Unlearning to Grade in Anti-Racist Community-Engaged Courses

A guest blog from Carmine Perrotti and jesús hernández

Grading practices are an ongoing topic of interest for instructors. Quickly scan The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed and you’ll find pages of think pieces and op-eds, evidence-based practices, and other articles on grading, assessment, and academic standards. In our chapter, “Ungrading Engagement: Assessment Practices for an Anti-Racist Classroom,” in Anti-racist Community Engagement: Principles and Practices, we explore ungrading as anti-racist pedagogical practice for the community-engaged classroom. We draw on our experiences implementing ungrading in an undergraduate course on the theory and practice of community-engaged scholarship that we have taught at Brown University. While we caution that ungrading isn’t an easy fix for racism entering into grading practices, we reflect on our approach to ungrading as part of a larger set of strategies we use in our courses to develop students’ agency and leadership through individualized assessment, critical consciousness through self-reflection, and relational skills for community engagement through one-on-one meetings.

Putting Grades in Context

Questions about grading practices reached a wide audience during the COVID-19 pandemic, when concern for student wellbeing renewed conversation about the necessity of grades. Our own campus debated the possibility of instituting a universal pass or other changes to grading policies, with some pointing to the inequitable barriers students faced. As Stommel writes: “grades reflect bias, they do disproportionate harm to marginalized students and teachers, they don’t communicate coherently, they don’t adequately measure what we value most about learning, they contribute to a culture of competition in education, and an over-reliance on extrinsic motivation short-circuits intrinsic motivation.” As such, a growing number of instructors reconsidered traditional grading practices, instead looking towards a set of alternatives that had emerged within the last decade, including specifications grading, labor-based (contract) grading, and ungrading. Should educators continue to take context into consideration when grading today?

Ungrading, and the other abovementioned alternative grading practices, aim to mitigate inequities, including racial inequities, within the classroom by minimizing course grades and instead focusing on frequent and detailed instructor feedback on students’ ongoing efforts, improvement, and growth throughout the semester.

Student Perspectives on Ungrading

Since the beginning of the pandemic, our practices have continued to evolve based on our teaching experiences—and increased comfort and ease with ungrading—and, most especially, based on student feedback. During the 2022-2023 academic year, we received written feedback from students on ungrading that supported our original aims of implementing ungrading in our classroom—to intentionally design an anti-racist classroom that fosters deep student learning and growth in preparation for ethical community-engaged scholarship.

Students recognized the resonance between our approach to grading and our original aims. As one reflected:

I feel like if there was a focus on grades, it would be antithetical to the framework of this class. If we are uplifting community knowledge and decentering dominant institutional frameworks, I think it's necessary to decenter grades and focus on providing helpful feedback for the benefit of growing and learning together.

Still, because, as one student shared, grades are “how I've been taught to measure academic success my whole life,” some students were initially surprised or confused about the lack of focus on grades in the class. One student reflected: “I was a little confused as to how a college class wouldn't have grades.” Worried that the lack of focus on grades might deter their motivation in the class and impact their ability to receive an “A” grade, some students also expressed being hesitant, concerned, and even disappointed about the lack of focus on grades (in a course they were excited to take).

While motivation was an issue for a few students, the vast majority indicated that our approach cultivated, as one student said, a “truly collaborative learning experience.” According to students, our individualized feedback, peer feedback, and scaffolded self-assessments encouraged them to: draw upon their lived experiences in the classroom; take risks and make/learn from mistakes in their assignments, class discussions, and activities; and, ultimately, helped them engage in the course materials and with each other in more meaningful and authentic ways.

This feedback affirms our aim to develop an intentional learning experience and course design that is anti-racist, one that adheres to the Principles for Anti-Racist Community Engagement.

Moving This Work Forward

As we continue to make sense of higher education in the wake of COVID-19 (and multiple other pandemics), we hope to deepen our anti-racist pedagogical practices in and outside of the community-engaged classroom. Along with our students, we hope to continue “growing and learning together” and, when necessary, unlearning. We invite instructors to do the same within their contexts. What kind of grading practices do your community-engaged courses and our current moment call for? What anti-racist assessment practices might you be able to implement this summer or fall in your courses in order to deemphasize grades and, instead, cultivate students’ ongoing efforts, improvement, and growth?

Read the full experience of ungrading in the anti-racist community-engaged classroom by pre-ordering your copy of Anti-Racist Community Engagement today!

panel 1: student reaches for ball named "love of learning and taking risks" panel 2: student pulled away from ball by large cartoon named "grades"
Original meme: “Running Away Balloon” by Superlmer. April 21, 2017.
Retrieved from: Buck, David. (2020). "The #Ungrading Memes." Crowdsourcing Ungrading. https://pressbooks.howardcc.edu/ungrading/chapter/the-ungrading-memes/

Guest authors

Carmine Perrotti

Assistant Professor of Public and Community Service Studies, School of Arts and Sciences, Providence College

jesús hernández

Director, Community Engaged Learning and Adjunct Assstant Professor of American Studies at Brown University