Feldman discusses this very issue in his book “Grading for Equity” where he explains that grading is one of the very few places in education where teachers have some autonomy. Many other aspects lack this autonomy and control, which makes educators a bit more defensive when approaching these conversations. Nobody wants to feel like they need to justify the way that they mark, and many educators consider marking as a conversation between the individual students and the educator, and it’s an ongoing conversation that builds and helps them to further develop their skills throughout the semester. As such, it can be difficult to open this conversation up to someone that isn’t even in your classroom!

Having this understanding as we approach our colleagues and have these conversations about changing the way we grade is really important. We need to remember that it isn’t easy for educators to open up and make themselves vulnerable to this process; take the lead on this – let your colleagues know how uncomfortable you feel to share your assessment processes and practices, but that you want to improve. By sharing our discomfort, it lets our colleagues know that they aren’t alone in how they feel, and that you are also human.

It doesn’t have to be perfect! We need to remember that none of us are perfect. There is no perfect grading system, and we just need to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and how we can do better.

Open your classroom space

In terms of getting buy in from colleagues and/or admin, consider opening up your classroom and letting them see some of these ungrading practices in action! Sometimes seeing it in action allows others to better understand how it all works, and to ask questions about whether it could work for them, and if so, how they can use these practices, or something similar, in their own classrooms.

Don’t be offended if others aren’t ready, though! Everyone is at a very different place in terms of their personal and professional lives, and their ability to make substantial changes to their grading practices. Your journey is going to look different from others’, and that’s okay! Give people the time and space to determine their own next steps, and what will work for them.

The option to observe allows others to share in your ungrading journey, exposes others to new practices, and also could provide opportunities for you to further improve your teaching practice.

Administrators may also want to see some of these ungrading practices in action. It will help them to better understand what you are doing and how it affects students and their success. This in turn will allow them to be in a better position to advocate and support you should concerned parents come forward questioning any of these new practices.

On that note: Please make sure your admin are aware of the fact that you are implementing ungrading practices. In order for them to best support you as an educator, they need to know what you are doing! They can also provide you with advice and suggestions on how to improve, how parents may react, and how you can effectively communicate with parents and students about these ungrading practices.

Start these conversations early, have them frequently, and keep admin in the loop! It’s also important that your ideas/plans to implement ungrading practices are crystal clear. You need to be able to answer questions, and you want to be confident in your answers. And if you’re thinking about implementing something a little more untraditional, don’t be afraid to discuss it and ask for permission to try something different!

Don’t surprise parents!

Parents are great allies to have, so don’t exclude them from the process! Make sure that you clearly explain to parents how you will be assessing, and how grading practices will change in your classroom so that they know what to expect, the reasons behind it, and how they can support their students. Consider this as a sales pitch for ungrading; tell them the reasons behind it, what will change, how it will affect their students, etc.

This transparency is so important to the relationship between parents and teachers, and should be received by parents in the first couple weeks of school, followed by fairly regular communication through newsletters, email updates, etc. The more parents know, and the more they understand about what is happening in the classroom, the less surprises there will be at reporting periods, such as midterms.

Fostering positive relationships with parents and guardians through this type of communication is a great way to keep families in the loop, and will help them feel like they are a part of their

Create an FAQ Doc

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel; Katie is has her arms spread as if asking a question. Text: "WHY?"

As you answer questions from colleagues, admin and/or parents about ungrading, add them to a central FAQ document. This now arms you with a powerful resource to help reassure staff, students and families about what changes they can expect, etc. You could even link your FAQ document to your school or department website, as well as your LMS so that it is easily accessible – put it in as many places as you can! This transparency is key!

Student Buy In

This is potentially the toughest group for us to get buy in. We can explain and justify these practices to colleagues, admin and parents, but sometimes students can be a bit tricky! They have been conditioned in this system of learning, doing a test or assignment, getting a mark back, then moving on and doing it all over again.

They are not accustomed to feedback loops, and needing to go back and implement this feedback or to demonstrate mastery of skills before they can move on to the next skill. This is very new, and it can be a tough adjustment. Plus, if yours is one of the only classrooms that is implementing ungrading, it can be tough for students and you since they always want to see the mark.

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Text: "Go On . . . "

One way to approach this group is to shift our language. For example, instead of using the term “submit” you could say “share” – this will help students to understand that their work is not complete, but rather still in progress. Also, instead of talking about grades, talk about the learning, and always bring it back to the learning. If they ask “what grade did I get on this?” rephrase and follow up with “what did you learn from this?” You could also turn it back to students and ask them to grade themselves based on the success criteria, and having them explain how they have demonstrated the criteria, and why they feel they deserve that grade. It’s important that students understand what they need to do, what success looks like, and these conversations can be really powerful learning tools in the classroom.

Don’t be afraid to open up the grading conversation with students. It’s important that they understand the process, and that they can recognize their own skills, and how they can improve. The more we talk about grading and what skills look and sound like, the more our students can learn and improve. Plus, the more we focus on the feedback and the learning process, the less the focus will be on the grades.

You could also consider having students keep their work in a binder or folder. After feedback cycles, you could then have them reflect back on their original attempt versus their final attempt, and how they have improved, what they still need to work on, etc. It’s a great way for students to actually SEE their learning and their progress. This will certainly help students to feel better about ungrading.

Ungrading can cause anxiety since it isn’t as clear where they stand in the course. Often our students like to see their grades, good or bad, so that they know how they are doing. Moving away from this traditional grading system will cause some discomfort, and some students may need some extra support to get used to these changes.

Build in Reflection Time

On that note, reflection is so important, and not just for students. Make sure you build in time for student reflection on their learning, but also take time for you to reflect. It is important for you to think about your own learning, what did/did not work, how planning went, what you would do differently, etc. Documenting your own learning is a great way to start thinking about how you would do things differently, and how you can better support students and staff with ungrading.

This will be a learning curve for everyone, and it will take a bit of time. You will likely face some push back at first as well, but don’t let this deter you. Communication and buy in is extremely important when embarking on an ungrading journey. Make sure everyone knows what your goals are, and where they are headed; clear, small changes will lead to a big impact!

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