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Math professor adopts ‘ungrading’ method: only feedback, no grades on any assignment

Students were also allowed to suggest their final grade in the class

An award-winning math professor at Grand Valley State University adopted a method of “ungrading” in his upper-level geometry class last fall, allowing students to “convincingly argue” that they deserve a particular final grade for the course, according to the final grade criteria.

David Clark, an associate professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State, taught Euclidean Geometry in fall 2021 in which he offered students only “feedback” on their homework instead of grades, according to a Jan. 17 column Clark wrote for EdSurge, an independent education technology information resource.

“I gave only feedback on student work, with no grades on any assignment,” Clark wrote. “The general plan was to have students describe how they met criteria for success that I laid out, include a portfolio of their work to support it, and decide for themselves what final course grade that led to.”

“…Students learned a lot, and they improved significantly during the semester,” the professor wrote. “This is a class where I try to help students move from a rigid, ‘there’s only one way to do it and there’s always one correct answer’ approach to math into a more nuanced view.”

Clark did not respond to requests from The College Fix seeking comment on whether he has continued to use the practice in the spring semester and to respond to the argument that math is an objective subject that tends to have strictly right or wrong answers.

Clark noted in his column that he was inspired to implement the new method by the book “Ungrading” by Susan Blum. The book includes the experiences of 15 educators “going gradeless” and aims to show faculty how to focus less on “sorting or judging,” a description of Blum’s book states.

Clark provided his students with “detailed written feedback” on their assignments about how they met defined homework standards, according to his column. Students had the opportunity to turn in a revised homework submission and receive more feedback later in the week.

Students also submitted two written “check-in reflections” during the semester, in which they assessed their progress and evaluated a fair grade for the course in terms of final grade criteria. Clark also offered students optional 20-minute meetings over Zoom to discuss their position in the class.

At the end of the semester, students were required to present a collection of materials to “convincingly argue” that they achieved the criteria for a particular grade, according to Clark. Each final portfolio included a table of contents, three brief essays, a final grade reflection, and artifacts that supported the essays and reflection.

In the two-page final grade reflection, students proposed a grade according to guidelines regarding class engagement and understanding of geometric ideas. Students could argue further for a “+” or “-” to be added to their final grade.

“In case you’re curious, my final grade distribution was heavy with A’s and A-’s, some B’s, and a few C’s,” Clark wrote in his column. “This was slightly higher than previous semesters, the biggest difference being that there were no D’s, F’s, nor withdrawals.”

Reflecting on his semester of “ungrading,” Clark wrote that the attitude of the class changed in the second half of the semester when students became more focused on final grades. The educator tried to tell students to pay more attention to “learning and growing, not on grades.”

“Some students bought into that, but as the semester went on, I think the pull of the grades became too great in their minds,” Clark wrote. “They knew there would be final grades, and they couldn’t avoid thinking about them.”

Mary Eilleen Lyon, spokesperson for Grand Valley State, told The College Fix in a Jan. 24 email that “Grand Valley does not dictate what can and cannot be done in the classroom as long as general guidelines are followed.”

“As long as faculty maintain clear grading policies that are equitable—meaning they distinguish between excellent, fair and poor work—the content of those policies is left up to the faculty member to determine,” Lyon said in the email. “Dr. Clark’s policies clearly fit this requirement.”

Lyon also mentioned Clark’s reputation as “a national award-winning mathematics instructor and a leader in instructional innovation.”

Clark previously received the Mathematical Association of America’s 2018 Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning College or University Mathematics Faculty Member. The association described Clark as an innovative and energetic teacher who “mastered the use of Standards Based Grading.”

Clark implemented Standards Based Grading, a type of mastery grading, in past courses, according to the Grand Valley State University communications publication GVNext. It measures a student’s progress through their achievement of certain learning goals rather than assigning numeric grades for each assignment.

The Mathematical Association of America did not respond to a request from The College Fix for a comment on Clark’s “ungrading” method.

MORE: Professors allow students to pick their own grade

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About the Author
Margaret Peppiatt - Franciscan University of Steubenville