Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Reflections on Ungrading for the 4th time

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s the fourth semester I try ungrading my class, and this semester there are a lot of differences. Some because I am learning from the past, some coincidental.

  1. This semester I started talking about my ungrading approach and philosophy early on in the semester, and mentioned it several times. Even though I give students numeric and verbal feedback on small assignments, when they argue about losing points, I remind them that it’s not about that number, but the number is to help them realize what they can do better, what they missed… the numbers are very insignificant in the large scheme of things, but I don’t want to ignore them completely, so students don’t get a huge cultural shock
  2. This semester, students attended different parts of the CLT Symposium, and blogged their reflections. So many attended a student-faculty panel called What’s in a Grade? And many attended the student-faculty partnership workshop I co-facilitated with Catherine Cronin. This kind of primed them for this kind of thing, and their reflections gave me an idea of how they felt about it (you can see some of their reflections quoted in the interactive proceedings which you can find online here or download as PDF)
  3. I usually have a discussion on what a grade is (that it can be an indication of meeting a standard, which,can be arbitrary, or it can be relative to class as a bell curve, which is unfair and promotes competition, or it can be based on effort and improvement against self, which is good in theory but problematic if someone decides to make less effort at first in order to appear like they’re doing more effort later. I had this discussion earlier this semester.
  4. I usually use a Google form asking students what they’re doing well in class (over time, I have scaffolded this a bit more), what they enjoy and dislike about class, what they want to see more and less of (topics and types of assignments and activities) before they offer a grade they want at end of semester vs how well they are doing now. I also ask them to write on the board what it takes to do well in this class and what’s a good blogpost (they add to each other’s)
  5. This semester I added to the Google form a question about how they feel about having to grade themselves. A small number of students reported feeling v uncomfortable (which I need to discuss individually with them) but most seem quite excited (some more reflective about it than others, a few just saying “cool”)
  6. This semester I did a couple of new things at the beginning of the class before students did the Google form: first, I had students sit in small groups and do two tasks with these magnet balls and rods. First they had to create as many pyramids as possible, then after they finished, they had to make a creative shape. This activity was influenced by an entrepreneurship education workshop I had attended the day before… she compared solving a puzzle to working on a less structured problem – and I wanted to show students why sometimes not giving too much instruction allows for more creativity (honestly even with pyramids, they got creative because I didn’t tell them exactly how to mall pyramids so they found ways to share edges and make more pyramids than I expected…also looked at other groups…). The other thing is I gave them a choice of one of two articles to read before we do the Google form self-assessment. Alfie Kohn “Case Against Grades” or Munir Fasheh (Palestinian educator) “The Trouble with Knowledge“. They posted their favorite quotes from the articles on our class Slack (I have not used Twitter this semester, and this tweeting of quotes in Slack is working out well for us).

So anyway.. that’s what I did differently. I don’t know how to repeat the priming that happened in the student-faculty panel and workshop… hopefully we do more such things in a more regular way and I can make them work for my classes. Students loved playing with the magnets but I’m not sure we reflected on it well enough (we did, and they had good reflections, but maybe we need more like that).

I did come up with some really interesting future activities and assignment ideas from students and noticed certain things that bother them – I think they were more vocal this time around and I want to honor that in how I continue the course for the rest of the semester.

The parts I continue to struggle with are

  1. I still have to give a grade at end of semester because …institutions
  2. I still have to make sure my grades are not inflated… so although students have tended in the past couple of semesters to be more honest and give themselves B and C grades sometimes, there are always a few who give themselves A and don’t deserve it and we need to negotiate
  3. I still struggle with how to help students write better when teaching writing is not my thing… though I think i do some work to help students learn to read a bit more strategically, if not necessarily well, and leave the depth to class discussions
  4. I struggle with different levels and interests in class but this semester I have a plan 🙂 to make some assignments open ended. For example: pick any Egyptian social media phenomenon (person, group, organization) on any platform (blogger, tweeter, hashtag , YouTuber, Instagram, Facebook group) and think about what they do, how they do it, why they succeed… then either write a blogpost, create a video, or make an in-class presentation about them. I will also try to make more “option” assignments where students have a choice between a video, podcast, reading around a broad topic but from different perspectives.

Every semester, someone will say they want to do something useful for Egypt. This semester I have some ideas for this, but I think I will also ask students to brainstorm their own ideas, and we come up with several options, and I want to insert some kind of research component into it and possibly make it a whole-class project with different responsibilities for different pieces… or a group of different projects different groups are doing. We’ll see how it goes!!

One other thing I would like to do is have students develop their own model for digital literacies. So maybe a full model or something less formal like “this is what a digitally literate Egyptian should be/know/do” after looking at different models out there and discussing how what we learn in class is relevant to them (possibly also they can modify it to “what a digitally literate journalist/marketer/economist/engineer” etc should do. I’m really into this idea as one that could give insight into so many different things for me and for them.

Happy to hear feedback!

3 Comments

  1. is it my connection or is your blog down?

  2. Thank you for sharing the information, ideas and thoughts. I thoroughly enjoy your post. I would like to read more of them as time permits. Your sincerity in offering your students illumination on the paths of knowledge is amazing and thought provoking. Great work. Please continue. I wish i had more light to offer you. I have only encouragement and gratitude.

    BTW On an unrelated note…. What discoveries did you make during exploration of Arabic Rhetoric?

    Cordially,
    c.rutherford

    • Hi Charles. Thanks for your note. The Arabic rhetoric part…. I should study properly some day, but currently just reflect on as a mom watching my kid struggle to learn it. But I bet if I got down to it I would learn something useful!!

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